Show Boat (1927), Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's immortal tale of life on the Mississippi River from the 1880s to the 1920s, was one of the landmark works of the American musical theater. It not only contained a calvacade of songs that included "Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Make Believe," and "You Are Love," but also helped propel the American musical theater forward with its serious libretto and a musical score that was wedded to the dramatic content.
Based on Edna Ferber's 1926 novel of life on the Mississippi River, Hammerstein's libretto focuses on Magnolia (Nola) Hawks, impressionable daughter of Cap'n Andy Hawks—owner of the show boat Cotton Blossom—and his domineering wife, Parthy. Nola falls in love with Gaylord Ravenal, a river gambler, at first sight. They marry and move to Chicago, where their daughter Kim is born. Gaylord loses all his money and deserts his family. The musical ends in 1927, years later, with a reunion of Nola, Gaylord, and Kim on the Cotton Blossom.
Secondary plots and characters are of great importance in the show. Julie, the mulatto actress, is forced to leave the Cotton Blossom when her racial background is exposed. In the second act, Julie sacrifices her career for Nola, who, destitute, auditions to sing at the Trocadero Club. Joe and Queenie, an African-American couple who live on the Cotton Blossom, provide continuity as the personifications of wisdom and the joy of life through numbers such as Joe's "Ol' Man River" and the couple's "Ah Still Suits Me," written for the 1936 film and interpolated into some of the show's subsequent revivals. Frank and Ellie embody the essence of musical comedy with their farcical antics. In Ellie's "Life upon the Wicked Stage," the comic actress describes her profession to her adoring fans.
Show Boat's musical score contained a substantial number of songs that entered the canon of American popular music. Considered the most operatic of Kern's scores, the music in Show Boat elevated the standard of popular song. The show's numbers became defining works in the musical theater repertoire. In the music of Show Boat, characters were defined through their music. The relationship of Nola and Gaylord develops from the fantasy world of "Make Believe" to overt expression in "You Are Love" and "Why Do I Love You?" Julie's torch song, "Bill" (written in 1918 for Oh, Lady, Lady! but cut from the show), became a classic of the genre, and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," with its opening line "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly," emerged as a standard romantic ballad.
Show Boat became an institution in American musical theater because of its skillful integration of operetta, realistic drama, and musical comedy. The fantasy world of the operetta is captured through the show's numerous waltzes. The credo of operetta, "Make Believe" (though not a waltz), is the title of one of the musical's early numbers. The fantasy world of the operetta is represented by the show boat and its theatrical escapism. The real world is manifested through the Chicago scenes—the World's Fair, Gaylord's gambling and desertion, and the plights of Julie and Nola. The real world enters the Cotton Blossom in the miscenagation scene, where Julie and her husband Steve are forced to leave the show boat. Musical comedy elements appear in the characters of Ellie and Frank, whose music is decidedly Tin Pan Alley in style. The integration of these diverse musical styles accounts for Show Boat's importance and popularity.
The musical score of Show Boat is integrated with the show's dramatic narrative. Music did not exist solely for its own sake—its purpose was to enhance the drama. The standard was set and groundwork was laid for a more serious approach to the Broadway musical. Characters could no longer waltz their way out of difficulty as the tragedy of real life entered the popular musical theater. Kern and Hammerstein did give in to the Broadway tradition of a happy ending, however; Ferber's novel does not include the final scene of reconciliation between Nola and Gaylord.
Show Boat, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York on December 27, 1927. Howard Marsh and Norma Terris played the lead roles of Nola and Gaylord. Helen Morgan created her legendary role of Julie, and Jules Bledsoe was the first Joe. The show ran for 572 performances, making it the second longest running Broadway musical of the 1920s.
Show Boat has continued to be successful on both stage and screen. Numerous revivals included Ziegfeld's in 1932, Kern and Hammerstein's 1946 production, the Musical Theater of Lincoln Center's 1966 version, and Hal Prince's lavish treatment that opened in Toronto in 1993 and in New York the following year. Three film versions of Show Boat were created: a 1929 part-talkie, a 1936 adaptation with Irene Dunne and Allan Jones, and the 1951 classic with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel.
In 1988, EMI released what it claimed to be "the first ever complete recording" of Show Boat. Under the direction of John McGlinn, it featured opera singers Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Teresa Stratas, and Bruce Hubbard in the principal roles, thus emphasizing the work's operatic qualities. Music which was cut from the show during its pre-Broadway tryout and songs written for film versions and revivals are included on the recording.
Show Boat is a classic American musical. Its memorable score and its integration of plot and music display a high level of craftsman-ship on the part of its creators. The combination of realism and fantasy inherent in the story will ensure that Show Boat will continue to delight audiences for generations to come.
—William A. Everett
Block, Geoffrey. "The Broadway Canon from Show Boat to West Side Story and the European Operatic Ideal." Journal of Musicology. Vol. 11, Fall 1993, 525-44.
——. Some Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim. New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Kreuger, Miles. Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical. New York, Oxford University Press, 1977. Reprinted New York, Da Capo Press, 1990.
Mordenn, Ethan. "'Show Boat' Crosses Over." New Yorker. July 3,1989, 79-93.