About this Recording
8.120789 - KERN: Showboat (1932, 1946)

Show Boat
1932 Studio Album and 1946 Broadway Revival
Music by Jerome Kern • Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Show Boat shares something with the Mississippi River so central to its story: it never flows the same way twice.

Perhaps more than any other work in modern theatre, Show Boat has varied with each new incarnation, due to changes in political or dramatic fashion. Lyrics have been rewritten, songs dumped or added, scenes juggled and characters reconceived.

This recording reflects three of the various versions of the score which have come down to us over the years since Show Boat opened on Broadway on 27 December 1927.

Actually, the musical began its journey to New York three and a half years earlier, with an appropriately theatrical setting.

Author Edna Ferber was on the road with a play of hers which was then called Old Man Minick. After a spectacularly unsuccessfully première in New London, Connecticut, producer Winthrop Ames tried to cheer up Ferber and the company with a whimsical notion.

‘Next time,’ he said,‘I won’t go out of town with a show. I’ll just let it play on a show boat.’ ‘What’s a show boat?’ asked Ferber and history was made.

Ames went on to explain to her that since shortly after the Civil War, large especially equipped riverboats had been sailing up and down the Mississippi river, presenting comedies, melodramas and variety shows to the people in the riverside towns.

Ferber instantly saw this as a setting for one of those sweeping historical romances that had made her famous and in 1926 Show Boat was published to great critical acclaim as well as huge popular sales.

One of the people to read it with particular interest was Jerome Kern. The successful composer of such Broadway hits as “Sally”and “Sunny”was always on the lookout for his next project. Before he had finished more than a few chapters, he called up Oscar Hammerstein II, one of his favourite collaborators, and told him he had found their next vehicle.

Hammerstein shared Kern’s enthusiasm for the work and almost at once the pair of them were outlining scenes and conceiving songs for their proposed show.

The only problem was that they didn’t have the rights to Ferber’s novel.

Kern waited until the opening of his next show, Criss-Cross, on 12 October 1926. He forced his way across the lobby at intermission to confront the larger-than-life critic Alexander Woolcott, a good friend of Ferber’s. He begged Woolcott to arrange a meeting, going on and on about how he had to get the rights to Show Boat. The waspish Woolcott let his friend exhaust himself before finally turning and introducing him to his companion of the evening, Edna Ferber.

Fortunately, Ferber and Kern got along, as did Hammerstein when he was added to the equation. The trio then aimed their sights on Florenz Ziegfeld, the most flamboyant producer on the theatrical scene.

He, too, loved the idea and wanted it to open his new Ziegfeld Theatre in February of 1927. Hammerstein and Kern were capable of rapid work, but they sensed this project could be something out of the ordinary and they encouraged Ziegfeld to fast-track something else, which he did, backing a now-forgotten romp called Rio Rita.

This gave the authors time to dig deep into their material and they produced one of the most mature and heartfelt works in all of musical theatre. During a period when triviality trumped substance every time, Show Boat was a risky proposition.

Not only was it a weighty, unwieldy story, covering several generations and many locations, but the themes built into it were bound to be controversial. One of the major plot twists hinged on the issue of interracial marriage at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was still a powerful political force and lynch mobs were not uncommon in the Deep South.

But the authors stuck to their guns and when Ziegfeld started to get cold feet, they called his bluff, with Oscar’s uncle Arthur offering to pick up the production.

It finally opened in Washington,D.C. on 15 November 1927. Hammerstein was later to say that the show ‘was born big and wants to stay that way’, but at first, it was just a little too huge for words. The opening performance ran nearly five hours, with the dense plot slugging it out against Ziegfeld’s penchant for overwhelming production values.

The authors began cutting through subsequent tryout stints in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, reducing it to a manageable three hours by the time it opened in New York on 27 December. The audiences and critics alike cheered it as ‘the best musical show ever written’ and it ran an impressive (for that period) 572 performances.

Since then it has been revived on Broadway five times and been turned into a film on three occasions. (The first, in 1929,was a largely silent version, with a ‘prologue’ added at the last minute, featuring fifteen minutes of songs from the musical.)

But every version has been different in several interesting ways. The first line of the opening chorus was originally ‘Niggers all work on the Mississippi’. As the years went by, the offending word changed to ‘coloured folks’, then ‘everyone’ and in one production during the height of America’s racial unrest in the 1960s, the line was cut totally, leaving nobody to work on the river.

The other major problem has to do with the ending. Kim, the daughter of long-suffering heroine Magnolia Hawks, becomes a performer of a new generation on the show boat.

The original actress to play the role, Norma Terris,was a skilled impersonator, and so she was allowed to do her ‘party pieces’ at that point in the show. By 1946,Kern and Hammerstein realized they needed something different, so they came up with Nobody Else But Me, which proved be to the last song Kern ever wrote. And in the last 1994 Broadway revival, Kim became a Charleston dynamo, leading the cast in a showstopping production number, set to Why Do I love You?.

The first eight selections here come from a 1932 studio recording on the Brunswick label. It features Helen Morgan, the original Julie from both the 1927 première and the 1932 revival with her signature performances of Bill and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, as well as Paul Robeson, who didn’t appear in the show until 1932, but quickly made Ol’ Man River his own forever.

Also included on this recording are popular vocalists of the period such as Countess Olga Albani, James Melton and Frank Munn. The orchestra is conducted by Victor Young,who went on to enjoy a distinguished career as a film composer.

When Show Boat was turned into a fully musical film in 1936,Kern and Hammerstein wanted to add an additional song for Paul Robeson, so they created Ah Still Suits Me for his character of Joe. In the film, it was sung by Robeson and Hattie McDaniel, who played Queenie. It appears here in a 1936 studio recording made with Elisabeth Welch, a stage and cabaret star who left Broadway in the early 1930s to settle in England.

The remaining selections are all from the 1946 Broadway revival which opened 5 January 1946 and ran for 418 performances. Jan Clayton (as Magnolia) got top billing. She had first appeared in Carousel and then went on to a film career, although she’s best remembered today as the original mother on the Lassie TV series.

Carol Bruce, who sings Julie, enjoyed a Broadway career for the next two decades, with shows like Do I Hear a Waltz? and Henry, Sweet Henry to her credit, but for the remaining leads – Charles Fredericks,Kenneth Spencer and Collette Lyons – this production of Show Boat would be the high point of their careers, with no subsequent New York stage appearances and only a handful of minor film roles.

But whatever form they take, the music and lyrics of Show Boat continue to impress us, nearly eighty years after their creation.

Like “Ol’ Man River”, it just keeps rollin’ along.

Richard Ouzounian

Close the window