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Show Boat
Show Boat.jpg
Original 1927 Sheet Music for Ol' Man River, from Show Boat
Music Jerome Kern
Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II
Book Oscar Hammerstein II
Basis Edna Ferber's 1926
novel Show Boat
Productions 1927 Broadway
1929 Film
1932 Broadway revival
1936 Film
1946 Broadway revival
1951 Film
1983 Broadway revival
1994 Broadway revival
Awards Tony Award for Best Revival
Olivier Award for Best Revival

Show Boat is a musical in two acts with music by Jerome Kern and book (based on a novel by Edna Ferber) and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. although the song Bill, originally written by Kern and P. G. Wodehouse in 1917, was reworked by Hammerstein for Show Boat. Two other songs not by Kern and Hammerstein — "Goodbye, My Lady Love" by Joseph Howard and "After the Ball" by Charles K. Harris — have always been integral to the show. The plot chronicles the lives of those living and working on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, from 1880 to 1927. The show's dominant themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love.

Show Boat is widely considered one of the most influential works of the American musical theatre. As the first true American "musical play", it marked a significant departure from operettas, light musical comedies of the 1890s and early 20th century and the "Follies"-type musical revues that had defined Broadway. According to The Complete Book of Light Opera, "Here we come to a completely new genre – the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy. Now... the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. Now... came complete integration of song, humor and production numbers into a single and inextricable artistic entity."[1]

The quality of the musical was recognized immediately by the critics, and Show Boat is still frequently revived, not only because of its songs, but also because its libretto is considered to be exceptionally good for a musical of its era. The musical has won both the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical (1995) and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival (2008). Awards for Broadway shows did not exist in 1927 when the original production of the show premiered.



Show Boat is based on a best-selling 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. Ferber spent several weeks on the James Adams Floating Palace Theater in Bath, North Carolina, gathering information for the novel about a disappearing American phenomenon: the showboat. In a few weeks, she gained what she called a "treasure trove of show-boat material, human, touching, true." Jerome Kern was impressed by the novel and, hoping to musicalize it, asked critic Alexander Woollcott to introduce him to Ferber in October 1926. Woollcott introduced him to Ferber that same evening during the intermission of Kern's latest musical, Criss Cross. [2] Ferber granted Kern and his collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II, the rights to musicalize her novel, and the collaborators, after composing most of the first act songs, auditioned their material for producer Florenz Ziegfeld, sensing that only Ziegfeld could create the elaborate production necessary for Ferber's sprawling work. [3] Ziegfeld was impressed with the show and agreed to produce it, writing in a letter the day after, "This is the best musical comedy I have ever been fortunate to get a hold of; I am thrilled to produce it, this show is the opportunity of my life..."[3]Show Boat, with its serious and dramatic nature, was considered an unusual choice for Ziegfeld, previously known mainly for revues such as the Follies.

Though Ziegfeld anticipated opening his new theatre on Sixth Avenue with Show Boat, the epic nature of the work required an unusually long gestation period and extensive changes during out-of-town tryouts. Ziegfeld, impatient with Kern and Hammerstein and troubled by the serious tone they insisted on preserving, decided to open the theatre in April 1927 with Rio Rita, an operetta. When Rio Rita proved to be a success, Show Boat's premiere was delayed until Rio Rita closed. [4]

Plot synopsis

Note: There is no definitive version of the libretto of Show Boat; minor revisions have been made by the creators and subsequent producers and directors over the years.

In 1887, the show boat Cotton Blossom arrives at the river dock in Natchez, Mississippi. Cap'n Andy Hawks, owner of the showboat, introduces all of his actors to the excited crowd on the levee. A fist fight breaks out between Steve Baker, the leading man of the troupe, and Pete, a rough, coarse engineer who had been making passes at Steve's wife, Julie La Verne, the company's leading lady. Steve knocks Pete down, and Pete swears revenge, apparently knowing some dark secret about Julie. Cap'n Andy pretends to the shocked crowd that the fight was a preview of a scene from one of the melodramas performed on the boat. The troupe exits with the showboat band.

A handsome riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, appears on the levee and is taken with eighteen-year-old Magnolia ("Nolie") Hawks, an aspiring performer and the daughter of Cap'n Andy and his wife Parthy Ann. Magnolia is likewise smitten with Ravenal ("Make Believe"). She seeks advice from Joe, one of the workers aboard the boat. He replies that there are "lots like [Ravenal] on the river" and, as Magnolia excitedly goes inside the boat to tell her friend Julie about the handsome stranger, Joe mutters that she ought to ask the river for advice. Joe and the other dock workers reflect on the wisdom of "Ol' Man River".

Magnolia finds Julie inside and joyously announces that she's in love. Julie cautions her that this stranger could be just a "no-account river fellow". Magnolia innocently retorts that if she found out he was "no-account", she'd stop loving him. Julie warns her that it's not that easy to stop loving someone, explaining that she'll always love Steve ("Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man"). Queenie walks in and suspiciously asks why Julie knows that song; Queenie says she has only heard "colored folks" sing that song. Magnolia declares that Julie sings it all the time, and when Queenie asks her if she can sing the entire song, Julie defensively obliges.

During the rehearsal for that evening's show, Julie and Steve find out that the town sheriff is coming to arrest them. To the shock of all except Julie, Steve takes out a large pocket knife and makes a cut on the back of her hand, sucking the blood and swallowing it. Pete returns with the sheriff, who insists that the show not go on, because Julie is a mulatto woman married to a white man, and local laws prohibit miscegenation. Julie admits that she is a mulatto. Steve, because he swallowed Julie's blood (and therefore has at least "one drop of black blood" in him), is able to claim that he too is mulatto. The sympathetic troupe backs him up, boosted by ship's pilot Windy McClain, a longtime friend of the sheriff. The sheriff lets Julie and Steve go, but they prepare to leave town anyway. Cap'n Andy fires Pete. Gaylord Ravenal returns and asks for passage on the boat; his gambling has cost him the boat ticket he planned to use to leave town. Noticing Ravenal's good looks, Andy hires him as the new leading man, and suggests, over Parthy's objections, that Magnolia be the new leading lady. Julie bids a tearful goodbye to Magnolia and leaves with Steve.

Weeks later, Magnolia and Gaylord are an enormous hit with the crowds and have fallen deeply in love. Gaylord proposes to Magnolia, and she accepts. The two are married while Parthy is out of town: she disapproves of Gaylord.

Years pass; it is now 1893. Gaylord and Magnolia have moved to Chicago and are now living off the money that Ravenal makes gambling. By 1903, they have a daughter, Kim, and after years of alternately being rich and poor, depending on Gaylord's winnings, they are completely broke and reduced to renting a room in a cheap boarding house. Depressed and shamed by his inability to support his family, Gaylord leaves Magnolia. Frank and Ellie, two actors on the boat, choose this time to visit. These old friends seek a singing job for Magnolia at the Trocadero, the club where they are doing a New Year's show. Julie, abandoned by Steve and now a drunken cabaret singer at the Trocadero, hears Magnolia singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" for her audition, the song Julie taught her years ago. Julie secretly abandons her position so that Magnolia can fill it, and Magnolia never learns of her sacrifice.

On New Year's Eve, Andy, in Chicago with Parthy for a surprise visit, ends up at the Trocadero while celebrating without her. He is unaware of Magnolia's presence, only to discover her choked with emotion and nearly being booed off stage. Andy rallies the crowd to her defense by standing up and initiating a grand sing-along of the old song "After the Ball". Magnolia becomes a great musical star.

More than 20 years pass; it is now 1927. Magnolia has become an international star of the stage and radio. Cap'n Andy has a chance meeting with Ravenal, and, knowing that Magnolia is retiring from the stage and returning to the Cotton Blossom with Kim, who has by now become a Broadway star herself, Andy arranges for a reunion. Although Ravenal is uncertain whether he has the right to ask Magnolia to take him back, she does. As the happy couple walks up the boat's gangplank, Joe and everyone sing "Ol' Man River".

Note: The 1951 MGM film changed many aspects of the story. A major change brings Ravenal and Magnolia back together only a few years after they separated, rather than twenty-three years afterward: Gaylord has a chance meeting with Julie, and learns that he has a daughter whom he didn't know about. Gaylord returns, finding Kim playing, and when talking to her, she mentions a game "make believe" that she knows (Kim is seen only as a cute child in this film). Magnolia sees them and takes him back, and the family returns to the showboat. Joe and the chorus start singing "Ol' Man River" as the scenes unfold, then the paddlewheel starts turning in tempo with the music, heading down river. Julie is shown, viewing the scene from a distance: aware that he would return to the showboat, Julie has followed him and watched the events, but only from the shadows.

Musical numbers

The original production ran four-and-a-half hours during tryouts, but was trimmed to just over three by the time it actually got to Broadway. The show is generally cut in modern productions, although productions still run to nearly three hours. Two songs, "Till Good Luck Comes My Way" (sung by Ravenal) and "Hey Feller!" (sung by Queenie) were written mainly to cover scenery changes and were discarded beginning with the 1946 revival, although "Till Good Luck" was included in the 1993 Harold Prince revival of the show. The comedy song "I Might Fall Back On You" was also cut beginning in 1946, although it was retained in a different scene in the 1951 film version. Several productions over the last twenty-five years or so have also reinstated it. "Hey Feller!" appears only on the 1988 EMI album. Two new songs were written by Kern and Hammerstein for other stage productions of the show, and three more were written by them for the 1936 film version. The song Bill was originally written by Kern and author-lyricist P. G. Wodehouse in 1917 but reworked by Hammerstein for Show Boat. Two other songs not by Kern and Hammerstein — "Goodbye, My Lady Love" by Joseph Howard and "After the Ball" by Charles K. Harris were also interpolated into the show. While "After the Ball" is always used in stage productions of Show Boat, "Goodbye My Lady Love" is only used in American productions. British productions of Show Boat substitute Kern's "How'd You Like To Spoon With Me".

Typically, productions choose from the original production material, songs added to the two film versions, and material cut during original tryouts and fashion a distinct version of Show Boat. Songs found in modern productions often include the following:

  • Overture — The original overture, used in all stage productions up to 1946 (and heard on the three-disc EMI/Angel CD for the first time in nearly 50 years), is dramatic and largely based on the deleted song "Mis'ry's Comin' Round". (Kern wanted to save this song in some form.) The song was restored in the Harold Prince revival of the show. The overture also contains fragments of "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", and, towards the end, there is a lively, rather than slow, rendition of "Why Do I Love You?". The overture for the 1946 revival is a standard medley consisting of "Mis'ry's Comin' Round", "Ol' Man River", "Why Do I Love You?", "Make Believe," and Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man". Still another overture was arranged for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival, consisting of a medley of all these songs, but adding the comic number "I Might Fall Back on You", which is otherwise never included in the overture. All three overtures were arranged by Robert Russell Bennett.
  • "Cotton Blossom" — The notes in the phrase "Cotton Blossom, Cotton Blossom" are the same notes as those in the phrase "Ol' Man River, dat Ol' Man River," but inverted. However, "Cotton Blossom" was written first, and "Ol' Man River" was written only after Kern and Hammerstein realized they needed a song to end the first scene in the show. Hammerstein decided to use the idea of the Mississippi River as a basis for the song, and told Kern to use the melody that the stevedores sang in "Cotton Blossom", but invert some of it, and slow down the tempo. This adaptation gave "Ol' Man River" a somewhat tragic quality.
  • "Where's the Mate for Me?"
  • "Make Believe" -- sung by Magnolia and Gaylord at first meeting
  • "Ol' Man River" – Originally written for Paul Robeson, a well-known singer and actor of the time, though he did not take on the role until a 1928 London run. He returned to the role for the 1932 stage revival and the 1936 film. There is an introductory verse, and then the song's main section follows a conventional Tin Pan Alley AABA structure. However, there is a long middle section after the verse Ah gits weary,/An' sick o' tryin, etc, after which the song returns to a complete repeat of the main section. Outside of the show, it is usually not sung literally complete, because of both a racially sensitive section and its five-minute length – except in the 1929 and 1936 film versions. The song depicts the tough lives of black river workers against the silent, steady flow of the river. Its tone is tragic yet resigned.[5]
  • "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" — Queenie's surprise at the apparently white Julie's knowledge of a "black folks'" song foreshadows the discovery of Julie's mixed origins. Another song almost never sung literally complete outside the show because it would then have to be sung by several singers, as it is in the stage production and the 1929 and 1936 film versions. The section nearly always omitted outside the show involves a racially sensitive lyric which was rewritten for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival.
  • "Life Upon the Wicked Stage"
  • "Till Good Luck Comes My Way" (heard only as instrumental background in the 1936 film version as Ravenal introduces himself to Cap'n Andy. Never sung in any film version of the show. Cut by Kern and Hammerstein themselves for the 1946 stage revival, and not reinstated until the 1971 London stage revival.)
  • "Mis'ry's Comin' Round" – Though this lament for the black chorus was cut from the original production, Kern ensured it was published in the complete vocal score. [2] The compilers of the 1988 album thus reinstated it in its original place, and it was also included in the 1994 Hal Prince revival.
  • "I Might Fall Back on You"
  • "Queenie's Ballyhoo"
  • "Olio Dance" – almost never performed now, since it was composed simply to cover a change of scenery, which, from 1927 to 1946, took a certain amount of time. It is an orchestral piece which partially uses the melody of "I Might Fall Back on You", and can be heard on the EMI 3-CD album of "Show Boat" (as Villain Dance). It was not used in the 1989 PBS Paper Mill Playhouse production, and the 1936 film version of the show substituted the new Kern-Hammerstein number "Gallivantin' Around", performed as an olio by Irene Dunne (as Magnolia) in blackface. Some modern productions of Show Boat move the song "I Might Fall Back on You" to this spot.
  • "You Are Love" - a song sung in waltz tempo that nearly all critics and audiences are fond of, but considered by Jerome Kern to be the score's worst: he tried unsuccessfully to eliminate it from the 1936 film version. It has never been cut from any stage production, and like "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", almost never performed complete outside the show – this perhaps because its introductory section is too closely integrated with the show's plot to be appreciated out of context (although it was trimmed to only one refrain – with no introductory verse – in both the 1936 and the 1951 film versions).
  • "Act I Finale"
  • "At the Chicago World's Fair" — the Act II opening chorus, sometimes eliminated and never sung in a film version of the show (it was played instrumentally in the 1936 version).
  • "Why Do I Love You?"
  • "Bill" — lyrics co-written by Hammerstein and P. G. Wodehouse
  • "Goodbye, My Lady Love" by Joseph Howard, a song interpolated into the show and sung by Frank and Ellie in the nightclub scene. It was not used in the 1951 film version, however; the film moved "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" to this spot.
  • "After the Ball" — a song (waltz) by Charles K. Harris from 1892. Always used in stage productions of Show Boat, and used in the 1936 and 1951 film versions, but not in the 1929 one.

The instrumentation for the show, according to the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, is one flute (doubling as piccolo), one oboe (doubling as cor anglais), two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, one trombone, percussion, one guitar, one banjo, an on-stage piano, and strings.

Production history

Original 1927 Production

Before the Broadway premiere of Show Boat, from November 15, 1927, until December 19, Ziegfeld produced tryouts at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Nixon Theatre in Pittsburgh, the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, and thrice at the Erlanger Theatre in Philadelphia.[6][7]

The show opened on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York on December 27, 1927, where it ran for a year and a half – 572 performances. The original cast included Norma Terris as Magnolia Hawks and her daughter Kim (as an adult), Howard Marsh as Gaylord Ravenal, Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne, Jules Bledsoe as Joe, Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy Hawks, Edna May Oliver as Parthy Ann Hawks, Sammy White as Frank Schultz, Eva Puck as Ellie May Chipley, and Tess Gardella as Queenie. The orchestrator was Robert Russell Bennett, and the conductor was Victor Baravalle. The scenic design for the original production was by Joseph Urban, who had worked with Ziegfeld for many years in his Follies and had designed the elaborate new Ziegfeld Theatre itself. Critics were immediately enthusiastic.[8]

The role of Joe, the stevedore who sings "Ol' Man River", was specifically written for Paul Robeson (although Joe does appear in Ferber's novel, where he is a cook instead of a stevedore). Robeson, however, eventually had to back out of the Broadway run because the show was posponed until Rio Rita closed. Hence Jules Bledsoe played Joe on Broadway, although Robeson finally played the role (a part for which he became world-famous) in four notable productions of the show: the 1928 London production (with Alberta Hunter as Queenie and Mabel Mercer in the black chorus), the 1932 New York revival, the 1936 film version, and a 1940 stage revival in Los Angeles.

American Revivals

After its closing in 1929, the show was revived on Broadway in 1932 at the Casino Theatre, in 1946 (a return to the Ziegfeld Theatre), in 1983 at the Uris Theatre (presented by Douglas Urbanski), and in 1994 at the same theatre[9] Other American productions include one in 1966 at the New York State Theater in the Lincoln Center, two (1954 and 1961) at the New York City Center, and the 1983 Washington, DC, Kennedy Center production, which starred Mickey Rooney as Cap'n Andy.

The 1994 Livent Inc. production was produced and directed by Harold Prince and opened in Toronto, Ontario, in 1993, and on Broadway in October 1994. This production later went on tour, playing at the Kennedy Center, also being put on in London and Melbourne, Australia. Prince's production revitalized interest in the show by tightening the book, dropping and adding songs that had been cut in various productions, and highlighting the racial elements of the show. Perhaps the most notable change in the score was Prince's transforming "Why Do I Love You?" from a duet between Magnolia and Ravenal to a lullaby sung by Parthy Ann to Magnolia's baby girl. This change was designed partly to allow a song to be sung by stage actress Elaine Stritch. The revival featured a love duet for the couple, I Have the Room Above Her, originally written by Kern and Hammerstein for the 1936 film version, in which it was sung by Allan Jones and Irene Dunne. If Why Do I Love You had been sung by Magnolia and Ravenal in the revival as well, it would have brought the total of their love duets to four, rather than the usual three.

London Productions

Show Boat has been seen on multiple occasions in London's West End. These presentations include a May 1928 production at the Drury Lane Theatre, a July 1971 production at the Adelphi Theatre, which ran for 909 performances,[7][10] and a 1998 production at the Prince Edward Theatre. Other notable revivals in England have been the joint Opera North/Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1989[6] and the June 2006 production directed by Francesca Zambello, conducted by David Charles Abell and presented by Raymond Gubbay at London's Royal Albert Hall – the first fully staged musical production in the history of that venue.

Mabel Mercer, later famed as a cabaret singer, was in the chorus of the 1928 production.


Show Boat has been adapted for film several times. (See separate articles.)

  • 1929 Show Boat. Universal. Released in silent and partial sound versions. Not really a film version of the musical; its plot owes more to the original Edna Ferber novel on which the show is based.
  • 1936 Show Boat. Universal. Directed by James Whale. A very faithful film version of the show, considered by many critics to be one of the great film musicals.
  • 1946 Till the Clouds Roll By. MGM. Not really a film version of the musical, but rather a biopic of its composer, Jerome Kern. A lavish fifteen-minute medley of songs from Show Boat, performed in full costume on a stage set, opens the film. This is a supposed re-creation of the show's opening night in 1927, with Kern himself (played by Robert Walker) in attendance.
  • 1951 Show Boat. MGM. Somewhat revised Technicolor film version. Follows the basic storyline and contains many songs from the show, but at the same time completely alters a significant element in the plot, switches the order of three of the songs, and makes many drastic changes in tiny details - details which are important to the storyline and which were followed faithfully in the 1936 version.


  • 1989 A live performance by the Paper Mill Playhouse was videotaped for television and shown on Great Performances. At a length of nearly three hours, this version ran longer than any of the films.

Radio productions

During the days of live radio, Show Boat was presented in that medium at least six times. There were four especially notable productions.

  • One was presented and directed by Orson Welles, on his radio show Campbell Playhouse in 1939. This was a non-musical version of the story that, like the 1929 film, was based more closely on Edna Ferber's novel than on the musical. However, Helen Morgan, who had played the role of Julie in the musical, played her again in this version, although the one song she sang on the broadcast was not from the musical. Orson Welles portrayed Cap'n Andy, Margaret Sullavan was Magnolia, and author Edna Ferber made her acting debut as Parthy. The presentation was exceptionally faithful to Ferber's novel, except for one change. Because interracial marriages were controversial as a radio subject, the character of Julie was changed from a mulatto married to a white man to merely an unmarried mulatto, whose mere presence on the boat is controversial despite her being single. Her ultimate fate as a prostitute and her accidental encounter with Magnolia—both are elements of Ferber's novel—were also left unmentioned.
  • Another radio version, based on the stage musical, was presented on Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater in June of 1940. It featured Irene Dunne , Allan Jones, and Charles Winninger, all of whom were in the 1936 film version. However, neither Helen Morgan nor Paul Robeson appeared on the program. This production, like the 1929 film, also suffered from censorship, catering to the fears of radio and film producers of that era by completely omitting the subject of miscegenation. As in the show, the town sheriff does show up to arrest Julie (played by a non-singing Gloria Holden), but instead of being a woman of mixed blood who is illegally married to a white man, Julie in this production becomes an illegal alien who had served jail time and must now be deported! The song "Bill" is totally eliminated, and it is Magnolia, not Julie, who sings "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man". Only a fragment of the song "Ol' Man River" is used, even though Paul Robeson had appeared in the 1936 film and had sung the song in its entirety there. (The show's one-hour format and its time reserved for Lux commercials explains the cuts.)
  • Another radio version, condensed to a half-hour, was similarly squeamish about the racial issues central to the original story. Broadcast in 1950 on "The Railroad Hour," it starred Gordon MacRae, Dorothy Kirsten, and Lucille Norman. The miscegenation is not referred to at all; it is simply mentioned on the show that Julie and her husband have left the boat. MacRae not only plays the role of gambler Gaylord Ravenal but sings Joe's song, "Ol' Man River".

Three of these four radio versions omitted the characters of Joe and his wife, Queenie. Two other radio versions were broadcast in 1940 and 1944. The first was a half-hour long version presented on The Cavalcade of America, sponsored by DuPont, on the evening of May 28, 1940. Agnes Moorehead, John McIntire, Jeanette Nolan and the Ken Christy Chorus were among the cast. The second featured Kathryn Grayson, who played Magnolia for the first time.[7] Starring opposite her was Allan Jones, who had played Ravenal in the 1936 film. Helen Forrest co-starred as Julie, Charles Winninger was again Cap'n Andy, Elvia Allman (the voice of Clarabelle Cow) was Parthy, and African-American film actor Ernest Whitman (who had appeared in the 1944 biographical film The Adventures of Mark Twain as a ship's stoker) was Joe.

Racism and Controversy


Show Boat boldly portrayed racial issues, and was the first racially integrated musical, in that both black and white performers appeared on stage together.[11] Ziegfeld’s Follies allowed single African American performers like Bert Williams, but would never have had an African-American woman in the chorus. However, Show Boat had two choruses — a black chorus and a white chorus, and it has been perceived that "Hammerstein uses the African-American chorus as essentially a Greek chorus, providing clear commentary on the proceedings, whereas the white choruses sing of the not-quite-real."[12]

Show Boat was also the first musical to depict an interracial marriage, as in Edna Ferber's original novel, and to feature a character of mixed blood who was "passing" for white. The musical comedy Whoopee!, starring Eddie Cantor, supposedly had also depicted an interracial romance – this one being between a Native American man and a white woman. Whoopee!, however, took the easy (and some would say offensive) way out by having the Native American character turn out to be white after all. Show Boat looked at the situation unflinchingly, and even had its mixed race character, Julie eventually become an alcoholic in response to her difficult life.

Language and Stereotypes

The show has also come under much attack, primarily because of the use of the word nigger in the lyrics in the first scene, in addition to the historical portrayal of blacks serving as passive laborers and servants. The show opened with the black chorus trudging onstage and singing:

Niggers all work on the Mississippi.
Niggers all work while the white folks play —
Loadin' up boats wid de bales of cotton,
Gittin' no rest till de Judgement Day.[13]

In subsequent productions, "nigger" has been changed to "colored folk," to "darkies" and in one choice, "Here we all," as in "Here we all work on the Mississippi. Here we all work while the white folk play." In the 1966 Lincoln Center production of the show, produced during the height of the Civil Rights struggle, this section of the opening chorus was completely omitted rather than simply having the lyric changed. The 1988 CD for EMI restored the original lyric, while the Harold Prince revival chose "colored folk".

Despite these objections, however, others believe that the song was written by Kern and Hammerstein to give a sympathetic voice to an oppressed people through the ironic use of a word often used derogatorily against them and that the word was used to dramatically alert the audience to the realities of racism:

'Show Boat begins with the singing of that most reprehensible word – nigger – yet this is no coon song... [it] immediately establishes race as one of the central themes of the play. This is a protest song, more ironic than angry perhaps, but a protest nonetheless. In the singers' hands, the word nigger has a sardonic tone... in the very opening, Hammerstein has established the gulf between the races, the privilege accorded the white folks and denied the black, and a flavor of the contempt built into the very language that whites used about African-Americans. This is a very effective scene.... These are not caricature roles; they are wise, if uneducated, people capable of seeing and feeling more than some of the white folk around them.[12]

The racial situations in the play provoke thoughts of how hard it must have been to be black in the South. In the dialogue, some of the blacks are called "niggers" by the white characters in the story. (Contrary to what is sometimes thought, black slavery is not depicted in the play; slavery was abolished in 1863 and the story runs from the 1880s to the late 1920s.) At first, it is shocking to believe they are allowed to use a word that negative at all in a play... But in the context in which it is used, it is appropriate due to the impact it makes. It reinforces how much of a derogatory term "nigger" was then and still is today.[14]

Those who consider Show Boat racially insensitive also often note that the dialogue and lyrics of the black characters (especially the stevedore Joe and his wife Queenie) and choruses use various forms of African American Vernacular English. An example of this is shown in the following text:

Where yo' think you're goin'?
Don't yo' know dis show is startin' soon?
Jes' a few seats left yere!
It's light inside an' outside dere's no moon
What fo' you gals dressed up dicty?
Where's yo' all gwine?
Tell dose stingy men o' yourn
To step up here in line! [13]

Whether such language is not an accurate reflection of the vernacular of blacks in Mississippi at the time, the overall effect of its usage perpetuated a potentially harmful racial stereotype.[citation needed] The character Queenie (who sings the above verses) was in the original production played not by an African-American but rather by the Italian-American actress Tess Gardella in blackface (Gardella was perhaps best known for portraying Aunt Jemima in blackface).[15] Attempts by non-black writers to imitate black language stereotypically in songs like "Ol' Man River" was alleged to be offensive, a claim that was repeated eight years later by evaluators of Porgy and Bess.[citation needed] However, even these critics admit that the intentions of Hammerstein were noble, since "'Ol' Man River' was the song in which he first found his lyrical voice, compressing the suffering, resignation, and anger of an entire race into 24 taut lines and doing it so naturally that it's no wonder folks assume the song's a Negro spiritual".[16]

The theatre critics and veterans Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright believe that Show Boat was revolutionary, not only because it was a radical departure from the previous style of plotless revues, but because it was a show written by non-blacks that portrayed blacks sympathetically rather than condescendingly:

Instead of a line of chorus girls showing their legs in the opening number singing that they were happy, happy, happy, the curtain rose on black dock-hands lifting bales of cotton, and singing about the hardness of their lives. Here was a musical that showed poverty, suffering, bitterness, racial prejudice, a sexual relationship between black and white, a love story which ended unhappily — and of course show business. In "Ol' Man River" the black race was given an anthem to honor its misery that had the authority of an authentic spiritual.[17]

Revisions and cancellations

Since the musical's 1927 premiere, Show Boat has both been condemned as a prejudiced show based on racial caricatures and championed as a breakthrough work that opened the door for public discourse in the arts about racism in America. Some productions (including one planned for June 2002 in Connecticut) have been cancelled because of objections.[18]

Such cancellations have been criticised by supporters of the arts. After planned performances by an opera company in Middlesbrough, England were "stopped because [they] would be 'distasteful' to ethnic minorities", a local newspaper declared that the actions were "surely taking political correctness too far".[19] A British theatre writer was concerned that "the kind of censorship we've been talking about — for censorship it is — actually militates against a truly integrated society, for it emphasises differences. It puts a wall around groups within society, dividing people by creating metaphorical ghettos, and prevents mutual understanding."[19]

As attitudes toward race relations have changed, producers and directors have altered some content in an attempt to make the musical more "politically correct": "Show Boat, more than many musicals, was subject to cuts and revisions within a handful of years after its first performance, all of which altered the dramatic balance of the play". [12]

1993 Revival

The 1993 Hal Prince revival, originating in Toronto, brought racial matters into focus. Throughout the production African-Americans constantly cleaned up the mess, moved the sets (even when hydraulics actually moved them), with their presence constantly commenting on the racial disparities.[20] After a New Year's Eve ball, all the streamers fell on the floor and we saw African Americans busy sweeping them away. A montage in the second act showed time passing with the revolving door of the Palmer House in Chicago, and headlines going by in quick motion and then little snippets of slow motion to highlight a specific moment. African American dancers portrayed street dancers doing a dance and then time would pass and the fashionable white dancers had taken the dance.

During the production's stay in Toronto, many black community leaders and their supporters launched a massive opposition to the show, often mobilizing "black hecklers shouting insults and waving placards reading SHOW BOAT SPREADS LIES AND HATE and SHOW BOAT = CULTURAL GENOCIDE" in front of the theatre.[21] Some sympathetic to the cause of those against the production also thought that it was ironic that a supposedly anti-black show was receiving attention and support while the actual black community in Toronto was facing economic and social problems, and that

[the] conclusion that the protest was "misguided" reveals [the] total lack of understanding of the social and political cleavages in North York. It suggests that those blacks protesting Show Boat are wasting their time, when they should be engaged in more pressing struggles for equality in education, employment and housing. The fact is these people are working toward those goals every day. The protesters are trustees, teachers, lawyers, social service workers, and, dare I say it, leaders in their community.[22]

However, while Hal Prince's production of Show Boat was met by a storm of criticism in Toronto, various theatre critics in New York felt that Prince highlighted racial inequality in his production not to support it but rather to show its injustice, as well as the historical suffering of blacks. One way that this was done was "the inclusion of an absolutely beautiful piece of music cut from the original production and from the movie ["Mis'ry's Comin' Round"]... a haunting gospel melody sung by the black chorus. The addition of this number is so successful because it salutes the dignity and the pure talent of the black workers and allows them to shine for a brief moment on the center stage of the showboat".[20]


Many commentators, both black and non-black, view the show as an outdated and stereotypical commentary on race relations that portrays blacks in a negative or inferior position. Douglass K. Daniel of Kansas State University has commented that it is a "racially flawed story",[23] and the African-Canadian writer M. Nourbese Philip claims

The affront at the heart of Show Boat is still very alive today. It begins with the book and its negative and one-dimensional images of Black people, and continues on through the colossal and deliberate omission of the Black experience, including the pain of a people traumatized by four centuries of attempted genocide and exploitation. Not to mention the appropriation of Black music for the profit of the very people who oppressed Blacks and Africans. All this continues to offend deeply. The 'ol' man river of racism continues to run through the history of these productions and is very much part of this (Toronto) production. It is part of the overwhelming need of white Americans and white Canadians to convince themselves of our inferiority — that our demands don't represent a challenge to them, their privilege and their superiority.[24]

On the other hand, supporters of the musical believe that the depictions of racism should be regarded not as stereotyping blacks but rather satirizing the common national attitudes that both held those stereotypes and reinforced them through discrimination. In other words, just as quoting an out-of-context line from a play and claiming that it is the view of the playwright is absurd and deceptive, the fact that a dramatic or literary work portrays racist attitudes and institutions does not mean that it endorses them — in the words of The New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr, "describing racism doesn't make Show Boat racist. The production is meticulous in honoring the influence of black culture not just in the making of the nation's wealth but, through music, in the making of its modern spirit."[25]

In addition, theatre history shows that leading Broadway writers had long used the musical as a medium to call for tolerance and racial harmony, such as in Finian's Rainbow and by Hammerstein himself in South Pacific. Those who attempt to understand works like Show Boat and Porgy and Bess through the eyes of their creators usually comprehend that the show

was a statement AGAINST racism. That was the point of Edna Ferber's novel. That was the point of the show. That's how Oscar wrote it.... I think this is about as far from racism as you can get.[26]

Perhaps the strongest foundational argument in defense of Show Boat lies in an understanding of the socially concerned intentions, aims, and backgrounds of its authors. According to Rabbi Alan Berg, Kern and Hammerstein's score to Show Boat is "a tremendous expression of the ethics of tolerance and compassion."[27] As Harold Prince (not Kern, to whom the quote has been mistakenly attributed) states in the original production notes to his 1993 production of the show:

Throughout pre-production and rehearsal, I was committed to eliminate any inadvertent stereotype in the original material, dialogue which may seem "Uncle Tom" today... However, I was determined not to rewrite history. The fact that during the 45-year period depicted in our musical there were lynchings, imprisonment, and forced labor of the blacks in the United States is irrefutable. Indeed, the United States still cannot hold its head high with regard to racism.

Oscar Hammerstein's commitment to idealizing and encouraging tolerance theatrically started with his libretto to Show Boat and can be seen clearly in his later works, many of which were written by Richard Rodgers.[28] Carmen Jones is an attempt to present a modern version of the classic French opera through the experiences of African-Americans during wartime, and South Pacific explores interracial marriage and prejudice. Finally, The King and I deals with different cultures' preconceived notions regarding each other and the possibility for cultural inclusiveness in societies.

Regarding the original author of Show Boat, Ann Shapiro states that

Edna Ferber was taunted for being Jewish; as a young woman eager to launch her career as a journalist, she was told that the Chicago Tribune did not hire women reporters. Despite her experience of antisemitism and sexism, she idealized America, creating in her novels an American myth where strong women and downtrodden men of any race prevail... [Show Boat] create[s] visions of racial harmony... in a fictional world that purported to be America but was more illusion than reality. Characters in Ferber's novels achieve assimilation and acceptance that was periodically denied Ferber herself throughout her life.[29]

Whether or not the show is racist itself, many contend that it is important to continue to be produced today because it serves as a history lesson of American race relations. According to African-American opera singer Phillip Lamar Boykin, who played the role of Joe in a 2000 tour, "Whenever a show deals with race issues, it gives the audience sweaty palms. I agree with putting it on the stage and making the audience think about it. We see where we came from so we don't repeat it, though we still have a long way to go. A lot of history would disappear if the show was put away forever. An artist must be true to an era. I'm happy with it".[30]

Notable recordings

  • The 1928 original London cast album, released in England on 78rpm records years before being sold in the United States. Because the U.S. had not yet begun making original cast albums of Broadway shows, it led to the unusual situation of there being an original London cast album of Show Boat but not of the 1927 Broadway cast. The cast on this album included Edith Day, Howett Worster, Marie Burke and Alberta Hunter. Baritone Norris Smith replaced Paul Robeson as Joe on the official release of this album. Robeson did record Ol' Man River with its original orchestration and vocal arrangement for the album, and it was later released. This rendition later appeared on the EMI CD Paul Robeson Sings 'Ol' Man River' and Other Favorites.
  • The 1932 studio cast recording on 78rpm by Brunswick Records, later re-released by Columbia Records on 78rpm, 33 1/3rpm and briefly on CD. This version featured Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, James Melton, Frank Munn, and Countess Olga Albani, and was issued in conjunction with the 1932 revival of the show, although it was not strictly an "original cast" album of that revival. The orchestra was conducted by Victor Young.
  • The 1946 cast recording. Issued on 78rpm, LP and CD. The 78-RPM and LP versions were issued by Columbia, the CD by Sony. This was the first American "original cast" recording of Show Boat, although it was of the 1946 cast, not the 1927 one. Jan Clayton, Carol Bruce, Charles Fredericks, Kenneth Spencer and Colette Lyons were featured.
  • The 1951 MGM Records soundtrack album, the first movie soundtrack album of Show Boat ever issued on records, with cast members of the 1951 film version. Appeared both on 45rpm and 33 1/3rpm, later on CD in a much expanded edition. Actress Ava Gardner's own singing voice, which was dubbed by Annette Warren in the film, is heard on this album. The expanded version on CD, however, contains both Warren and Gardner's vocal tracks. This album contained William Warfield's first recorded version of Ol' Man River.
  • A 1956 RCA Victor studio cast album conducted by Lehman Engel, featuring more of the score on one LP than had ever been recorded. It did not, however, feature a black singer as Joe, but instead gave the role to Robert Merrill, who also sang Gaylord Ravenal's songs. Other singers on the album included Patrice Munsel as Magnolia, and Rise Stevens as Julie. Issued on CD in 2009, but with Frank and Ellie's numbers, which had been sung on the LP version by Janet Pavek and Kevin Scott, omitted.[31]
  • Another studio cast album made in 1958 – the first Show Boat ever made in stereo. This offering, once again from RCA Victor, starred only three singers – Howard Keel (like Robert Merrill, singing Ol' Man River as well as Gaylord Ravenal's songs), Anne Jeffreys, and Gogi Grant (who had previously dubbed Ann Blyth's singing in the film The Helen Morgan Story). Not available on CD as of yet.
  • A 1959 EMI British studio cast album featuring Marlys Walters as Magnolia, Don McKay as Ravenal, Shirley Bassey, who was later to become world famous for singing the title song in Goldfinger, as Julie, Dora Bryan as Ellie, and Inia Te Wiata singing Ol' Man River. This was Ms. Bassey's first stereo album. Oddly enough, the Finale on this album was not a reprise of Ol' Man River.
  • The 1962 studio cast album, starring Barbara Cook, John Raitt, Anita Darian and William Warfield, released by Columbia. The first stereo album of Show Boat to use African-American singers in the roles of Joe and Queenie, though the chorus was made up of white singers only. The first "Show Boat" recording issued on CD.
  • The 1971 London cast album. A recording of a highly successful revival, featuring Cleo Laine, Lorna Dallas, Andre Jobin and bass-baritone Thomas Carey. This was the first 2-LP album of Show Boat, and included much more of the score than had ever been put on records, although in completely different orchestral arrangements. Issued later on CD, but out of print as of 2007.
  • The 1988 EMI studio cast album, a three-CD set which, for the first time, contained literally the entire score of the show, with all of its authentic 1927 orchestrations and vocal arrangements heard for the first time on a recording. The CD and accompanying booklet allowed the recreation of the many varied song sequences from throughout the show's production history. The most highly acclaimed album of Show Boat ever made, with Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Teresa Stratas, Karla Burns, and Bruce Hubbard, and conducted by John McGlinn.
  • The 1994 recording of the acclaimed 1993 revival, starring Rebecca Luker, Mark Jacoby, Lonette McKee and Michel Bell (as Joe); despite the fact that this is a relatively recent recording, it is a now very difficult-to-find album owing to the bankruptcy of the Livent company, which had produced the revival in Canada.

There have been many other studio cast recordings of Show Boat in addition to those mentioned above. The soundtrack of the 1936 film version has appeared on a so-called "bootleg" label called Xeno, but has so far not had an official release on CD.

Origins of novel

The name of Magnolia's daughter, "Kim", is supposed to be derived from the fact that she was born at the exact moment that the Cotton Blossom was at the convergence of the states of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. Ferber herself, in the book, calls the sound of the name "uneuphonious". In fact, it is a contraction of the name "Kimberly", or perhaps "Kimball" (viz. its use by Kipling for the central character in his novel Kim). In any case, the name did not become a popular name for American children for more than three decades after the publishing of the book, which leaves the derivation even more unlikely.

The idea for the novel was derived from Edna Ferber's own experiences aboard a showboat on the Pamlico River and Great Dismal Swamp Canal in North Carolina called the James Addams Floating Theatre. These experiences themselves were touched off when a business acquaintance of Ferber's said, during a party after the premiere of Ferber's Old Man Minick, that the next time he was involved in a play, he would not waste time on off-Broadway tryouts but would instead rent a showboat on which to test the show. Ferber became interested in showboats and did a great deal of research on them.


  1. ^ "American Musical Theatre: An Introduction",, republished from The Complete Book of Light Opera. Mark Lubbock. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. pp. 753-56, accessed December 3, 2008
  2. ^ a b Block, pp. 22-23
  3. ^ a b Kantor and Maslon, pp. 112-19
  4. ^ Bloom and Vlastnik, pp. 290-93
  5. ^ Raymond Knapp. The American Musical. 2005: Princeton University Press.
  6. ^ a b Vancheri, Barbara (August 23, 1998). "'Show Boat' continues successful voyage". Post-Gazette. Retrieved January 6, 2006.
  7. ^ a b c Kreuger, Miles (1977). Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 226–27.
  8. ^ Atkinson, Brooks. [ New York Times 1927 review.
  9. ^ Broadway.
  10. ^ Information about 1971 West End revival
  11. ^ Despite its technical correctness, that Show Boat deserves this title has been disputed by some. See note #5 and corresponding text
  12. ^ a b c Keeling, Richard (a.k.a. musickna) (December 8, 2005). Music — "Show Boat". Retrieved January 2, 2006
  13. ^ a b Hammerstein, Oscar II (1927). Show Boat (Original Libretto — Book and Lyrics). In "Collection of Musicals Lyrics and Libretti". Number 2 (Act One, Scene One)
  14. ^ Cronin, Patricia (June 1997). "Timeless 'Show Boat' just keeps on rolling along". Retrieved January 5, 2006
  15. ^ Tess Gardella. The Actresses of Italian Origin Notebook. Retrieved January 14, 2006
  16. ^ Steyn, Mark (December 5, 1997). "Where Have You Gone, Oscar Hammerstein?". Slate. Retrieved January 5, 2006.
  17. ^ Eyre, Richard; & Wright, Nicholas. Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theater in the Twentieth Century. Random House. Retrieved December 31, 2005
  18. ^ Norvell, Scott; & S., Jon (March 18, 2002). "The Show Can't Go On". Fox News. Retrieved January 2, 2006
  19. ^ a b Lathan, Peter (October 24, 1999). "A More Subtle Form of Censorship". The British Theatre Guide. Retrieved January 14, 2006
  20. ^ a b Saviola, Gerard C. (April 1, 1997). "SHOW BOAT — Review of 1994 production". American Studies at University of Virginia. Retrieved January 5, 2006
  21. ^ Henry, William A. III (Nov. 01, 1993). "Rough Sailing for a New Show Boat". TIME
  22. ^ Anderson, Scott (Nov. 11, 1993). "Show Coverage is Missing the Boat". Eye
  23. ^ Daniel, Douglass K. "They Just Keep Rolling Along: Images of Blacks in Film Versions of Show Boat". Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Minorities and Communication Division. Retrieved December 31, 2005
  24. ^ Philip, M. Nourbese (1993). Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel (2nd ed.). Out of print. pg. 59. Retrieved December 13, 2005
  25. ^ Bows, Bob. "Show Boat". Retrieved February 2, 2006
  26. ^ Briggs, Joe Bob (May 7, 1993). Joe Bob Goes to the Drive In. The Joe Bob Report
  27. ^ Laporte, Elaine (Feb. 9, 1996). Why do Jews sing the blues?. The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California
  28. ^ Gomberg, Alan (February 16, 2004). Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical — Book Review. What's New on the Rialto?. Retrieved January 6, 2006
  29. ^ Shapiro, Ann R. (2001). "Edna Ferber, Jewish American Feminist". Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 20, #2, pp. 52–60
  30. ^ Shapiro, Margaret. "Facing The Music — A Revival Of 'Show Boat' Confronts The Production's Historical Racism". Tucson Weekly. Retrieved February 2, 2006
  31. ^


  • Block, Geoffrey. Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1997. ISBN 0-19-510791-8
  • Bloom, Ken and Vlastnik, Frank. Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of all Time. New York:Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1-57912-390-2
  • Kantor, Michael and Maslon, Laurence. Broadway: The American Musical. New York:Bullfinch Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8212-2905-2
  • Grams, Martin. The History of the Cavalcade of America: Sponsored by DuPont. (Morris Publishing, 1999). ISBN 0-7392-0138-7

External links

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