Show Boat is a musical in two acts with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (with the notable exception of the song "Bill," which was originally written for Kern in 1918 by P. G. Wodehouse but reworked by Hammerstein for Show Boat, and two songs not by Kern and Hammerstein which are always interpolated into American stage productions of the show - Goodbye, My Lady Love, by Joseph Howard, and After The Ball, by Charles K. Harris).
"Show Boat" is based on a 1926 book of the same name by Edna Ferber, and is generally considered to be the first true American "musical play", as a dramatic form with popular music, separate both from operetta and from the "Follies"-type musical comedies that preceded it. In many ways, it took the plot and character-centered "Princess Musicals" that Kern had developed with Bolton and Wodehouse the previous decade and broadened the scope. However, George S. Kaufman and the Gershwins' Strike Up the Band, which previewed earlier that year, clearly made similar leaps, although its subject matter was satirical and farcical, while that of "Show Boat" was sentimental and somewhat tragic.
The story spans about 40 years, beginning aboard the showboat Cotton Blossom in the 1880s, on the Mississippi River near Natchez, Mississippi. A riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, comes aboard and is taken with Magnolia, an aspiring performer and daughter of the ship's captain and owner, "Cap'n Andy". Magnolia (aka Nolie) is smitten with Ravenal as well, and seeks advice from Joe, one of the workers aboard the boat.
A local sheriff comes aboard and insists that the show not go on, because the star of the show, Julie, is a mulatto woman married to a white man, and local laws prohibit miscegenation. With the star gone, Magnolia and Gaylord fill in. He later confesses his love for her and proposes.
Years later, Gaylord and Magnolia are married and living in Chicago with their daughter, Kim. Gaylord's gambling debts get out of control, and they are living in a very poor apartment. Frank and Ellie, two actors on the boat visit, where Magnolia finds that Gaylord has left her. Frank and Ellie seek a singing job for Magnolia at the same club where they are working for New Year's. Unbeknownst to Magnolia, Julie, now a drunk showgirl left by her husband, hears Magnolia's song, the same song she taught her years ago Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, and abandons her position so that Magnolia can fill it.
On New Year's Eve, Andy comes to the club, unaware of Magnolia's troubles, only to discover her nearly being booed off stage. He rallies the crowd to her defense in a grand sing-along of an old song After the Ball. Magnolia becomes a great musical star.
Years later, when Kim is now a star of the stage, Gaylord returns for a happy reunion with Magnolia.
The 1951 MGM film changed many aspects of the story, including bringing the protagonists back together only a few years after they departed (rather than twenty-three years afterward). Gaylord has a chance meeting with Julie, and learns that he has a daughter he didn't know about. Kim is only seen as a cute child in this version.
The original production ran nearly four hours and was subsequently trimmed to just over three by the time it actually got to Broadway. The show is now never performed onstage at its original length. Two songs, "Till Good Luck Comes My Way" and "Hey Feller!" were written mainly to cover scenery changes, and could be easily cut without hurting the story. "Hey Feller!" was completely discarded in 1946, and has turned up again only on the 1988 EMI album. Two new songs have been written by Kern and Hammerstein for other stage productions, and three more have been 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. Key songs usually found in productions include the following:
The instrumentation for the show according to the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett is one flute (doubling as piccolo), one oboe (doubling as English horn) , 2 clarinets, one bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, one trombone, percussion, one banjo, 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  . The show opened on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York on 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, who had previously been best known for revues such as the Follies. The scenic design for 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.
After its closing in 1929, the show was revived on Broadway in 1932 (Casino Theatre), 1946 (return to the Ziegfeld Theatre), 1983 (Uris Theatre presented by Douglas Urbanski) and 1994 (at the same theatre). Other American productions include one at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center in July of 1966, and two at the New York City Center, in 1954 and 1961. It has been produced on multiple occasions in West End, including a May 1928 production at the Drury Lane Theatre and at the Adelphi Theatre in July of 1971 . In England it has also been by various repertory theatres in England, including once by Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company . It was also adapted as a movie on four occasions, in 1929, 1936, 1946 (as a mini-show inside the movie Till the Clouds Roll By), and 1951, and videotaped in live performance for television in 1989 at the Paper Mill Playhouse. (See Show Boat (film)).
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 . Ziegfeld’s Follies allowed single African American performers 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" . 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 theatre studies graduate student at Cornell University,
It was not until 1947's Finian's Rainbow that a Broadway musical was truly racially integrated .
Language and Stereotypes
The show has also come under much attack, primarily because of the use of '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:
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." The 1988 CD for EMI restored the original lyric, while the 1994 production 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:
Those that consider Show Boat racially insensitive also often note that the dialogue and lyrics of the black characters (especially the stevedore Joe 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:
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 role of Queenie (to whom the above verses are attributed) was in the original production played not by an African-American but rather by the Italian-American actress Tess Gardella in blackface (Gardella was perhaps most well-known for portraying Aunt Jemima in blackface) . 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.
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 caricatures of 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" . For example, the theatre critics and veterans Richard Eyre and 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:
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. However, such cancellations occasionally were met with negative reaction by supporters of the arts. After planned performances by an opera company in Middlesbrough, England were "stopped because [they] would be 'distasteful' to ethnic minorities", a local newspaper declared that the actions were "surely taking political correctness too far" . A British theatre writer was concerned that
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:
Harold Prince's revival (opening in Toronto in 1993, and on Broadway in 1994) revitalized interest in the show by tightening the book, dropping and adding songswhich had been cut in various productions, and highlighting the racial elements of the show. Throughout the production African-Americans constantly cleaned up the mess, moved the sets (even when hydraulics actually moved them), with their presence constantly commenting on the racial disparities . After a New Year's Eve ball, all the streamers fell on the floor and we saw African Americans busy sweeping them away. A brilliant montage in the second act showed time passing with the revolving door of the Palmer House in 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 . 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
However, while Hal Prince's production of Show Boat was met by a storm of criticism in Toronto, various theatre critics in New York understood 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
Furthermore, during the 1993 Toronto protests, other observers decried the show's opponents for their own prejudices and racist attitudes, for many had supposedly stated that they viewed the show as a Jewish attempt to bring down blacks (both Kern and Hammerstein, in addition to director Hal Prince, were Jewish New Yorkers), and to many it seemed apparent that by labelling ethnic groups as racist, the protesters were guilty of the very thing that they were complaining about .
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 University has commented that it is a "racially flawed story" , and the African-Canadian writer M. Nourbese Philip claims that
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."  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
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" . As Jerome Kern himself states in the original production notes,
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. For example, Oklahoma! included a subplot regarding the community's debate over whether to accept a Persian and its treatment of a victimized man seen as representing blacks . 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 marriage and 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
To the objections of Philip in Showing Grit, therefore, a supporter of the production would answer that her statement is an incorrect analysis using inaccurate assumptions. For example, Philip's condemnation of the original book can be contrasted with Shapiro's commentary on Ferber's own experience of discrimination and how the books she authored, including Show Boat, addressed this sensitivity; that in opposition to the claim that the book and show omit the Black experience, they rather explore this experience in a way that audiences in 1927 were not prepared for. One could say that the analysis of Kern's score in the phrase "appropriation of Black music" is poor musicology that ignores the fact that all American music, even and especially including jazz forms and styles, is a fusion of always more than one musical influence. Specific to the case of Show Boat, songs attempting to imitate spirituals of Jazz both constitute a minority of the score's musical numbers and are completely original, in that they were composed by Kern and were not cited or quoted. To the statement by Philip that the creators of the show are the "very people who oppressed Blacks" can be retorted the concrete fact that these people were in actuality of a distinct and separate ethnic and cultural group that had its own experience with persecution and discrimination. One could say that what "continues to offend deeply" is in reality not Show Boat but the historical racial situation in North America, and that "shooting the messenger", especially one that attempts to alert mainstream America to the injustices of racial policies and realities at the time, is counterproductive. Finally, it would seem apparent to many that Philip's final psychological analysis of the show's creators and audiences is refuted by the facts concerning the show itself. In conclusion, a summary statement to the objection to Philip's commentary could therefore be "you picked the wrong enemy because you were looking for one".
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,
The name of Magnolia's daughter, "Kim", derives 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". The name did not become a popular name for American children for more than three decades after the publishing of the book.
author(s):Music by Jerome Kern;