Show Boat
Musical Play by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern
Ziegfeld Theater, New York City, 1927

The most successful critical and commercial production of 1920's musical theater, Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat revises and responds to the tradition of American operetta, and endures as a masterpiece of dramatic development. A towering achievement of musical theater, Show Boat introduced a variety of musical gems -- "Old Man River", "Can't Help Lovin' That Man", and "Make Believe" -- to the canon of popular music.

Subverting Traditions of Character

As opposed to the musical productions typical of the era -- such as Hammerstein's Rose Marie (1924) and The Desert Song (1926), which date rather poorly in comparison -- Show Boat took radical steps in its character design. Most musicals of the era entertained a traditional cast of predictable romantic comic-opera characters: a soprano and baritone destined to wed by final curtain; a villain thwarted; a couple of soubrettes (a soprano who sings supporting roles in comic opera) with a romance pursued in parallel to the central relationship, and so on.

In Show Boat, the villain is omitted, and the main characters are wedded by the end of the first act, the sourbettes in the first few moments. The 'hero' - who constitutes the most anti-heroic character in a major musical since Billie Taylor (1922) - falls to temptation and weakness, while the heroine suffers a somewhat more extreme form of misery than just temporarily losing her boyfriend.

The Score

For Show Boat, composer Jerome Kern accomplished a score of substantive musical value, one surpassing by far any previous score of the era. The songs resonate in their accomplished mixture of styles: comic operetta for the lovers' music ("Make Believe", and the waltz duet "You Are Love"); the lighthearted nonchalance of Ravenal's solos ("Where's The Girl For Me" and "Till Good Luck Comes My Way"); the pleasant soubrettes for Frank and Ellie ("I might fall back on you" and "Life on the Wicked Stage") in the classic style; and a variety of "Negro" pieces, a beautiful baritone hymn to the Mississippi ("Ol' Man River"); a buoyant, boisterous ensemble chorus "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" -- all of this within the first act alone.

Narrative Outline

Mississippi, 1880. Magnolia is the daughter of the owner of a Mississippi theater show boat (Cap'm Andy) and good-hearted mother, Parthy Ann. The Cotton Blossom arrives at Natchez, with a show featuring the enchanting Julie Verne and the dashing leading man, Steve Baker. The engineer Pete becomes infatuated with Julie, sending her a gold pin. When Pete finds out that Julie has given it to her servant, he pulls down Julie's show boards.

Magnolia is introduced to the gambler, Gaylord Ravenal at the Natchez riverside. When Pete forces Julie and Steve to leave the boat, Ravenal becomes the theatrical leading man to Magnolia's heroine; they fall in love and get married at Greenville.

World's Fare, Chicago, 1893. Magnolia and Gaylord have been extraordinarily lucky in their gambling exploits; Magnolia's parents are unaware of the source of their prosperity. In ten years, their success diminishes and along with their child, Kim, live hand to mouth in lowly lodgings. Their old friends Ellie and Frank find them on the brink of starvation, and offer their assistance.

Ravenal is about to leave after he visits Kim at the convent where she recieves her education. Frank implores Magnolia to find work at the Trocadero Club, where together with Ellie, he will begin work. When they find an older Julie at work there as the club singer -- battered, but still a fighter -- she insists that Magnolia occupy her position. Magnolia easily dominates the job.

On her opening night on New Years Eve, she is nervous but her father's (Cap'm Andy) attendance consoles her. He leads the audience in a singalong of "After The Ball" (Ereneta informs me that this number is included as a nostalgia piece; written by Charles K. Harris, 1892), and the performance is a success; she is on her way to Broadway fame. The years that follow bring Kim to join in her mother's path to success. Julie dwindles to a sad off-stage end. Ravenal has disappeared until he runs into Magnolia's father, who persuades him to return to the show boat. Their his wife has taken her retirement and there -- where nothing ever changes -- 30 years after their first meeting, the pair are reunited for the final curtain.

Presented by Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932)
Directed by Zeke Colvan and Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960)
Music by Jerome Kern
Choreography by Sammy Lee
Settings by Joseph Urban
Costumes by John Harkrider
Musical director, Victor Baravalle
Orchestrator, Robert Bennett
Choral director, William Vodery
Based on the book Show Boat by Edna Furber.

Principle Characters:
Magnolia Hawkes Ravenal - A singer
Gaylord Ravenal - A gambler
Captain Andy Hawkes - Magnolia's father
Julie Verne - A singer
Parthy Ann Hawkes - A stevedore
Queenie - Joe's girl
Ellie May Chipley - A soubrette
Frank Schultz - A character actor/singer
Steve Baker - Julie's husband

New York Cast:
Norma Terris, Howard Marsh, Charles Winninger, Helen Morgan, Julie Bledsoe, Edna May Oliver, Tess Gardella, Eva Puck, Sammy White, Charles Ellis

New York run: December 27, 1927 - May 4, 1929 (572 performances)


John Byram (New York Times, 1927):
"...with a few reservations in favor of the earlier Follies and possibly Sally, it is just about the best musical piece ever to arrive under Mr. Ziegfeld's silken gonfalon... has about every ingredient that the perfect song and dance concoction should have...better than average lyrics, an exceptionally tuneful score--the most lilting and satisfactory that the wily Jerome Kern has evolved in several seasons."

Abel Green (Variety, 1928):
"Meaty and gripping, rich with plot and character, it's almost a pity that the novel wasn't dramatized 'straight', sans the musical setting. But, musicalized and Ziegfeldized, it's a worth, sturdy entertainment. It has everything and tops everything ever done before by Ziegfeld...Miss Morgan could have made her impression a wow click, instead of passably fair, with a song specialty in lieu of the mild Bill number...Music is typically Kernian, titillating, infectious, refreshing and never tiring..."

Kennedy, Michael. Musicals. New YorK: Collins, 1997.
Krueger, M. Show Boat: The Story Of a Classic American Musical. New York: OUP, 1977.

Recordings: The Complete Show Boat (EMI, 3 CDs, London cast recordings); Show Boat (1951 soundtrack, Rhino Records); London Revival, 1966 (RCA)

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