On October 31, 1957, the musical “Jamaica” opened at the Imperial Theater in New York City. It ran for 558 performances until closing on April 11, 1959. Billed as a “Musical Comedy in Two Acts,” the show was written by E. Y. Harburg, who also wrote the song lyrics, and Fred Saidy. The music was by Harold Arlen.
“Jamaica” is set in a tropical location called “Pigeon’s Island” off the coastline of Jamaica. The plot revolves around Koi, a poor fisherman who loves the beautiful Savanna, but she dreams of living in New York and a hustler who comes to the island to exploit pearl divers seems to be her way to the big city. After the fisherman saves her brother during a hurricane, she confronts reality and accepts his romantic proposal. She visits New York only in the play’s dream ballet sequence.
The original cast included Ricardo Montalban as Koli and Lena Horne as Savannah, Ossie Davis, and Josephine Premice. Each of the principal actors in the play was nominated for a Tony Award, and Ossie Davis won for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. Alvin Alley was the principal dancer in the show.
Playwright and lyricist Harburg came to be known as the “Conscience of Broadway.” “Jamaica” explored how an isolated island community handles love, family, and relationships while confronting the pressures of American commercialism, class, and racism. Harburg wrote the landmark production while he was the subject of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purge of so-called “communists” from the US government. Many creative people were forced to do their work underground during this period due to fear of persecution and repercussions from elected government officials.
Harburg, who chose to remain in the US, wrote several socially conscious lyrics including the Depression-era lyrics for the classic “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” His Broadway shows included the anti-racist and anti-capitalist musicals “Finian’s Rainbow,” (1947) “Bloomer Girl,” “Flahooley” (1951) and “Jamaica” (1957).
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