By Thomas May
On the night of December 27, 1927, the house was packed for the opening of Show Boat at the legendary Ziegfeld Theatre north of Times Square, an impressive art deco playhouse which itself had only recently opened (and which, sadly, was demolished in 1966). The stage, too, must have seemed to flood over during the ensembles: the chorus alone totaled 96 singers. Advance ticket sales had broken records as word circulated that this show would offer something remarkably different from the usual song and dance spectacles.
But as the curtain descended, “a silent shock gripped the audience,” writes Oscar Andrew Hammerstein (grandson of the man responsible for Show Boat’s book and lyrics) in a recent biography of one of the most illustrious families in American theater history. A momentary panic seized the show’s creators until, after a nerve-wracking pause, “the audience found its voice and a sustained ovation beat against the curtain.”
Composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) shared an ambitious vision for what they wanted to accomplish in Show Boat. Hammerstein later recalled that when Kern first turned him on to the idea of adapting the far-ranging novel of the same name recently published by Edna Ferber (1885-1968), each set about drafting an independent scenario: the treatments both came up with proved to be astonishingly similar.
The story’s framework, spanning four decades, clearly offered enticing possibilities to create an authentically American stage epic. And the phenomenon of the floating theaters known as show boats—already a fading tradition by the 1920s—provided an irresistible metaphorical vehicle. Entertainment itself could be used to reflect on our fluid, ever-changing cultural landscape. Meanwhile, the multiple story lines involving five different couples suggested something beyond the melodramatic contrivances of the actual subplots: through these Kern and Hammerstein could trace not just the optimism but the reality of the American dream—including its disappointments.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1925 for So Big, the Michigan-born Ferber was both a critical success at the time and a bestseller. A good indication of what the Broadway musical pre-Show Boat entailed can be seen in her immediate refusal to grant rights when the idea of adapting her novel was initially proposed. Ferber had every reason to fear that her story would be trivialized into a peppy, feel-good string of tunes and dance numbers featuring over-the-top costumes and pretty chorines—at least based on the prevailing Broadway model.
A wide gulf separated the escapist fun of the typical musical comedy from the thought-provoking spoken drama being pioneered by a new generation of playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill. Plays like O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and The Great God Brown had paved the way for a serious homegrown American theater movement in recent seasons. The lyric stage, though, was still dominated either by fantasies riffing on the Cinderella archetype (e.g., the operetta The Wildflower, an earlier Hammerstein collaboration) or by revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, which dressed up the vaudeville tradition with spectacular visuals.
Kern and Hammerstein honed their craft working on variants of these musical fashions before their own first collaboration in 1925 with the circus-themed Sunny. And in the process they had already been experimenting with ways to integrate songs into a show in a more organic way. Kern, who was Hammerstein’s senior by a decade, in particular had learned much from a string of scores he wrote in the late teens for the 299-seat Princess Theatre near the old Metropolitan Opera on 39th Street.
The intimacy of the Princess stage precluded big extravaganzas, encouraging experiments with a more sophisticated integration of song and plot instead. Julie’s song “Bill” in the second act of Show Boat in fact originates from this period, when Kern collaborated with P.G. Wodehouse, author of “Bill”’s lyrics. Its tragic tone was deemed unsuitable for an earlier musical, but in its new context (and as adapted by Hammerstein) “Bill” movingly portrays the emotional pain Julie has endured since the breakup of her marriage.
So it’s not surprising that Kern was able to talk Ferber out of her initial refusal to grant rights. Her novel, ironically, hasn’t stood the test of time—much of it feels awkwardly dated, to put it mildly—while Show Boat the musical is more than an enduring classic in its own right but a game-changer: it revealed an entirely new perspective on what the American musical could encompass. Even more, aspects of Show Boat’s influence can be felt in another epic effort of the American musical stage, George Gershwin’s one-of-a-kind “folk opera” Porgy and Bess (which premiered in 1935, though Gershwin initially hit on the idea as early as 1926).
In part because the Great Depression arrived so soon after it was first introduced, a delay intervened before Show Boat could exert its full effect. Escapism again became the desired antidote in the 1930s, with radio taking the place of unaffordable theater tickets. The new potential unveiled by Show Boat went largely untapped until Hammerstein began collaborating with Richard Rodgers in Oklahoma! (1943) and, even further, until West Side Story (1957) presented an unflinchingly tragic musical of social conflict. Frank Rich even sees Show Boat as a harbinger of “the modern Broadway ‘concept’ musical” with its double-edged metaphor of the Mississippi River as time itself, “which both opens and heals the characters’ wounds.” (Another Ferber novel provided the grist for the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical Saratoga in 1959, which, despite a Tony for costume design, has ended up becoming little more than a footnote.)
By today, of course, Show Boat’s innovations are all too easy to take for granted—all the more so since so many of its songs have in the meantime become detached from the show as independent standards with “afterlives” of their own. But the opportunity to experience a full-scale production that recognizes the theatrical and musical abundance of its creators’ vision brings home the magnificent cumulative effect of each number. These songs serve on one level as vivid character portraits that form an evocative counterpoint with each other: “Make Believe,” for example, plays Ravenal’s seductive but unreliable charm off the stoic realism Joe expresses in “Ol’ Man River.”
On another level, the score shrewdly conveys the story’s panoramic passage of time—and the larger perspective of American identity—by presenting a kind of montage of changing styles. Nostalgic Stephen Foster parlor songs, ballyhoos, passionate operetta, melodrama, burlesque, torch song, blues, ragtime, spirituals—all these and more are heard but also shaped by Kern’s overriding artistry in a way that transcends mere eclecticism. The New York Times obituary of the composer in 1945 noted that Kern modestly referred to himself as a “musical clothier” who wrote music “to both the situations and the lyrics in plays” rather than to score a hit.
Along with its organic integration of song, story, and character, Show Boat was innovative for its content, confronting the very real problems of American racism and the failure of romantic illusions. The impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, the hugely successful architect of the light-hearted entertainment (including his Ziegfeld Follies) that Show Boat would challenge, himself recognized the significance of this material and eagerly stepped in to provide the needed backing as producer: “This is the best musical comedy I have been fortunate enough to get a hold of…the opportunity of my life,” he wrote Kern. At the same time, Ziegfeld insisted on compromises, such as removing Queenie’s “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” as too gloomy, even though it figured prominently in Kern’s original score.
From an entirely different perspective, some modern-day critics have vehemently objected to Show Boat as exploitative, a work that even preserves and codifies racist attitudes. Yet a closer look at what actually happens—and the music which expresses it—shows the creators’ compassion for the injustice suffered by African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction Deep South: a compassion as genuine as that for Magnolia enduring the alienation of modern city life. Theater critic John Lahr notes that “the black experience, in both its triumph and its tragedy, is at the heart of the show’s perception of America.”
In this company debut production of Show Boat, Washington National Opera pays tribute to a masterpiece that called generic distinctions into question and forever redefined the scope of musical theater—and that remains deeply relevant and involving on its own terms. As Lahr aptly writes, Show Boat, “like all democratic experiments,” has been “constantly revising itself.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.