On December 27, 1927, the musical Show Boat premiered at the Ziegfeld Theater on Broadway. The music was by Jerome Kern, and the book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Show Boat was based on Edna Ferber's 1926 novel (e-book, print), a saga covering 40 years in the lives of a group of show boat performers.
Show boats toured the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bringing entertainment to river towns that might be too small for visits from touring theater companies. The shows were usually built around melodrama and vaudeville acts. The rise of motion pictures in the late 1920s and 1930s killed off most of the show boats.
Ferber spent several days aboard one of the last show boats doing research for her novel, and concocted a story that mixed romance with a look at race relations that was progressive for its era. The central character is Julie, the star singer on the Orange Blossom, and we follow her life after it is discovered that she is of mixed race. She is forced to leave the show because she is not allowed to perform for white audiences in the 1880s South.
Kern and Hammerstein's musical adaptation was Broadway's first racially integrated musical. African-American performers might be allowed a solo number or two in a musical revue, but in Show Boat, black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together.
Show Boat was also a major structural development for the Broadway musical. Until this point, musicals had been relatively light operettas and comedies, in which the songs usually weren't terribly important to the story; songs were simply dropped in on whatever flimsy excuse the writers could come up. But in Show Boat, the songs were integral to the plot and worked to advance the story. Music, dance, and story were woven together in a way that was new to the musical theater. The songs still stood on their own, though, and several of them have taken on a life outside the show as popular standards, chief among them "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Make Believe," and "Ol' Man River."
The show has been revived frequently over the years, and adapted for film twice. The revivals are rarely without controversy, usually centered on the show's handling of racial issues. Ferber and Hammerstein told a story that argued, rather strongly by the standards of the late 1920s, for racial tolerance, but as views have changed, some parts of the show may now seem offensive.
Hammerstein's book and lyrics, for instance, are often written in African-American dialect that hasn't aged well, with phrases like "Where's yo all gwine?" And he does not shy away from common racial epithets; the show opens with the black chorus, portraying laborers preparing the Orange Blossom for departure, singing "N-----s all work on the Mississippi." Kern and Hammerstein argued that it was important to immediately establish that race would be a principal theme of the show, and that the word was being used by the black characters with great sarcasm and irony; they were singing about how they were viewed by white people. The line is usually changed when the show is revived, various productions have used "Colored folks work" or "Here we all work." Miles Kreuger's Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical (print) looks at the history of the show and the issues surrounding its performance.
Several different recordings of Show Boat are available for streaming at either Hoopla or Freegal:
- The 1946 Broadway cast features Jan Clayton, Carol Bruce, and Kenneth Spencer.
- The 1951 film soundtrack stars Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, William Warfield, and Annette Warren (who dubbed the songs for Ava Gardner).
- A 1959 British studio recording stars Marlys Walters and Shirley Bassey.
- Barbara Cook and John Raitt are featured in a 1962 studio recording.
- Cook returns in the 1966 Lincoln Center production, this time joined by Constance Towers and Stephen Douglass.
- The most complete recording is a 1988 studio recording starring Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, and Paige O'Hara. It includes the complete score, with the original lyrics and orchestrations.
- John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra perform the 20-minute suite Show Boat: A Scenario for Orchestra.