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"You and me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin' and wracked with pain.
Tote that barge, lift that bale,
Get a little drunk and you land in jail…
I gets weary, sick of tryin',
I'm tired of livin', 'feared of dyin'
But ol' man river, he jus' keeps rollin' along."
— Oscar Hammerstein II
"You never knew what lay ahead of you... That was part of the fascination of it. The river curved and twisted and turned and doubled. Mystery always lay just around the corner of the next bend..."
— from the novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber (1885-1968)
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edna Ferber, author of the 1926 novel Show Boat, didn't like the idea of a musical adaptation of her book. Indeed, she expressed grave reservations about having it set for the musical stage; post-World War I Broadway musicals had been "suffering from sameness and tameness" according to Stanley Green, author of Broadway Musicals, Show by Show. Ferber was worried that her story would be subjected to the same fluffy and frivolous treatment so popular in the revues and light operas of the day.
It was composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) who convinced her otherwise. He and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) agreed to write a new kind of show, one that would forever change the face of American musicals. Kern assured her that he and Hammerstein would concentrate on bringing Ferber's complex story to life in music, a story line that included dramatic elements hitherto unexplored seriously in musical theater, especially racism and infidelity. Kern and Hammerstein's show wouldn't be just another musical; it would be a drama with music.
Show Boat was everything they hoped to create and more.
First and foremost, Show Boat was filled with great tunes, tunes with lyrics that captured and propelled the special drama of the story, none more powerful than "Ol' Man River."
"I must break down and confess," Edna Ferber was quoted as saying, "to being one of those whose eyes grow dreamy and whose mouth is wreathed in wistful smiles whenever the orchestra – any orchestra – plays 'Ol' Man River'… I never have tired of it… and I consider Oscar Hammerstein's lyric to 'Ol' Man River' to be powerful, native, tragic, and true."
When Kern first played and sang the song for Ferber she was overwhelmed: "I give you my word, my hair stood on end, the tears came to my eyes, I breathed like a heroine in a melodrama. This was great music. This was music that would outlast Jerome Kern's day and mine." The tune is still powerful: even in our day – when the idea of slavery and indentured servitude seems such a relic of the past – the setting, tune, and lyric reminds us that many individuals still struggle with poverty and racism.
Memorable tunes abound in the show. "Can't Help Lovin' That Man," a song that describes a woman's unswerving devotion to her man even in the face of egregious lack of character, was another notable favorite from the show. Other songs include "Make Believe," "Bill," "Cotton Blossom," and "Why Do I Love You?", to mention a few.
Great tunes were not the only thing that made this a classic musical. Before Show Boat, musicals were often just a pastiche of song and dance numbers. Sometimes the tunes would barely relate to each other and shows frequently had flimsy plots or no plots at all.
According to most theater scholars, it marked the arrival of the modern musical. Theater scholar Geoffrey Block, author of Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim, noted the work's "unprecedented integration of music and drama, its three-dimensional characters, and its bold and serious subject matter." Richard Kislan declared that Hammerstein's libretto for Show Boat "brought before the public for the first time the human and moral concerns that would become the heart of the enduring musical."
The treatment of African Americans in musical theater had reflected the prevailing thinking of the day: "Almost without exception, the American theater had treated the black person as a comic character in the genre of fool, clown, or… simpleton," wrote Kislan. This story was different; Show Boat portrayed the plight of black Americans in sympathetic terms, and even dealt openly with the issue of Julie's "mixed-race" marriage, still illegal in many states at the time the musical was written. Miscegenation laws, as they were called, were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Pace v. Alabama (1883) and not overturned until Loving v. Virginia (1967), when 16 states still had such laws on the books.
The less-than-exemplary relationship and marriage between main characters Magnolia and Ravenal was an innovative topic for the Broadway musical stage (see synopsis below). The devotion that both Julie and Magnolia had for their men – a source of great suffering that seems remote from today's world but really isn't – is aptly described in the tune "Can't Help Lovin' That Man":
Maybe he's lazy, maybe he's slow,
Maybe I'm crazy, maybe I know,
Can't help lovin' that man of mine…
Jerome Kern's music for Show Boat has garnered the most praise through the years. To wit:
"In Show Boat… Kern's music heightens immeasurably the emotional value of the situation… Themes are developed and quoted in almost Wagnerian fashion," wrote Robert Simeon in Modern Music. Other critics agreed. Arthur B. Waters wrote in the Philadelphia Public Ledger: "Just where the highest honors are to be bestowed we are not certain, but, without doubt, Mr. Kern should come in for first mention…. We know of no musical in recent years… which has so uniformly high grade a score." Others, such as Geoffrey Block, go into great detail demonstrating the composer's deft handling of leitmotifs, a term coined to describe the way opera composers – in particular, "high art" composer Richard Wagner – use and reuse small fragments of music for dramatic effect.
The compositional skill required to craft such an unmistakable musical masterpiece as Show Boat makes distinctions between "high art" and "low art" seem unjustified: It is music of the highest order.
Though praise has been heaped on Show Boat through the years, one aspect of the show has been singled out for criticism: the book. Broadway conductor Lehman Engel (1910-1982) – who some claim knew more about American musical theater than anybody while others dismiss as an angry old curmudgeon – thought the book didn't live up to the standards of the rest of the work.
"Its plot development [is] predictable and corny, and its ending unbearably sweet," Engel wrote of Show Boat. Even Oscar Hammerstein II himself is said to have had second thoughts about the work's ending. Miles Kreuger, author of Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical, notes that "as a concession to theatrical conventions of the time, Hammerstein kept everyone alive at the end and even arranged a happy reunion for the long-parted lovers, decisions, he revealed to this writer, that he came to regret."
It could be argued, however, that the ending to Show Boat – the original ending envisioned in 1927 and which we hear and experience tonight – was really quite ambiguous. A reunion between Magnolia and Ravenal certainly seems a reasonable storyline considering they have a daughter together, though after 15 years absence, only the most hopeless romantic among us can imagine a full reconciliation.
Show Boat is noteworthy for something else, something out of the ordinary for Broadway musicals. There are many versions of the play, but no one single "definitive" production that seems to have swept all other productions aside. It has been remade and revived on many occasions, in 1932, 1946, 1966, 1971, 1983, and in 1994, the last being the most financially successful of the lot. The 1946 version, in particular, took a lighter tone than the previous versions. Also, the movie adaptations – a silent version in 1929 (with a prologue sung by the cast), and talkies in 1936 and 1951 – are all different, with the 1951 film taking its cue from the '46 stage production and moving even further away from the original.
The music and story in tonight's Show Boat is closer to the story and music that would have been seen in the 1927 Broadway production, with two important additional tunes: a duet featuring Queenie and Joe, which first appeared in the 1932 revival ("Ah Still Suits Me"); and Kim's number "Nobody Else But Me," the last song Jerome Kern ever wrote in his lifetime, a tune he created for the 1946 revival that he would never live to hear.
Like a timeless epic such as Beowulf or a play by William Shakespeare, Show Boat can be reinterpreted without altering its essence. This flexibility only strengthens it, making it new and relevant for generations to come.
Composer and writer Dave Kopplin holds a Ph.D. in music from UCLA. He is the Editor of Hollywood Bowl Magazine.
The action begins in the 1880s and brings us up to the late 1920s. When Cap'n Andy and his wife Parthy Ann bring their show boat Cotton Blossom into town for a performance, their daughter Magnolia meets a handsome ne'er-do-well gambler, Gaylord Ravenal. Gaylord and Magnolia fall in love at first sight, although they profess it is only "Make Believe." Magnolia seeks advice on what to do from a black workhand, Joe Gules Bledsoe, who tells her "Ol' Man River" alone can answer her but that the river "don't say nothin'." The show boat's leading lady, Julie, begins to understand Magnolia's situation and, recalling an old folk song, tells her how she, too "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" of hers. Soon thereafter, Julie is accused of being part "Negro" and is forced to leave the show boat, taking the leading man with her. Magnolia and Gaylord are pressed into assuming the lead roles in the show.
Soon enough they are telling each other "You Are Love." They marry and head off. Years pass. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair they seem amazed not only at the sights but at how their love has grown, and ask, "Why Do I Love You?" But eventually Gaylord's gambling costs him all his money; he deserts Magnolia and their young daughter Kim. Magnolia applies for a job singing at a nightclub where she comes upon Julie, now an alcoholic, rehearsing the tune "Bill." Julie recognizes Magnolia and disappears, sacrificing what is left of her own career to help Magnolia. When Cap'n Andy discovers his daughter Magnolia in the night club on New Year's eve, he helps her overcome her performing jitters, and then persuades her to return to the Cotton Blossom.
As the years pass, Magnolia's successful solo career is eclipsed by that of her daughter Kim. One day, Cap'n Andy runs into Ravenal and invites the aging gambler to visit the Cotton Blossom. A bittersweet reunion occurs, with Ravenal, Kim, and Magnolia together again. The closing number, "Ol' Man River," lets us know that the mighty Mississippi just keeps rolling along.