Cabin in the Sky is a musical with music by Vernon Duke, book by Lynn Root, and lyrics by John Latouche. The musical opened on Broadway in 1940. The show is described as a “parable of Southern Negro Life with echoes of Ferenc Molnár‘s Liliom (which would be turned into the musical Carousel) and Marc Connelly‘s The Green Pastures.”
Lynn Root wrote the libretto and brought it to George Balanchine, “who was anxious to do it as his first assignment as director of an entire Broadway production.” Balanchine took the script to Vernon Duke to compose the music. “On reading the script, my first impulse was to turn it down because as much as I admired the Negro race and its musical gifts, I didn’t think myself sufficiently attuned to Negro folklore.” However, Duke ended up taking up the project but insisted on “a lyricist with some direct contact with Southern Negroes.”Duke talked to Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg but they both turned it down. (Gershwin was working on Lady in the Dark and Harburg thought the composer was “incapable of writing the kind of score the play required.)
Duke ended up picking John Latouche as his lyricist and the two began work in Virginia Beach. The two wanted to absorb aspects of the local Black culture but “decided to stay away from pedantic authenticity and write our own kind of ‘colored’ songs.”
The rehearsals for the show were rather interesting between the Russian trio (Duke, Balanchine and Boris Aronson – the designer) and the all-black cast. In his book Passport to Paris, Duke quotes George Ross’ description from the Telegram: “Pit a threesome of turbulent Russians against a tempestuous cast of Negro players from Harlem and what have you got? Well, in this instance the result is a lingual ruckus approaching bedlam. At least half a dozen times at the rehearsal of Cabin in the Sky, Ethel Waters, Todd Duncan, Rex Ingram, J. Rosamond Johnson, Katherine Dunham and her dancers have paused in puzzlement while the argumentative trio of Muscovites disputed a difference of opinion in their native tongue. The Russian vowels and consonants fly as thick as borsht. After ten minutes of such alien harangue and retort, Miss Waters asks what it is all about. ‘George,’ Duke generally interprets, ‘just said the answer is yes!’ and then rehearsals are resumed under the flag of truce until the next vocal flare-up.”
Three days before the opening, Duke decided to replace the song “We’ll Live All Over Again” after Waters expressed dissatisfaction with it. It was replaced with the showstopper “Taking a Chance on Love.” The song was originally “Foolin’ Around with Love” which he wrote with Ted Fetter. Latouche retitled it and wrote the reprises.