Backstage at San Francisco Opera > May 2014 > Know Before You Go: Show Boat
Know Before You Go: Show Boat
San Francisco Opera’s spectacular Show Boat opens June 1 and we could not be more excited! With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat is the original great American musical. Based on the novel by the same name by Edna Ferber, the musical is a sweeping tale of the closeness of family, the destructive power of hate, and the incredible strength of love to overcome it. Centered on a traveling showboat full of colorful characters and songful tunes, this is a show you can only properly appreciate live. Below, we share some of the deep history associated with the musical, as well as some of our favorite tidbits about the San Francisco Opera production. If you haven’t already, purchase your tickets now online to this monumental show – they’re going fast! – and get ready to come aboard the Cotton Blossom this summer!

Our production is EPIC, and we don’t just mean the plot!
Just as the Cotton Blossom travels through the Mississippi, this grand-scale production journeys from the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century. Audiences see not just the incredible path of our heroine Magnolia, sung by star soprano and San Francisco Opera favorite Heidi Stober, but also the progress of race relations during that time period. We see the passage of time not just through the trials and tribulations of the main characters, but through the increased intermingling of the African-American and Caucasian choruses onstage. Choreographer Michele Lynch has integrated the most popular dances of four decades into the show, everything from the “buck-and-wing” to the waltz to the Charleston. Show Boat is a geographical odyssey, as well, taking us from the waters of the Mississippi to Chicago to Broadway and back. We even get to see glimpses of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, itself famous for its splendor.

(Photo by Scott Suchman, Washington National Opera)
And if the plot is not epic enough for you, the production itself is. Featuring two choruses, a myriad of dancers, a large orchestra, massive and stunning sets, period costumes, and hundreds and hundreds of lights, Show Boat is truly a spectacle for the eyes as well as the ears. All told, hundreds of stage hands, lighting designers, costume designers, set designers, choristers, instrumentalists, dancers, and artists have come together to put on a production unlike any other.

Show Boat is one of the most important works in the history of American theater.
Poster for 1951 film of Show BoatWhen it debuted in 1927, Show Boat represented a huge shift in musical theater in the United States. Prior to its premiere, musicals were primarily operettas, light-hearted comedies, or musical revues like the Ziegfeld Follies. Show Boat revolutionized the form by portraying dark themes and painful realities like racism and single parenthood while simultaneously keeping elements of comedy, dance, and lighter entertainment. Many consider Show Boat the first truly great American musical, and it has remained an immensely popular production in the near-century since it was written. Not only has it been revived countless times in America, but it has toured around the world and has been made into two films and numerous radio broadcasts as well. Its mark on later works is also evident: it inspired George Gershwin to write Porgy and Bess and Hammerstein himself would later explore interracial relationships more deeply in South Pacific.

Not only important because of its place in musical history, Show Boat also features some of the most memorable and beloved songs of the early twentieth century, most notably “Ol’ Man River,” but also “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “You Are Love,” and the rollicking “Dance Away the Night.” These songs have captured audiences’ imaginations since its debut, and have entered the popular canon as some of the greatest musical theater pieces of all time.

But this is not your parents’ Show Boat. Literally.
Since its debut, Show Boat has undergone numerous revisions, edits, and reconfigurations, many by Kern and Hammerstein themselves. Our production was created by director Francesca Zambello and Maestro John DeMain to truly showcase this deeply American work. Our Show Boat keeps the focus squarely on Magnolia, who goes from young ingénue on the Cotton Blossom to a bona fide Broadway star, but first faces love, a broken marriage, and single motherhood. Magnolia is the heart of Show Boat, and her story is one of resilience and success despite hardship that will keep audiences mesmerized.

(Photo by Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago)
San Francisco Opera’s Show Boat also sees the restoration of “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” Queenie’s gorgeous and haunting melody that foreshadows the dark fate of Julie, the original leading lady aboard, and becomes the theme to her pain. Though it was cut from the 1927 premiere due to time constraints, the song was so important to Jerome Kern that it originally began the orchestral overture.
San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley has a long personal history with the revival of Show Boat in modern American opera companies, having brought the musical to Houston Grand Opera in a landmark 1982 production that restored many of the original songs and dialogue. That production toured the United States, was performed on Broadway, and even went to Cairo! David Gockley has championed the work’s rightful place in our core repertoire, saying, “In this day and age, only opera companies command the resources necessary to give a grand work like Show Boat its artistic due. The commercial theater sector, which gave birth to Show Boat and many others of its genre, simply cannot afford to remount these works on their terms. The original orchestrations called for an orchestra of 50, two choruses, dancers and a large cast of principals. As a top tier opera company, we are able to present this work the way Kern and Hammerstein intended it, and we are able to cast the type of rich, legitimate voices required to give it its luster.”

San Francisco Opera’s Show Boat features stars of opera, Broadway, television, and film
Show Boat combines not just gorgeous singing, but poignant acting, sparkling comedy, and intricate dance, and San Francisco Opera has gathered an incredible cast of principal artists from all over the entertainment world to create our spectacular production. In addition to Heidi Stober as Magnolia, Show Boat will star Michael Todd Simpson in his Company debut as her troublesome love interest, the itinerant gambler Gaylord Ravenal. The enthralling Patricia Racette returns to break audiences’ hearts as Julie, and Angela Renée Simpson and Morris Robinson sing Queenie and Joe, roles they originated to great acclaim.

(Photo by Scott Suchman, Washington National Opera)

Our cast also features Broadway’s best, including two Tony Award winners! Stage legend Bill Irwin, who received the 2005 Tony Award for Best Actor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, will portray Cap’n Andy Hawks, the Cotton Blossom’s kindly leader and Magnolia’s father. In addition to an incredible history on stage on Broadway and in the Bay Area, Irwin has appeared in numerous films, including Rachel Getting Married and Across the Universe, and on countless television shows, such as Saturday Night Live, Law and Order: SVU, and The Cosby Show.

Harriet Harris, who makes her San Francisco Opera debut as Parthy Hawks, starred in Desperate Housewives as Felicia Tillman and Frasier as Bebe Glazer. She is also the 2002 Tony Award and Drama Desk recipient for Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. She, too, has a long career onstage and has been in many films, including Memento and Monster-in-Law.

Our wonderful Show Boat chorus! (Photo by Scott Wall)
Our cast is rounded out by Broadway stars Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton as Ellie Mae Chipley and Frank Schultz respectively. Show Boat also features the best of the Bay Area’s talent, including local actors Sharon McKnight, Kevin Blackton, Patrick Cummings, and James Asher.

Michele Lynch, our Show Boat choreographer, has choreographed many Broadway shows and recently completed choreography for the upcoming film adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. Her choreography was also seen on Dolly Parton’s Better Day World Tour and in numerous off-Broadway productions and benefit concerts.

Show Boat features themes that deeply resonate today
The issues Show Boat explores – racial prejudice, single motherhood, alcoholism, gambling addiction – are all still present and powerful today. While our production seeks to portray the progress of the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries, particularly in regards to race relations, these difficulties still exist in our modern world. Its own performance history reflects how far America has come since the twenties, and how relevant its themes are today.

When it debuted on Broadway, Show Boat was one of the first shows to feature an interracial cast. Paul Robeson, heralded for his portrayal of Joe on film and onstage, was famously outspoken against the frequent racism he met as a performer, refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences during tours and having to relocate events due to halls not allowing African-Americans to perform. The most famous film version of Show Boat itself remains controversial, due to MGM’s decision to cast Ava Gardner as Julie rather than Lena Horne, a famous African-American singer and actress, who was originally set to play the role.

(Still of Paul Robeson as Joe in the 1939 film adaptation)

In recent decades, some have decried the musical for its use of the n-word. Francesca Zambello has carefully crafted the dialogue used in the San Francisco Opera production to minimize the use of the epithet, but to also acknowledge that it is part of our country’s history at the time portrayed in the musical. The original lyrics and dialogue of the musical may be dated, but at the time of its opening it called forth a discourse on race relations that was revolutionary. Today, Show Boat has the same power to start conversations, to move audiences to self-reflection, and to remind us of how far we have come as a country, and how much progress there is still to be had.

(Photo by Dan Rest, Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Join us for this spectacular, groundbreaking, and complex work this summer! You can purchase tickets through our website at this link, or call the San Francisco Opera box office at (415) 864-3330. We hope to see you there!
Posted: 5/21/2014 3:26:56 PM by San Francisco Opera
Filed under: 2013-14Season, ShowBoat


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