Of Time and the River

As Lyric Opera of Chicago opens its new production of the classic musical Show Boat, LAURENCE MASLON looks at the show's enduring strengths and complexities.

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A scene from Universal's 1936 Show Boat film directed by James Whale
© Universal Pictures/Photofest 2012
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Ava Gardner as Julie LaVerne in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1951 Show Boat film
© MGM/Photofest 2012
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Paul Robeson as Joe in Universal's 1936 Show Boat film
© Universal Pictures/Photofest 2012

If you intended to create a lighthearted operetta, with all the cotton-candy conventions and confections of the genre, would you raise the curtain on the most incendiary racist epithet of the twentieth century? Unlikely. Then again, just about everything about Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat was unlikely. Considered to be the first truly great American musical, Show Boat continues to fold in its wake complex ideas about how Americans have looked at show business, family values, race and — not incidentally — how we look at ourselves, for nearly four generations. 

Show Boat's uniqueness begins with its source — a serious novel by Edna Ferber, published in the summer of 1926. Ferber, a fiercely detailed journalist and novelist, had already won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big when she became fascinated with the follies and peregrinations of the riverboat theaters that traversed the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. Ferber's fictional works typically had a dynastic scope and scale to them, and Show Boat was no exception: Cap'n Andy's showboat, the Cotton Blossom, travels up and down the mighty river for decades, from the 1870s to the Roaring Twenties, floating above the turbulent waters with a turbulent narrative of its own, involving Andy's brittle wife, their glowing daughter, Magnolia, and her doomed romance with a gambler husband — along with a troupe of complicated supporting characters. Racism, miscegenation, alcoholism and the general indomitability of show folk, women and/or iconoclasts factor heavily into the plot.

Composer Jerome Kern had been casting about for something more challenging than the typically saccharine librettos that were usually thrown his way, and when he read Ferber's novel, a month or so after it was published, it provided exactly the kind of textured, serious yet inherently musical material for which he had been searching. Although Kern was one of the most respected composers in his field, Ferber blanched at his idea of turning her serious work into a musical comedy. But out of respect for Kern, she allowed him to proceed. He needed a librettist, so he called Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he had collaborated on Sunny, a Marilyn Miller vehicle, the season before. Hammerstein was also wearied by the uninspired operettas he was being asked to grind out, so he didn't think twice when Kern called him on the phone: "Would you like to do a show for Ziegfeld? It's got a million dollar title — Show Boat.

Kern and Hammerstein took their proposal to Florenz Ziegfeld, despite the fact that the producer had never staged more than five minutes of serious material in his storied career. Ziegfeld was the greatest showman of his time, but he was temperamentally ill-prepared for the care and time his writers would demand to adapt Ferber's sprawling narrative to the musical stage. The creators and the producer argued frequently about the timetable, and Hammerstein suspected early on that Ziegfeld had an ulterior motive: "I think that before we opened, he expected Show Boat to be a pretty big bore, and he thought all that story stuff would be cut out … and what would remain would be pretty costumes and scenery and the tunes and the girls and the comedian."

Hammerstein's task in dealing with the "story stuff" was unlike any challenge ever faced by a librettist and lyricist for the American theater up to that point. No musical had ever been adapted from a serious novel, none had had to deal with a multi-generational time span that brought a story from the past to the present, and certainly none had involved white characters and black characters sharing the same stage as full dramatic entities. Topicality was also a major priority for Hammerstein; still, his early drafts wrestled inelegantly with events set in the mid-1920s, including a cocktail party featuring a talented jazz pianist named George. Even if the last few scenes of Show Boat eluded Hammerstein's usual genius for dramatic construction, it must have been thrilling for his audience to watch a musical that began in the sepia-toned days of Reconstruction and traveled all the way up to the moment they entered the theater. 

All of Hammerstein's ministrations would have mattered little if Kern's score hadn't matched the librettist's dramaturgical ambitions. Hammerstein had to weave characters in and out, but Kern had to weave musical idioms and exploit his audience's knowledge of genres and fads in order to propel the narrative's complicated storytelling without falling into clumsy pastiche. African–American folk idioms mix with affectionate nods to operetta ("Make Believe"); comedy numbers ("Life Upon the Wicked Stage") frame Latin convent hymns; torch songs hold their own with upbeat ensemble numbers. Kern was even gutsy enough to interpolate other composers' songs, such as "After the Ball," just to set the proper mood of turn-of-the-century Chicago.

The inventive height of Kern and Hammerstein's collaboration comes as early as Show Boat's second scene. The most complex supporting character is the entertainer Julie LaVerne, a mulatto performing in the showboat and, by the laws of the South, illegally married to a white man. Her racial past is revealed not in dramatic exposition but when she sings the delightful "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" to the impressionable Magnolia. Halfway through the song, Queenie, the showboat's black cook, recognizes the tune. "Ah didn't ever hear anybody but colored folk sing dat song — sounds funny for Miss Julie to know it." Julie's defensive reaction — "What's so funny about that?" — tells the audience everything it needs to know and sets the stage for a dramatic showdown with an intractable sheriff two scenes later; her secret exposed, she is forced to leave the showboat and later winds up a wasted alcoholic version of her earlier buoyant self. 

Kern and Hammerstein reprised "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in Act II as a way of furthering the narrative between Julie and Magnolia, but the most impressive song in the show was written for a major character who doesn't even appear onstage. "The motive for writing 'Ol' Man River' was not even a song-writing motive," related Hammerstein later in his career. "It was my anxiety about the story itself…. I thought that we lacked something to make it cohesive…. I decided to write a river theme, which would hold the play together…. I put the song about the river into the voice, the throat of a character who is a rugged and untutored philosopher who hung around the wharves and the Show Boat. Possibly there's an implied protest…." Whether or not Joe, the black "rugged philosopher" who works on the Cotton Blossom, was implying a civil rights protest, the lyrics to "Ol' Man River" have supplied plenty of fodder for protest since the show first appeared.

As the curtain rises, the first lyric of the show is actually the second chorus of "Ol' Man River," sung by a group of black stevedores on a Natchez levee: "Niggers all work on de Mississippi." Over the years, in various productions and renditions, a tradition has emerged to make the lyric more palatable — led most notably by Paul Robeson, who appeared onstage as Joe three times, beginning in the 1928 London company. The opening lyric has been altered variously to "Darkies all" or "Colored folk" or even "Here we all." Hammerstein was one of the musical theater's most tolerant and liberal souls, but in using the word "nigger," he implicated his song, and by extension the show, in one of the most emotionally charged cultural arguments of the twentieth century. 

After several out-of-town stops, Show Boat finally docked in New York on December 27, 1927, at the stunning new Ziegfeld Theater. Although Ziegfeld felt, as late as opening night, that he had made a colossal blunder — "Now, I've really done it," he supposedly murmured to his secretary at the back of the house — Show Boat was an out-and-out sensation, running 572 performances, making it one of the most popular shows of its era. 

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Show Boat on screen in 1936, with Helen Morgan (Julie LaVerne), Hattie McDaniel (Queenie) and Irene
Dunne (Magnolia Hawks)

© Universal Pictures/Photofest 2012

The tradition of adding, subtracting, revising and interpolating material to Show Boat began pretty much the moment the curtain came down on opening night, because the work had never really been finished in the first place. During its out-of-town tryout, Show Boat had been clocking in at a prohibitive four hours; major surgery was required in Washington, including the excision of one of Kern's most challenging pieces, "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" — a Cassandra-like dirge sung by the black chorus in advance of the tragic revelation of Julie's secret. No one was surprised that Ziegfeld was eager to see this song go, but the dramatic texture of the show was diminished by the song's removal. 

It would take an entire variorum to detail the changes large and small, egregious and admirable, that were inflicted on Show Boat in its first five decades, which encompassed three film versions (including a silent version in 1929), two Broadway revivals (one produced by Ziegfeld in 1932, the other produced by Hammerstein and Kern in 1946) and innumerable productions in summer stock and festival settings. (Miles Kreuger's 1977 volume Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical provides just such a meticulous record of the musical's dramaturgical travails.) Not all the changes were invidious: the 1936 Universal film brought the charming duet "I Have the Room Above Her," and the 1946 Broadway revival introduced "Nobody Else But Me," which went on to become a popular standard. In fact, "Nobody Else But Me" was the last original song Jerome Kern wrote for the theater; Kern left a comfortable career in Hollywood in 1945 to collaborate with Hammerstein on the revival and suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage within a week of his return to New York. Hammerstein was left to handle most of the creative chores almost entirely on his own. The larger point is that, with Kern and Hammerstein's recurring involvement in various productions and films over two decades, Show Boat has become susceptible to more variant versions than any other show with a comparable reputation. Show Boat is the only classic musical in the American canon with its own viable Apocrypha.

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Stephen Douglass and Barbara Cook, Ravenal and Magnolia
in the 1966 Show Boat revival by the Music Theater of Lincoln
Center, recording the original cast album

© Photofest 2012

Changing times and evolving attitudes toward racial inequity affected Show Boat in the latter half of the twentieth century. Its essential elasticity made it a target for producers who wanted to revive it while giving the least possible offense to audiences. Perhaps the most anodyne of modern productions came at Music Theater of Lincoln Center in 1966; produced by Richard Rodgers, the revival featured the glorious Barbara Cook as Magnolia and the spritely David Wayne as Cap'n Andy. However, the opening chorus to "Ol' Man River" was cut entirely — removing any reference to any kind of "folks" who worked on the Mississippi — and other lyrics dealing with racial stereotypes were clumsily denatured. It's hard to imagine that Rodgers thought he was doing his old collaborator a favor by, well, whitewashing Hammerstein's revolutionary classic.

In the decades since the Lincoln Center revival, there had been a few attempts to restore the integrity of Kern and Hammerstein's original conception. A New York revival in 1983, from Houston Grand Opera, featured the first Julie on Broadway to be played by an African–American actress, Lonette McKee. But Show Boat's dramatic potential was exploded in 1988, not by a stage production but by a seminal archival recording produced by conductor John McGlinn as a three-CD set for EMI.

McGlinn, working in collaboration with Miles Kreuger, was acutely aware that, for decades, stage and film productions of Show Boat had applied a thick sugarcoated patina of sentimentality to the show. For the EMI recording, McGlinn's objective was to restore the original score, in its original order, and with the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, but even this seemingly irreproachable goal was not without its obstacles. McGlinn's enterprise was based at EMI's London studios on Abbey Road, and he was clever enough to engage the black chorus of a concurrent production of Porgy and Bess at Glyndebourne. However, when confronted with Hammerstein's original opening lyrics to "Ol' Man River," the chorus balked, as did Willard White, who had been contracted to record Joe, and they withdrew from the scheduled session. (They were quickly replaced by the Ambrosian Chorus, a reliable London-based choral group, and Bruce Hubbard stepped in for White.) "You do not educate people about bigotry by trying to pretend that bigotry never took place," McGlinn told a British reporter at the time. "People want to forget how blacks were treated in the South in the 1880s, and Show Boat for its time, in its small way, was as tough a look at that period as they felt they could do. I cringe when that word comes, and that's good, because that's why it's there, to make you cringe."

McGlinn's admirable attempts at racial reconciliation weren't nearly so profound as his 221-minute musicological contribution. "When John produced [the EMI recording], he put all the pieces of the puzzle out there," says Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, "and he implicitly invited a new generation of artists to put it together whatever way they wanted." In 1993, producer Garth Drabinsky bankrolled a full-blown, multi-million-dollar Show Boat for director Harold Prince as the opening attraction of Toronto's North York Performing Arts Center, and the EMI recording was thoroughly ransacked to provide a version of the text that hewed closer to Hammerstein and Kern's intentions than any since the original production. The complexity of the musical's black characters was expanded both in Prince's staging (Eugene Lee's set revealed two segregated water barrels — "Colored Only" and "White Only" — when the lights came up) and in the text, as "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" was satisfactorily reinstated and "Ol' Man River" was threaded poignantly through the production's peripatetic Act II.

Even though Prince kept the revised opening lyrics ("Colored folks" now worked on the Mississippi), the announcement of the production drew ire from residents of Toronto's local black community. Protests were planned, and the theater was picketed before Show Boat even opened; although the nature of the community's disapproval had largely to do with government funding of the North York Performing Arts Center (and, by implication, its support of Show Boat's racist language), the protest cast a shadow over the debut of this seriously conceived revival.

Those clouds had dispersed by the time Prince's production inevitably sailed into New York City in October of 1994, taking up residence at the Gershwin Theater for nearly 1,000 performances. In a sign of changing times, the production was met with a rave review from the New Amsterdam News, New York's leading African–American newspaper. The reviewer showered praise on Prince for his enlightened, tough-minded approach to race, but ironically, with the exception of the segregated water barrels (and the casting, once again, of Lonette McKee as Julie), every one of Prince's "innovations" cited by the reviewer had appeared in the original production back in 1927.

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A scene from Francesca Zambello's staging at London's Royal Albert Hall, 2006, with Angela Renée Simpson
as Queenie

© Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy 2012

Now, Lyric Opera of Chicago is the show place for the first major production of Show Boat to appear in America in the twenty-first century. This version is helmed by opera director Francesca Zambello, who previously lent her hand to a staged version at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2006 and a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2008. Over the past few years, Zambello's appreciation for the work has "only deepened," and she is committed to the creators' original intentions. "Edna Ferber's story took a revolutionary, clear-eyed look at the sprawling, messy society of the post-Emancipation years, the Industrial Revolution, and the conflicts between the North and South — issues still with us today," says Zambello, "and Jerome Kern wrapped it in joyous, heartbreaking songs that have become part of the fabric of our lives."

There's a neat felicity to Show Boat's port of call in Chicago, as most of Act II takes place there, and Kern and Hammerstein used the Windy City as a vortex for modernity, uncertainty and, in Julie's case, despair. 

Chicago, however, is not the final terminus in Show Boat's ongoing voyage — not in its stage history and not in its narrative, either. Hammerstein's libretto finishes where it began, with the Cotton Blossom docked on a levee in Natchez. The final scenes of the show set in 1927 always gave Hammerstein trouble, as he struggled to wrap up his sprawling narrative with a satisfactory conclusion. This may be why practically every stage and film version has ended the show differently. To Francesca Zambello, there's a sense of poetic and historical justice to the final scene: "There are people on that levee who had lived through the Civil War, as well as Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic." But the inconclusiveness of Show Boat's actual ending is a neat metaphor for Show Boat's turbulent stage history; there doesn't seem to be a real end in sight. The pronouncement on this seminal musical theater piece is as true as it is obvious: it just keeps rollin' along. spacer 

LAURENCE MASLON is associate chair of NYU's Graduate Acting Program. He is currently working on a history of original Broadway cast albums for Oxford University Press. 

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