Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play A Raisin in the Sun changed the face of Broadway when it premiered in 1959. But did you know the play was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical? Raisin (US/UK) premiered on Broadway on October 18, 1973. To celebrate the musical’s 50th anniversary, here’s everything you need to know about Raisin… the musical!
THE SOURCE: A Raisin in the Sun
A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the production starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil. It was the first play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway, and was the first Broadway show helmed by a Black director.
The title comes from a line in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” (also known as “A Dream Deferred”):
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Set on Chicago’s South Side, the play concerns the divergent dreams and conflicts in three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, his sister Beneatha, his son Travis and matriarch Lena. When her deceased husband’s insurance money comes through, Mama Lena dreams of moving to a new home and a better neighborhood in Chicago. Walter Lee, a chauffeur, has other plans: buying a liquor store and being his own man, while Beneatha dreams of medical school.
THE MUSICAL: Raisin
Raisin premiered on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre on October 18, 1973.
The show features music by Judd Woldin, lyrics by Robert Brittan, and a book by Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg. (Nemiroff, a producer and songwriter, had been married to playwright Lorraine Hansberry. When she died in 1965, he was named her literary executor.)
The original Broadway production ran for 847 performances, closing on December 7, 1975.
Raisin earned nine Tony Award nominations, taking home two wins: one for Best Musical and the other for Best Actress in a Musical for Virginia Capers’ performance as the family matriarch, Lena Younger.
The musical’s score is a combination of pulsating, jazzy rhythms, gospel anthems and heartfelt pop-tinged ballads. Expanding the world of Hansberry’s play beyond the four walls of the Younger residence, Raisin features musical numbers on the streets of Chicago (the pulsating “Runnin’ to Meet the Man”), in a neighborhood bar (the bluesy “Booze”), and at Sunday services (the rousing gospel number “He Come Down This Morning”). Travis’ charming pop/rock ballad “Sidewalk Tree” provides a wonderful opportunity for a gifted young singer, and Mama’s powerhouse 11 o’clock number, “Measure the Valleys,” is guaranteed to bring down the house.
The original Broadway cast was an astonishing lineup of formidable talent. Many of the show’s stars went on to become big names on television:
- Virginia Capers (Lena), who made her Broadway debut in 1957 in the Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg musical Jamaica (US/UK), was a theatre and film veteran, best known to TV audiences as Hattie Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
- Joe Morton (Walter) made his Broadway debut in HAIR (US/UK), and he remains a respected and prolific stage, television and film actor. Morton’s film credits include The Brother from Another Planet, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Blues Brothers 2000 and Speed. He won a Primetime Emmy Award for playing Eli Pope on the hit drama Scandal.
- Ernestine Jackson (Ruth) made her Broadway debut in 1967 as Irene Molloy in Hello, Dolly! (US/UK) starring Pearl Bailey. In addition to her numerous TV and film appearances, her stage credits include Applause (US/UK), Show Boat (US/UK) and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (US/UK).
- Debbie Allen (Beneatha) may be best known to American film and TV audiences for her work on the film and TV series Fame. The acclaimed actress, dancer, choreographer, singer/songwriter, director and producer has won five Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards and a Golden Globe Award. In 1991, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- Ralph Carter (Travis) was just 12 years old when Raisin opened, and he already had one Broadway credit to his name: The Me Nobody Knows (US). Carter’s performance earned him a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination. He went on to star as Michael Evans, the youngest member of the family on the hit sitcom Good Times (1974 to 1979).
- Helen Martin (Mrs. Johnson), whose career spanned over 60 years, is best known for her TV roles as Wanda on Good Times (1974–1979) and Pearl Shay on 227 (1985–1990). Her Broadway credits included the 1961 play Purlie Victorious (US/UK) and its 1970 musical adaptation, Purlie (US/UK).
- Ted Ross (Bobo) won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the Lion in The Wiz (US/UK), reprising his performance in the 1975 film adaptation co-starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell. Known to film audiences for his roles in Arthur, Police Academy, Ragtime and The Fisher King, he also appeared onstage in Purlie, A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s Fences (US/UK).
The musical was a hit with audiences and critics. Ebony magazine called it “A tidal wave of soul,” and Clive Barnes of The New York Times called it “a warm and loving work,” declaring that the book of the musical “is perhaps even better than the play.” Barnes noted that “Raisin is one of those unusual musicals that should not only delight people who love musicals, but might also well delight people who don’t.” The Times also raved that the musical “warms the heart and touches the soul with a human dimension that takes the measurement of man.”
Walter Kerr, also of The New York Times, wrote, “The strength of Raisin lies in the keen intelligence and restless invention of a musical underscoring that has simply invaded Lorraine Hansberry’s once tightly-knit, four-walled, close-quartered play, A Raisin in the Sun, plucking the walls away, spilling the action onto the streets with a jittery down-flight of strings, mocking and matching realistic speech with frog-throated sass from the heavy-breathing viols.”
2006 Court Theatre Production of Raisin (Michael Brosilow)
Despite its commercial and critical success, Raisin has not returned to Broadway since its original run. The characters are multidimensional, the songs are dynamic and entertaining, and Lorraine Hansberry’s narrative is timeless. Might it be time for a starry Broadway revival? Till then, don’t miss a chance to experience this powerful and engaging musical when it comes to a school or theatre near you.
Header Image: Original Broadway Cast Recording of Raisin.