American Musical Theatre in the Soviet Bloc Countries

Porgy und BessMusical theatre, like jazz, is a quintessentially American art form, although some of its roots are in French and German-language operetta.  U.S. musical theatre productions behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War shared American culture, sometimes purely as theatre, but often as part of cultural exchange to advance American values, help create a counter-culture in the Soviet Bloc countries’ artistic communities, and improve US-Soviet relations during very tense times.

The 1955 performances of Porgy and Bess in Leningrad sponsored by the U.S. government and staged by Everyman Opera Company, were the first American performances in Russia since the 1917 Revolution.  These were chronicled in lively detail by Truman Capote in his 1956 New Yorker article, “Porgy and Bess in Russia: The Muses Are Heard.”  Daniel Schorr, the great CBS and later NPR journalist, also stopped off in Leningrad for two days to cover the premiere for The New York Times.

Porgy and Bess was first performed in East Berlin and in Vienna in 1952, and in 1954 President Eisenhower supported more Soviet Bloc performances through the Emergency Fund for International Affairs, to demonstrate the “superiority of the products and cultural values of [America’s] system of free enterprise.” But these were not officially-sponsored performances, partly because the U.S. Department of State feared having to provide countless visas to Soviet artists in return.  There also were concerns that the Soviets would exploit the show’s depiction of the lives of Black Americans for propaganda purposes. 

Other Porgy and Bess performances in the Soviet Union included a run in Moscow.  In Poland and Czechoslovakia the show drew wide and positive public attention, despite some language and cultural obstacles (Capote had written that the rather prudish Russian audience was taken aback by Bess adjusting her garter).  Even the Soviet critics were positive - the St. Petersburg Times from January 1956 speaks of “tear-stained faces in the audience.”  And the Polish Radio Station KRAJ, broadcasting the Polish Regime Response, emphasized Everyman’s Opera’s “contribut[ion] to understanding,” saying that the work brought “such joy to the public.”

My Fair Lady toured the Soviet Union in the spring of 1960 (just four years after its historic premiere on Broadway), under a U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange agreement.  Its 21 performances in Moscow, 19 in Leningrad and 16 in Kiev all were sold out. Although overshadowed by the events around the shot-down American U2 spy-flight, the artists found they were welcomed and their show enthusiastically cheered.  Lola Fisher, who had been Julie Andrews’ understudy in the original Broadway production, was Eliza Doolittle.

Kurt Weill’s musical theatre masterpiece Three Penny Opera was frequently staged in the Soviet Bloc countries.  Its book writer/lyricist Bertold Brecht, founder of the Berliner Ensemble theatre and a prominent political philosopher, had an East Berlin street named for him.  Though no longer popular in the U.S., European operettas like Emmerich Kalman’s Die Bajadere were performed in the Soviet Union, such as a 1985 production in Saratov. 

Other American musicals performed in the Soviet Bloc countries during the Cold War era included Annie Get Your Gun; Kiss Me, Kate; and Sugar (a musical based on Billy Wilder’s film Some Like It Hot).  Musical theatre legends like Paul Robeson and film star Mario Lanza were among the artists who recorded albums containing musical theatre songs that were commercially released in the Soviet Bloc countries.  These all helped to bring a distinctive American culture to audiences behind the Iron Curtain