April 17

Show Boat: An Ever-Changing Musical

By Thomas May

Even before its official Broadway opening, Show Boat was already being hailed as “a milestone in musical comedy production,” as a critic wrote during the Pittsburgh leg of the multi-city preview tour. The very first public performance had taken place on November 15, 1927 at the National Theatre (just two miles from the site of the future Kennedy Center).

That original version of the show ran between four and four-and-a-half hours. By the time Show Boat sailed into Manhattan, it had been subjected to considerable trimming, subbing in of new numbers, and additional tailoring. These kinds of tweaking are normal during the creation of any musical (and of many operas to boot), but Show Boat’s legacy includes an unusual amount of revisionism—to the point that, as critic Frank Rich remarks, “the show has never really had a fixed text.” Considerable reshuffling of individual songs and particular scenes occurred throughout later revivals supervised by the show’s creators as well as posthumously.

That process has continued up to the present day. For the most-admired of the Show Boats on film, for example— released in 1936—Kern and Hammerstein added three new songs. The very last song Kern was working on before his sudden death in 1945 was intended for a fresh revival of the show (“Nobody Else But Me”). The three-CD studio cast recording from 1988 on EMI includes all of the material written and later cut from Show Boat and presents the authentic original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett.

—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.

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