- Show Boat
name = Show Boat
boxwidth = 21em
image_size = 0
caption = Window card for the 1994 revival
Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein II
Edna Ferber's 1926 novel "Show Boat"
1932 Broadway revival
1946 Broadway revival
1983 Broadway revival
1994 Broadway revival
awards = Tony Award for Best Revival
"Show Boat" is a musical in two acts with music by
Jerome Kernand book (based on a novel by Edna Ferber) and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. One notable exception is the song "Bill", which was originally written for Kern in 1917 by P. G. Wodehousebut reworked by Hammerstein for "Show Boat". Two other songs not by Kern and Hammerstein — " Goodbye, My Lady Love" by Joseph Howard and "After the Ball" by Charles K. Harris— are always interpolated into American stage productions of the show.
"Show Boat" is based on a best-selling 1926 novel of the same name by
Edna Ferber. Ferber spent several weeks on the James Adams Floating Palace Theater in Bath, North Carolina, gathering information for the novel about a disappearing American phenomenon: the showboat. In a few short weeks, she gained what she called a "treasure trove of show-boat material, human, touching, true." The setting for the musical version was mostly the Mississippi River, much traveled by real show boats in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "Show Boat" is generally considered to be the first true American "musical play" — a dramatic form with popular music, separate from operettas, light musical comedies of the 1890s and early 20th century (e.g., " Florodora"), and the "Follies"-type musical revues that preceded it. In many ways, it took the plot-and-character-centered "Princess Musicals" that Kern had developed with Bolton and Wodehouse in the previous decade and broadened their scope.
George S. Kaufmanand George Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band", which previewed earlier that year, clearly made similar leaps, although their subject matter was satirical and farcical. Unlike "Strike Up the Band" and the "Princess Theatre" musicals, though, "Show Boat" was sentimental and somewhat tragic; it also displayed the style of a musical epic, contrasted with an intimate show with two sets and only a few characters.
The story spans 47 years, beginning aboard the show boat "Cotton Blossom" as it arrives at the river dock in
Natchez, Mississippi. Cap'n Andy Hawks, owner of the showboat, introduces all of his actors to the excited crowd on the levee.
Almost immediately, a fist fight breaks out between Steve Baker, the leading man of the troupe, and Pete, a rough, coarse engineer who had been making passes at Steve's wife, Julie La Verne, the company's leading lady. Steve knocks Pete down and Pete swears revenge, apparently knowing some dark secret about Julie. Cap'n Andy pretends to the shocked crowd that the fight was a preview of a scene from one of the melodramas performed on the boat. The troupe exits with the showboat band.
A handsome riverboat gambler,
Gaylord Ravenal, appears on the levee, then sees and is taken with eighteen year old Magnolia Hawks, an aspiring performer and daughter of Cap'n Andy and his wife Parthy Ann. Magnolia (aka Nolie) is likewise smitten with Ravenal. She seeks advice from Joe, one of the workers aboard the boat. He replies that there are "lots like [Ravenal] on the river", [ "Show Boat" libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II] and, as Magnolia excitedly goes inside the boat to tell her friend Julie about the handsome stranger, Joe mutters to himself that she ought to ask the river for advice. With the other dock workers joining him in the second chorus, he then sings the well known song, " Ol' Man River".
During the rehearsal for that evening's show, full of comical blunders, the mood abruptly changes when Julie and Steve are alerted that the town sheriff is coming to arrest them. To the shock of all except Julie, Steve then takes out a large pocket knife and makes a cut on the back of her hand, sucking the blood and swallowing it. Then Pete returns with the sheriff, who insists that the show not go on, because Julie is a
mulattowoman married to a white man, and local laws prohibit miscegenation. Julie admits that she is a mulatto. But Steve, because he swallowed Julie's blood (and therefore has at least "one drop of black blood" in him), is able to claim that he too is mulatto. The sympathetic troupe backs him up, boosted by ship's pilot Windy McClain, a longtime friend of the sheriff. The sheriff is powerless to arrest Julie and Steve, but they must leave town anyway. Pete is fired by Cap'n Andy. As Julie and Steve prepare to leave, Gaylord Ravenal returns and asks for passage on the boat: his gambling has cost him the boat ticket he planned to use to leave town. Noticing Ravenal's good looks, Andy immediately hires him as the new leading man, and suggests, over Parthy's objections, that Magnolia be the new leading lady. Julie bids a tearful goodbye to Magnolia and leaves with Steve.
Weeks later, Magnolia and Gaylord are an enormous hit with the crowds and have fallen deeply in love. Gaylord proposes to Magnolia and she accepts. The two are married while Parthy is out of town: she can do nothing, despite her disapproval of Gaylord.
Years pass. Gaylord and Magnolia are living in
Chicagowith their daughter, Kim. Gaylord's gambling debts are out of control, so their living quarters are a cheap apartment. Depressed and shamed by his inability to support his family, Gaylord leaves Nolie. Frank and Ellie, two actors on the boat, choose this time to visit. These old friends seek a singing job for Magnolia at the same club where they are doing a New Year's show, a club called the Trocadero. Unbeknownst to Magnolia, Julie, abandoned by Steve and now a drunken cabaret singer at the Trocadero, hears Magnolia singing " Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" for her audition, the song Julie taught her years ago. Julie secretly abandons her position so that Magnolia can fill it, and Magnolia never learns of her sacrifice. (At this point, the character of Julie completely disappears from both the stage and the 1936 film versions, though in the 1951 film she is given one more scene near the end.)
On New Year's Eve, Andy, in Chicago with Parthy for a surprise visit, ends up at the Trocadero while celebrating without her. He is unaware of Magnolia's presence and troubles, only to discover her choked with emotion and nearly being booed off stage. Andy rallies the crowd to her defense by standing up and initiating a grand sing-along of the old song "After the Ball". Magnolia becomes a great musical star.
More than 20 years pass; it is now 1927. Magnolia has become an international star of the stage and radio. Cap'n Andy has a chance meeting with Ravenal and, knowing that Magnolia is retiring from the stage and returning to the Cotton Blossom with Kim, arranges for a reunion. Although Ravenal is uncertain whether he has the right to ask Magnolia to take him back, she does. As the happy couple walks up the boat's gangplank, Joe and the chorus sing a final reprise of "Ol' Man River".
:Note: The 1951 MGM film changed many aspects of the story. A major change brings Ravenal and Magnolia back together only a few years after they separated, rather than twenty-three years afterward: Gaylord has a chance meeting with Julie, and learns that he has a daughter whom he didn't know about. Gaylord returns, finding Kim playing, and when talking to her, she mentions a game "make believe" that she knows (Kim is seen only as a cute child in this film). Magnolia sees them and takes him back, and the family returns to the showboat. Joe and the chorus start singing "Ol' Man River" as the scenes unfold, then the paddlewheel starts turning in tempo with the music, heading down river. Julie is shown, viewing the scene from a distance: aware that he would return to the showboat, Julie has followed him and watched the events, but only from the shadows.
The original production ran four-and-a-half hours during tryouts, but was trimmed to just over three by the time it actually got to Broadway. The show is now never performed onstage at exactly its original length, although virtually all stage productions run nearly three hours. Two songs, "Till Good Luck Comes My Way" (sung by Ravenal) and "Hey Feller!" (sung by Queenie) were written mainly to cover scenery changes, could easily be cut without hurting the story, and were discarded beginning with the 1946 revival, although "Till Good Luck" was included in the 1993
Harold Princerevival of the show. The comedy song "I Might Fall Back On You" was also cut beginning in 1946, although it was retained in a different scene in the 1951 film version. Several productions over the last twenty-five years or so have also reinstated it. "Hey Feller!" has turned up again only on the 1988 EMI album. Two new songs were written by Kern and Hammerstein for other stage productions of the show, and three more were written by them for the 1936 film version.
Typically, productions pick and choose from the original material and fashion a distinct version of "Show Boat". Songs found in modern productions may include the following:
*Overture — The original overture, used in all stage productions up to 1946 (and heard on the three-disc EMI/Angel CD for the first time in nearly 50 years), is dramatic and largely based on the deleted song "
Mis'ry's Comin' Round". (Kern wanted to save this song in some form.) The song was restored in the Harold Prince revival of the show. The overture also contains fragments of "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", and, towards the end, there is a lively, rather than slow, rendition of "Why Do I Love You?". The overture for the 1946 revival is a standard medley consisting of "Mis'ry's Comin' Round", "Ol' Man River", "Why Do I Love You?", "Make Believe," and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man". Still another overture was arranged for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival, consisting of a medley of all these songs, but adding the comic number "I Might Fall Back on You", which is otherwise never included in the overture. All three overtures were arranged by Robert Russell Bennett.
*"Cotton Blossom" — The notes in the phrase "Cotton Blossom, Cotton Blossom" are the same notes as those in the phrase "Ol' Man River, dat Ol' Man River," but inverted. However, "Cotton Blossom" was written first, and "Ol' Man River" was written only after Kern and Hammerstein realized they needed a song to end the first scene in the show. Hammerstein decided to use the idea of the
Mississippi Riveras a basis for the song, and told Kern to use the melody that the stevedores sang in "Cotton Blossom", but invert some of it, and slow down the tempo. This adaptation gave "Ol' Man River" a somewhat tragic quality.
*"Where's the Mate for Me?"
*"Make Believe" -- sung by Magnolia and Gaylord at first meeting
Ol' Man River" - Originally written for Paul Robeson, a well-known singer and actor of the time, though he did not take on the role until a 1928 London run. He returned to the role for the 1932 stage revival and the 1936 film. There is an introductory verse, and then the song's main section follows a conventional Tin Pan Alley AABA structure. However, there is a long middle section after the verse "Ah gits weary,/An' sick o' tryin", etc, after which the song returns to a complete repeat of the main section. Outside of the show, it is usually not sung literally complete, because of both a racially sensitive section and its five-minute length - except in the 1929 and 1936 film versions. The song depicts the tough lives of black river workers against the silent, steady flow of the river. Its tone is tragic yet resigned. [Raymond Knapp. "The American Musical." 2005: Princeton University Press.]
Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" — Queenie's surprise at the apparently white Julie's knowledge of a "black folks'" song foreshadows the discovery of Julie's mixed origins. Another song almost never sung literally complete outside the show because it would then have to be sung by several singers, as it is in the stage production and the 1929 and 1936 film versions. The section nearly always omitted outside the show involves a racially sensitive lyric which was rewritten for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival.
*"Life Upon the Wicked Stage"
*"Till Good Luck Comes My Way" (heard only as instrumental background in the 1936 film version as Ravenal introduces himself to Cap'n Andy. Never sung in any film version of the show. Cut by Kern and Hammerstein themselves for the 1946 stage revival, and not reinstated until the 1971 London stage revival.)
*"I Might Fall Back on You"
*"Olio Dance" - almost never performed now, since it was composed simply to cover a change of scenery, which, from 1927 to 1946, took a certain amount of time. It is an orchestral piece which partially uses the melody of "I Might Fall Back on You", and can be heard on the EMI 3-CD album of "Show Boat". It was not used in the 1989 PBS
Paper Mill Playhouseproduction, and the 1936 film version of the show substituted the new Kern-Hammerstein number "Gallivantin' Around", performed as an olio by Irene Dunne(as Magnolia) in blackface. Some modern productions of "Show Boat" move the song "I Might Fall Back on You" to this spot.
*"You Are Love" — a song sung in waltz tempo that nearly all critics and audiences are fond of, but considered by Jerome Kern to be the score's worst: he tried unsuccessfully to eliminate it from the 1936 film version. It has never been cut from any stage production, and like "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", almost never performed complete outside the show - this perhaps because its introductory section is too closely integrated with the show's plot to be appreciated out of context (although it was trimmed to only one refrain - with no introductory verse - in both the 1936 and the 1951 film versions).
*"Act I Finale"
*"At the Chicago World's Fair" — the Act II opening chorus, sometimes eliminated and never sung in a film version of the show (it was played instrumentally in the 1936 version).
*"Why Do I Love You?"
*"Bill" — lyrics co-written by Hammerstein and
P. G. Wodehouse
*"Goodbye, My Lady Love" by Joseph Howard, a song interpolated into the show and sung by Frank and Ellie in the nightclub scene
*"After the Ball" — a song (waltz) by
Charles K. Harrisfrom 1892
The instrumentation for the show, according to the original
orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, is one flute(doubling as piccolo), one oboe(doubling as cor anglais), two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, one trombone, percussion, one guitar, one banjo, an on-stage piano, and strings.
Before the Broadway premiere of "Show Boat" -- from November 15, 1927, until December 19 -- Ziegfeld produced tryouts at the National Theatre in
Washington, D.C., the Nixon Theatre in Pittsburgh, the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, and thrice at the Erlanger Theatre in Philadelphia. Vancheri, Barbara (August 23, 1998). [http://www.post-gazette.com/magazine/19980823show3.asp "'Show Boat' continues successful voyage"] . "Post-Gazette". Retrieved January 6, 2006.] Kreuger, Miles (1977). "Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical". New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 226–227.] The show opened on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatrein New Yorkon December 27, 1927, where it ran for a year and a half.
"Show Boat", with its serious and dramatic nature, was considered a turning point for producer
Florenz Ziegfeld, previously known mainly for revuessuch as the Follies. Today it is quite literally the only American pre-1943 musical to be revived often, not only because of its songs, but also because its libretto, though clearly dated in comparison to those of more recent musicals, is considered to be exceptionally good for a musical of that era. [http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?_r=1&html_title=&tols_title=SHOW%20BOAT%20(PLAY)&pdate=19271228&byline=By%20J.%20BROOKS%20ATKINSON&id=1077011431418&oref=slogin] (George and Ira Gershwin's " Porgy and Bess" , because of its categorization as an opera rather than a musical, is not subjected to the same criteria, and is therefore also revived regularly.)
scenic designfor the original production was by Joseph Urban, who had worked with Ziegfeld for many years in his "Follies" and had designed the elaborate new Ziegfeld Theatre itself.
The role of Joe, the
stevedorewho sings "Ol' Man River", was specifically written for Paul Robeson(although Joe does appear in Ferber's novel, where he is a cook instead of a stevedore). Robeson, however, eventually had to back out of the Broadway run because the producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, postponed the show in favor of the much less ambitious (and less risky) "Rio Rita". Hence Jules Bledsoeplayed Joe on Broadway, although Robeson finally played the role (a part for which he became world-famous) in four notable productions of the show: the 1928 London production (with Alberta Hunteras Queenie and Mabel Mercerin the black chorus), the 1932 New York revival, the 1936 film version, and a 1940 stage revival in Los Angeles. Bledsoe, despite being famous at the time, has faded into obscurity.
After its closing in 1929, the show was revived on Broadway in 1932 at the
Casino Theatre, in 1946 (a return to the Ziegfeld Theatre), in 1983 at the Uris Theatre (presented by Douglas Urbanski), and in 1994 at the same theatre [ [http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=4269 Broadway.] ] Other American productions include one in 1966 at the New York State Theaterin the Lincoln Center, two (1954 and 1961) at the New York City Center, and the 1983 Washington, DC, Kennedy Centerproduction, which starred Mickey Rooneyas Cap'n Andy.
The 1994 Livent Inc. production was produced and directed by
Harold Princeand opened in Toronto, Ontario, in 1993, and on Broadway in October 1994. This production later went on tour, playing at the Kennedy Center, also being put on in London and Melbourne, Australia. Prince's production revitalized interest in the show by tightening the book, dropping and adding songs that had been cut in various productions, and highlighting the racial elements of the show. Perhaps the most notable change in the score was Prince's transforming "Why Do I Love You?" from a duet between Magnolia and Ravenal to a lullaby sung by Parthy Ann to Magnolia's baby girl. This change was designed partly to allow a song to be sung by stage actress Elaine Stritch, who played Parthy Ann but did not have the "operetta" voice that Magnolia and Ravenal are supposed to have, and partly because the revival featured a love duet for the couple, "I Have the Room Above Her", originally written by Kern and Hammerstein for the 1936 film version, in which it was sung by Allan Jones and Irene Dunne. If "Why Do I Love You" had been sung by them in the revival as well, it would have brought the total of their love duets to four, rather than the usual three. The change very likely disappointed several "Show Boat" lovers, who would have liked to hear the song sung as a duet by trained voices.
"Show Boat" has been produced on multiple occasions in London's West End. These productions include a May 1928 production at the Drury Lane Theatre and a July 1971 production at the
Adelphi Theatrethat ran for 909 performances. [ [http://www.nodanw.com/london_shows_chronology/1971.htm Information about 1971 West End revival] ] Another notable revival in England was the joint Opera North/ Royal Shakespeare Companyproduction of 1989. "Showboat" was also produced in June 2006 by Raymond Gubbayat London's Royal Albert Hall. Directed by Francesca Zambelloand conducted by David Charles Abell, this was the first fully-staged musical production in the history of this venue.
"Show Boat" was also adapted as a movie on four occasions: in 1929; 1936, directed by
James Whale; 1946 (as a mini-show inside the movie " Till the Clouds Roll By"); and 1951. And it was videotaped in live performance for television in 1989 at the Paper Mill Playhouse. The 1936 and 1951 films, as well as the television version, retained the miscegenation sequence; the 1929 film version did not. (See " Show Boat (1929 film)", Show Boat (1936 film)", " Show Boat (1951 film)").
During the days of
live radio, "Show Boat" was presented in that medium at least six times. There were four especially notable productions.
*One was presented and directed by
Orson Welles, on his radio show " Campbell Playhouse" in 1939. This was a non-musical version of the story that, like the 1929 film, was based more closely on Edna Ferber's novel than on the musical. However, Helen Morgan, who had played the role of Julie in the musical, played her again in this version, although the one song she sang on the broadcast was not from the musical. Orson Welles portrayed Cap'n Andy, Margaret Sullavanwas Magnolia, and author Edna Ferber made her acting debut as Parthy. The presentation was exceptionally faithful to Ferber's novel, except for one change. Because interracial marriages were controversial as a radio subject, the character of Julie was changed from a mulatto married to a white man to merely an unmarried mulatto, whose mere presence on the boat is controversial despite her being single. Her ultimate fate as a prostitute and her accidental encounter with Magnolia--both are elements of Ferber's novel--were also left unmentioned.
*Another radio version, based on the stage musical, was presented on
Cecil B. DeMille's " Lux Radio Theater" in 1940. It featured Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and Charles Winninger, all of whom were in the 1936 film version. However, neither Helen Morgan nor Paul Robeson appeared on the program. This production, like the 1929 film, also suffered from censorship, catering to the fears of radio and film producers of that era by completely omitting the subject of miscegenation. As in the show, the town sheriff does show up to arrest Julie (played by a non-singing Gloria Holden), but instead of being a woman of mixed blood who is illegally married to a white man, Julie in this production becomes an illegal alien who had served jail time and must now be deported! The song "Bill" is totally eliminated, and it is Magnolia, not Julie, who sings "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man". Only a fragment of the song " Ol' Man River" is used, even though Paul Robeson had appeared in the 1936 film and sang the song in its entirety there. (The show's one-hour format and its time reserved for Lux commercials explains the cuts.)
*Another radio version, condensed to a half-hour, was similarly squeamish about the racial angle. Broadcast in 1950 on "
The Railroad Hour," it starred Gordon MacRae, Dorothy Kirsten, and Lucille Norman. The miscegenation is not referred to at all; it is simply mentioned on the show that Julie and her husband have left the boat — no reason given. MacRae not only plays the role of gambler Gaylord Ravenal but sings Joe's song, "Ol' Man River".
*In 1952, "
Lux Radio Theatre" presented "Show Boat" once again, this time based on the 1951 MGMfilm and featuring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, and William Warfieldfrom the film's cast. Jay C. Flippenportrayed Cap'n Andy. One hopes that this version was more faithful than the previous one. At least it featured Warfield singing "Ol' Man River".
Significantly, three of these four radio versions completely omitted the characters of Joe and his wife, Queenie.
*Still another radio version, broadcast in 1944, featured Kathryn Grayson, who played Magnolia for the first time. Starring opposite her was Allan Jones, who had played Ravenal in the 1936 film.
Helen Forrestco-starred as Julie, Charles Winninger was again Cap'n Andy, Elvia Allman(the voice of Clarabelle Cow) was Parthy, and African-Americanfilm actor Ernest Whitman (who had appeared in the 1944 biographical film " The Adventures of Mark Twain" as a ship's stoker) was Joe.
The original 1927 production had these actors as its principal players:
Norma Terris— Magnolia Hawks and her daughter Kim (as an adult)
Howard Marsh— Gaylord Ravenal
Charles Winninger— Cap'n Andy Hawks
Jules Bledsoe— Joe
Helen Morgan— Julie LaVerne
Edna May Oliver— Parthy Ann Hawks
*Sammy White — Frank Schultz
Eva Puck— Ellie May Chipley
Tess Gardella— Queenie
Robert Russell Bennett
Racism and Controversy
"Show Boat" boldly portrayed racial difficulties, and for a 1927 show it was quite progressive in doing so. It was the first racially integrated musical, in that both black and white performers appeared on stage together.Despite its technical correctness, that "Show Boat" deserves this title has been disputed by some. See note #5 and corresponding text] Ziegfeld’s "Follies" allowed single
African Americanperformers like Bert Williams, but would never have had an African-American woman in the chorus. However, "Showboat" had two choruses — a black chorus and a white chorus, and it has been perceived that "Hammerstein uses the African-American chorus as essentially a Greek chorus, providing clear commentary on the proceedings, whereas the white choruses sing of the not-quite-real."Keeling, Richard (a.k.a. musickna) (December 8, 2005). [http://heronwatermusic.blogspot.com/2005/12/show-boat.html Music — "Show Boat"] . " Blogger.com". Retrieved January 2, 2006]
Show Boat was also the first musical to depict an interracial marriage, as in Edna Ferber's original novel, and to feature a character of mixed blood who was "passing" for white. The musical comedy "
Whoopee!", starring Eddie Cantor, supposedly had also depicted an interracial romance - this one being between a Native American man and a white woman. "Whoopee!", however, took the easy (and some would say offensive) way out by having the Native American character turn out to be white after all. "Show Boat" looked at the situation unflinchingly, and even had its mixed race character, Julie, make an unfortunate decision in eventually becoming an alcoholic.
However, some assert that the simple fact that "Show Boat" contains numbers with blacks and whites on stage singing together does not mean it deserves to be credited as the "first racially integrated musical". According to a
theatrestudies graduate student at Cornell University,
Historians of American musical theater usually describe "Show Boat" as the first "integrated" musical without considering its complicated politics of race. Such assessments privilege "Show Boat"’s book and score while failing to situate these scenes and songs in theatrical performance or within the wider culture of the United States in 1927. When read in the context of its original Broadway production and reception, "Show Boat" raises the question of whether its integration – of book and numbers, of black and white characters and actors – can function apart from its politics and theatrics of segregation... the musical numbers in which black and white characters dance and sing in unison or in harmony, or those in which the performance of individual black characters (Julie, Joe, and Queenie) complicates cross-racial relationships and forms raced audiences. At the same time, the numbers limit the possibilities for black characters by denying them interiority and deploying them as spectacle for the sensory experience of the audience. Ultimately, Ziegfeld’s "Show Boat" thrives in memory on a myth of integration, gesturing toward exploding the integration/segregation dichotomy while cooperating in the racist politics that informs it.Holmes, Brian (2003). [http://www.astr.org/conference2003/Seminar08.htm#Brian "Color by Numbers: Show Boat as Segregated Musical"] . "American Society for Theatre Research". Retrieved January 5, 2006]
It was not until 1947's "
Finian's Rainbow" that a Broadway musical was truly racially integrated.Lane, John (2005). [http://www.philly1.com/story9090705.html "John Lane's Notes on Music & Other Artistic Pleasures"] . Retrieved January 5, 2006]
Language and Stereotypes
The show has also come under much attack, primarily because of the use of the word "
nigger" in the lyrics in the first scene, in addition to the historical portrayal of blacks serving as passive laborers and servants. The show opened with the black chorus trudging onstage and singing:
::Niggers all work on the Mississippi.::Niggers all work while the white folks play — ::Loadin' up boats wid de bales of cotton,::Gittin' no rest till de Judgement Day.Hammerstein, Oscar II (1927). " [http://libretto.musicals.ru/text.php?textid=303&language=1 Show Boat] " (Original Libretto — Book and Lyrics). In [http://libretto.musicals.ru/index.php?language=1 "Collection of Musicals Lyrics and Libretti"] . Number 2 (Act One, Scene One)]
In subsequent productions, "nigger" has been changed to "colored folk," to "darkies" and in one choice, "Here we all," as in "Here we all work on the Mississippi. Here we all work while the white folk play." In the 1966
Lincoln Centerproduction of the show, produced during the height of the Civil Rightsstruggle, this section of the opening chorus was completely omitted rather than simply having the lyric changed. The 1988 CD for EMI restored the original lyric, while the Harold Princerevival chose "colored folk".
Despite these objections, however, others believe that the song was written by Kern and Hammerstein to give a sympathetic voice to an oppressed people through the ironic use of a word often used derogatorily against them and that the word was used to dramatically alert the audience to the realities of racism:
"'Show Boat" begins with the singing of that most reprehensible word – nigger – yet this is no
coon song... [it] immediately establishes race as one of the central themes of the play. This is a protest song, more ironic than angry perhaps, but a protest nonetheless. In the singers' hands, the word nigger has a sardonic tone... in the very opening, Hammerstein has established the gulf between the races, the privilege accorded the white folks and denied the black, and a flavor of the contempt built into the very language that whites used about African-Americans. This is a very effective scene.... These are not caricature roles; they are wise, if uneducated, people capable of seeing and feeling more than some of the white folk around them.
The racial situations in the play provoke thoughts of how hard it must have been to be black in the South. In the dialogue, some of the blacks are called "niggers" by the white characters in the story. (Contrary to what is sometimes thought, black slavery is not depicted in the play; slavery was abolished in 1863 and the story runs from the 1880s to the late 1920s.) At first, it is shocking to believe they are allowed to use a word that negative at all in a play... But in the context in which it is used, it is appropriate due to the impact it makes. It reinforces how much of a derogatory term "nigger" was then and still is today.Cronin, Patricia (June 1997). [http://www.mijohn.com/hsjc/rosetta/showb.htm "Timeless 'Show Boat' just keeps on rolling along"] . Retrieved January 5, 2006]
Those that consider "Show Boat" racially insensitive also often note that the dialogue and lyrics of the black characters (especially the
stevedoreJoe and his wife Queenie) and choruses use various forms of African American Vernacular English. An effective example of this is shown in the following text:
::Hey!::Where yo' think you're goin'?::Don't yo' know dis show is startin' soon?::Hey!::Jes' a few seats left yere!::It's light inside an' outside dere's no moon::What fo' you gals dressed up dicty?::Where's yo' all gwine?::Tell dose stingy men o' yourn::To step up here in line!
Many critics would either respond that such language is not an accurate reflection of the vernacular of blacks in Mississippi at the time, or that it is in fact linguistically correct but that the overall effect of its usage, especially in light of prejudiced historically-white audiences in past productions, results in a potentially harmful racial stereotype.
Indeed, the character Queenie (who sings the above verses) was in the original production played not by an African-American but rather by the
Italian-Americanactress Tess Gardellain blackface(Gardella was perhaps most well-known for portraying Aunt Jemimain blackface). [http://theaion.6te.net/tessgardella/tessgardella.html Tess Gardella] . "The Actresses of Italian Origin Notebook". Retrieved January 14, 2006] In addition, some believe that the attempts of non-black writers to imitate black language stereotypically in songs like " Ol' Man River" and allege authenticity is offensive, a claim that was repeated eight years later by evaluators of " Porgy and Bess".
"Ol' Man River" is not a Negro spiritual. It's a show tune cooked up in 1927 by a couple of middle-class honkies who needed something for a spot in the first act. Yes, Oscar Hammerstein's lyric is full of "dat" and "dese" (obviously, he was self-taught at Ebonics)... Hammerstein's is an unobtrusive craft, an artless art.Steyn, Mark (December 5, 1997). [http://www.slate.com/id/2896/ "Where Have You Gone, Oscar Hammerstein?"] . "Slate". Retrieved January 5, 2006.]
However, even many of those who denounce the stereotyping of blacks and black language admit that the intentions of Hammerstein were noble, since "'Ol' Man River' was the song in which he first found his lyrical voice, compressing the suffering, resignation, and anger of an entire race into 24 taut lines and doing it so naturally that it's no wonder folks assume the song's a Negro spiritual".
Many writers have also conceded that the novel contains
caricaturesof blacks, but believe that they were used by the author to scrutinize and criticize racism in the United States, since "cringe-worthy caricatures like "Show Boat" 's 'black men...with rolling eyes and great lips' exist alongside some very thoughtful explorations of American racism, including "Show Boat" 's sympathetic treatment of a mixed-race couple".Wilson, Mollie (May 6, 2005). [http://www.nextbook.org/cultural/feature.html?id=164 "So Big"] . "Nextbook". Retrieved December 31, 2005] For example, the theatre critics and veterans Richard Eyreand Nicholas Wright believe that "Show Boat" was revolutionary, not only because it was a radical departure from the previous style of plotless revues, but because it was a show written by non-blacks that portrayed blacks sympathetically rather than condescendingly:
Instead of a line of chorus girls showing their legs in the opening number singing that they were happy, happy, happy, the curtain rose on black dock-hands lifting bales of cotton, and singing about the hardness of their lives. Here was a musical that showed poverty, suffering, bitterness, racial prejudice, a sexual relationship between black and white, a love story which ended unhappily — and of course show business. In "Ol' Man River" the black race was given an anthem to honor its misery that had the authority of an authentic spiritual.Eyre, Richard; & Wright, Nicholas. " [http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/eyre/excerpt.html Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theater in the Twentieth Century] ." Random House. Retrieved December 31, 2005]
Revisions and cancellations
Since the musical's 1927 premiere, "Show Boat" has both been condemned as a prejudiced show based on racial caricatures and championed as a breakthrough work that opened the door for public discourse in the arts about racism in America. In some occasions, productions (including one planned for June 2002 in
Connecticut) have been cancelled because of objections.Norvell, Scott; & S., Jon (March 18, 2002). [http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,48114,00.html "The Show Can't Go On"] . "Fox News". Retrieved January 2, 2006]
However, such cancellations occasionally were met with negative reaction by supporters of the arts. After planned performances by an
operacompany in Middlesbrough, Englandwere "stopped because [they] would be 'distasteful' to ethnic minorities", a local newspaper declared that the actions were "surely taking political correctness too far".Lathan, Peter (October 24, 1999). [http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/articles/241099.htm "A More Subtle Form of Censorship"] . "The British Theatre Guide". Retrieved January 14, 2006] A British theatre writer was concerned that
the kind of censorship we've been talking about — for censorship it is — actually militates against a truly integrated society, for it emphasises differences. It puts a wall around groups within society, dividing people by creating metaphorical ghettos, and prevents mutual understanding.
In addition, as attitudes toward race relations changed in later years, producers and directors often altered some content in order to make the musical more politically correct:
..."Show Boat", more than many musicals, was subject to cuts and revisions within a handful of years after its first performance, all of which altered the dramatic balance of the play...
The 1993 Hal Prince revival, originating in Toronto, brought racial matters into focus. Throughout the production African-Americans constantly cleaned up the mess, moved the sets (even when
hydraulicsactually moved them), with their presence constantly commenting on the racial disparities.Saviola, Gerard C. (April 1, 1997). [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG97/showboat/sbreview.html "SHOW BOAT — Review of 1994 production"] . " American Studiesat University of Virginia". Retrieved January 5, 2006] After a New Year's Eve ball, all the streamers fell on the floor and we saw African Americans busy sweeping them away. A montage in the second act showed time passing with the revolving door of the Palmer Housein Chicago, and headlines going by in quick motion and then little snippets of slow motion to highlight a specific moment. African American dancers portrayed street dancers doing a dance and then time would pass and the fashionable white dancers had taken the dance.
During the production's stay in Toronto, many black community leaders and their supporters launched a massive opposition to the show, often mobilizing "black hecklers shouting insults and waving placards reading SHOW BOAT SPREADS LIES AND HATE and SHOW BOAT = CULTURAL GENOCIDE" in front of the theatre.Henry, William A. III (Nov. 01, 1993). [http://www.time.com/time/archive/printout/0,23657,979493,00.html "Rough Sailing for a New Show Boat"] . "TIME"] Some sympathetic to the cause of those against the production also thought that it was ironic that a supposedly anti-black show was receiving attention and support while the actual black community in Toronto was facing economic and social problems, and that
[the] conclusion that the protest was "misguided" reveals [the] total lack of understanding of the social and political cleavages in North York. It suggests that those blacks protesting "Show Boat" are wasting their time, when they should be engaged in more pressing struggles for equality in education, employment and housing. The fact is these people are working toward those goals every day. The protesters are trustees, teachers, lawyers, social service workers, and, dare I say it, leaders in their community.Anderson, Scott (Nov. 11, 1993). [http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_11.11.93/NEWS/med1111.htm "Show Coverage is Missing the Boat"] . "Eye"]
However, while Hal Prince's production of "Show Boat" was met by a storm of criticism in Toronto, various theatre critics in New York felt that Prince highlighted racial inequality in his production not to support it but rather to show its injustice, as well as the historical suffering of blacks. One way that this was done was
the inclusion of an absolutely beautiful piece of music cut from the original production and from the movie ["Mis'ry's Comin' Round"] ... a haunting gospel melody sung by the black chorus. The addition of this number is so successful because it salutes the dignity and the pure talent of the black workers and allows them to shine for a brief moment on the center stage of the showboat.
Singer-songwriter Drew Seeley starred in this production. This was his first professional acting role.
Many commentators, both black and non-black, view the show as an outdated and stereotypical commentary on race relations that portrays blacks in a negative or inferior position. Douglass K. Daniel of
Kansas State Universityhas commented that it is a "racially flawed story",Daniel, Douglass K. [http://www.aejmc.org/convention/abstracts/1997/mcd.html "They Just Keep Rolling Along: Images of Blacks in Film Versions of Show Boat"] . " Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Minorities and Communication Division". Retrieved December 31, 2005] and the African-Canadianwriter M. Nourbese Philip claims
The affront at the heart of "Show Boat" is still very alive today. It begins with the book and its negative and one-dimensional images of Black people, and continues on through the colossal and deliberate omission of the Black experience, including the pain of a people traumatized by four centuries of attempted genocide and exploitation. Not to mention the appropriation of Black music for the profit of the very people who oppressed Blacks and Africans. All this continues to offend deeply. The 'ol' man river of racism continues to run through the history of these productions and is very much part of this (Toronto) production. It is part of the overwhelming need of white Americans and white Canadians to convince themselves of our inferiority — that our demands don't represent a challenge to them, their privilege and their superiority.Philip, M. Nourbese (1993). " [http://www.nourbese.com/Essays-Showing%20Grit.htm Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel] " (2nd ed.). Out of print. pg. 59. Retrieved December 13, 2005]
In general, many of the artistic and social supporters of the musical believe that the depictions of racism should be regarded not as stereotyping blacks but rather satirizing the common national attitudes that both held those stereotypes and reinforced them through discrimination. In other words, just as quoting an out-of-context line from a play and claiming that it is the view of the playwright is absurd and deceptive, in the view of many of "Show Boat"'s defenders, the fact that a dramatic or literary work portrays racist attitudes and institutions does not mean that it endorses them — in the words of "
The New Yorker" theatre critic John Lahr, "describing racism doesn't make "Show Boat" racist. The production is meticulous in honoring the influence of black culture not just in the making of the nation's wealth but, through music, in the making of its modern spirit."Bows, Bob. [http://coloradodrama.com/essay_index.html#black "Show Boat"] . "Coloradodrama.com". Retrieved February 2, 2006]
In addition, theatre history shows that leading Broadway writers had long used the musical as a medium to call for tolerance and racial harmony, such as in "
Finian's Rainbow" and by Hammerstein himself in "South Pacific". Those who attempt to understand works like "Show Boat" and "Porgy and Bess" through the eyes of their creators usually comprehend that the show
was a statement AGAINST racism. That was the point of Edna Ferber's novel. That was the point of the show. That's how Oscar wrote it.... I think this is about as far from racism as you can get.Briggs, Joe Bob (May 7, 1993). " [http://www.joebobbriggs.com/drivein/1993/bodyofinfluence.htm Joe Bob Goes to the Drive In] ". "The Joe Bob Report"]
Perhaps the strongest foundational argument in defense of "Show Boat" lies in an understanding of the socially concerned intentions, aims, and backgrounds of its authors. According to Rabbi Alan Berg, Kern and Hammerstein's score to "Show Boat" is "a tremendous expression of the ethics of tolerance and compassion."Laporte, Elaine (Feb. 9, 1996). [http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/2914/edition_id/51/format/html/displaystory.html Why do Jews sing the blues?] . "The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California"] As Harold Prince (not Kern, to whom the quote has been mistakenly attributed) states in the original production notes to his 1993 production of the show:
Throughout pre-production and rehearsal, I was committed to eliminate any inadvertent stereotype in the original material, dialogue which may seem "Uncle Tom" today... However, I was determined not to rewrite history. The fact that during the 45-year period depicted in our musical there were lynchings, imprisonment, and forced labor of the blacks in the United States is irrefutable. Indeed, the United States still cannot hold its head high with regard to racism.
Oscar Hammerstein's commitment to idealizing and encouraging tolerance theatrically started with his libretto to "Show Boat" and can be seen clearly in his later works, many of which were written by
Richard Rodgers.Gomberg, Alan (February 16, 2004). [http://www.talkinbroadway.com/rialto/past/2004/02_16_04.html "Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical" — Book Review] . "What's New on the Rialto?". Retrieved January 6, 2006] " Carmen Jones" is an attempt to present a modern version of the classic French opera through the experiences of African-Americans during wartime, and "South Pacific" explores interracial marriageand prejudice. Finally, " The King and I" deals with different cultures' preconceived notions regarding each other and the possibility for cultural inclusiveness in societies.
Regarding the original author of "Show Boat", Ann Shapiro states that
Edna Ferber was taunted for being Jewish; as a young woman eager to launch her career as a journalist, she was told that the "
Chicago Tribune" did not hire women reporters. Despite her experience of antisemitism and sexism, she idealized America, creating in her novels an American myth where strong women and downtrodden men of any race prevail... " [Show Boat] " create [s] visions of racial harmony... in a fictional world that purported to be America but was more illusion than reality. Characters in Ferber's novels achieve assimilation and acceptance that was periodically denied Ferber herself throughout her life.Shapiro, Ann R (2001). [http://muse.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/access.cgi?uri=/journals/shofar/v020/20.2shapiro.html "Edna Ferber, Jewish American Feminist"] . "Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies", vol. 20, #2, pp. 52–60]
Whether or not the show is racist itself, many contend that it is important to continue to be produced today because it serves as a history lesson of American race relations. According to African-American opera singer
Phillip Lamar Boykin, who played the role of Joe in a 2000 tour,
Whenever a show deals with race issues, it gives the audience sweaty palms. I agree with putting it on the stage and making the audience think about it. We see where we came from so we don't repeat it, though we still have a long way to go. A lot of history would disappear if the show was put away forever. An artist must be true to an era. I'm happy with it.Shapiro, Margaret. [http://www.tucsonweekly.com/gbase/arts/Content?oid=oid:42383 "Facing The Music — A Revival Of 'Show Boat' Confronts The Production's Historical Racism"] . "
Tucson Weekly". Retrieved February 2, 2006]
The name of Magnolia's daughter, "Kim", is supposed to be derived from the fact that she was born at the exact moment that the "Cotton Blossom" was at the convergence of the states of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. Ferber herself, in the book, calls the sound of the name "uneuphonious". In fact, it is a contraction of the name "Kimberly", or perhaps "Kimball" (viz. its use by Kipling for the central character in his novel "Kim"). In any case, the name did not become a popular name for American children for more than three decades after the publishing of the book, which leaves the derivation even more likely.
The idea for the novel was derived from Edna Ferber's own experiences aboard a showboat on the
Pamlico Riverand Great Dismal SwampCanal in North Carolinacalled the James Addams Floating Theatre. These experiences themselves were touched off when a business acquaintance of Ferber's said, during a party after the premiere of Ferber's "Old Man Minick", that the next time he was involved in a play, he would not waste time on off-Broadway tryouts but would instead rent a showboat on which to test the show. Ferber was then interested in showboats and did a great deal of research on them.
* The 1928 original
Londoncast album, released in England on 78rpm records years before being sold in the United States. Because the U.S. had not yet begun making original cast albums of Broadway shows, it led to the unusual situation of there being an original London cast album of "Show Boat" but not of the 1927 Broadway cast. The cast on this album included Edith Day, Howett Worster, Marie Burkeand Alberta Hunter. Baritone Norris Smithreplaced Paul Robeson as Joe on the official release of this album. Robeson did record "Ol' Man River" with its original orchestration and vocal arrangement for the album, and it was later released. This rendition later turned up on the EMI CD"Paul Robeson Sings 'Ol' Man River' and Other Favorites".
* The 1932 studio cast recording on 78rpm by
Brunswick Records, later re-released by Columbia Recordson 78rpm, 33 1/3rpm and briefly on CD. This version featured Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, James Melton, Frank Munn, and Countess Olga Albani, and was issued in conjunction with the 1932 revival of the show, although it was not strictly an "original cast" album of that revival. The orchestra was conducted by Victor Young.
* The 1946 cast recording. Issued on 78rpm, LP and CD, all by Columbia Records. This was the first American "original cast" recording of "Show Boat", although it was of the 1946 cast, not the 1927 one.
Jan Clayton, Carol Bruce, Charles Fredericks, Kenneth Spencer and Colette Lyonswere featured.
* The 1951
MGM Records soundtrack album, the first movie soundtrack album of "Show Boat" ever issued, with cast members of the 1951 film version. Appeared both on 45rpm and 33 1/3rpm, later on CD in a much expanded edition. Actress Ava Gardner's own singing voice, which was dubbed by Annette Warren in the film, is heard on this album. The expanded version on CD, however, contains both Warren and Gardner's vocal tracks.
* A 1956
RCA Victorstudio cast album conducted by Lehman Engel, featuring more of the score on one LP than had ever been recorded. It did not, however, feature a black singer as Joe, but instead gave the role to Robert Merrill, who also sang Gaylord Ravenal's songs. Other singers on the album included Patrice Munsel(who probably would have played Julie in a stage production) as Magnolia, and a somewhat miscast Rise Stevensas Julie. Still unavailable on CD.
* Another studio cast album made in 1958, - the first "Show Boat" ever made in stereo. This offering, once again from RCA Victor, starred only three singers - Howard Keel (like Robert Merrill, singing "Ol' Man River" as well as Gaylord Ravenal's songs),
Anne Jeffreys, and Gogi Grant(who had previously dubbed Ann Blyth's singing in the film " The Helen Morgan Story"). Also unavailable on CD.
* The 1962 studio cast album, starring
Barbara Cook, John Raitt, Anita Darianand William Warfield, released by Columbia. The first stereo album of "Show Boat" that made a serious attempt to recreate the show. Later issued on CD.
* The 1966 Lincoln Center cast album, featuring Ms. Cook,
Constance Towers, Stephen Douglass, and William Warfield. Also available on CD, issued by RCA Victor.
* The 1971 London cast album. A recording of a highly successful revival, featuring
Cleo Laine, Lorna Dallas, Andre Jobin and bass-baritone Thomas Carey. This was the first 2-LP album of "Show Boat", and included much more of the score than had ever been put on records, although in completely different orchestral arrangements. Issued later on CD, but out of print as of 2007.
* The 1988 EMI studio cast album, a three-CD set which, for the first time, contained literally the entire score of the show, with all of its authentic 1927 orchestrations and vocal arrangements heard for the first time on a recording. The CD and accompanying booklet allowed the recreation of the many varied song sequences from throughout the show's production history. The most highly acclaimed album of "Show Boat" ever made, with
Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Teresa Stratasand Bruce Hubbard, and conducted by John McGlinn.
* The 1994 recording of the acclaimed 1993 revival, starring
Rebecca Luker, Mark Jacoby, Lonette McKeeand Michel Bell(as Joe) ; despite the fact that this is a relatively recent recording, it is a now very difficult-to-find album due to the bankruptcy of the Liventcompany, which had produced the revival in Canada.
There have been many other studio cast recordings of "Show Boat" in addition to those mentioned above - too many to list here. The soundtrack of the 1936 film version has appeared on a so-called "bootleg" label called Xeno, but has so far not had an official release on CD.
* [http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/albm32.html Information about the musical]
* [http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/musicals/showboat.html PBS.org info about Show Boat]
* [http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/060531-NL-show.html Scena.org analysis of the show]
* [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/showboat/sbintro.html History of the show]
* [http://www.glopad.org/pi/en/record/piece/1000520 "Show Boat" images]
* [http://www.post-gazette.com/magazine/19980823show3.asp Post-Gazette information and timeline for "Show Boat"]
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.