Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern · Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber


A true classic of American musical theater, this tale of life on the Mississippi from the 1880s to the 1920s is both a poignant love story and a powerful reminder of the bitter legacy of racism. Director Francesca Zambello’s grand-scale production is "a triumph—a stylish, fast-paced and colorful show that had the capacity audience on its feet, cheering loud and long" (Chicago Classical Review). The magnificent Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II score, which includes such classic songs as "Ol’ Man River," "Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man," "Make Believe" and "You Are Love," will sound glorious "under the authoritative baton of music-theater maestro John DeMain" (Chicago Tribune). "No one should miss it" (Chicago Sun-Times).

According to General Director David Gockley, "Show Boat will be done in grand opera fashion in the way the creators conceived. The Opera House is—I believe—the appropriate venue for these great classic musicals that require full-voiced, 'legit' singing."

"One memorable song follows another, each an enduring thread in the fabric of American popular culture." –Chicago Tribune

Exploration Workshops for Families will be presented by the San Francisco Opera Education Department prior to select performances. Click here to buy tickets for the Exploration Workshops for Families.  Sign up for E-Opera (monthly e-newsletter) to receive updates.

An in-depth discussion regarding racism related to Show Boat will take place on June 14, co-presented by the Museum of the African Diaspora and the SF Public Library.

Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera; presented through special arrangement with R & H Theatricals.

Production photos: Cory Weaver.
Audio Clips by San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Robert Mollicone, Conductor. Recorded at Opera in the Park, September 8, 2013.


Magnolia Hawks Heidi Stober
Gaylord Ravenal Michael Todd Simpson *
Cap'n Andy Hawks Bill Irwin *
Julie La Verne Patricia Racette
Queenie Angela Renée Simpson
Parthy Ann Hawks Harriet Harris *
Ellie Mae Chipley Kirsten Wyatt *
Joe Morris Robinson
Frank Schultz John Bolton *
Mrs. O'Brien Sharon McNight *
Pete, Emcee James Asher *
Sheriff Vallon, Maitre d' Kevin Blackton *
Steve Baker, Max Greene Patrick Cummings *
Jake Matthew Piatt *
Natchez Girl, Young Kim Carmen Steele *
Queenie's Friend, Lady on the Levee Tracy Camp *
Girl Kathleen Bayler
Girl Sally Mouzon
Mother Superior Mary Finch
Queenie's Friend Samantha McElhaney
Lottie Erin Neff
Queenie's Friend, Woman Simone Paulwell *
Queenie's Friend Rachelle Perry
Backwoodsman Christopher Jackson
Young Man Anthony McGlaun *
Drunk, Dealer Phillip Pickens

Production Credits

Conductor John DeMain
Director Francesca Zambello
Set Designer Peter Davison
Costume Designer Paul Tazewell
Lighting Designer Mark McCullough
Sound Designer Tod Nixon
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Michele Lynch
Fight Director Dave Maier

* San Francisco Opera Debut


Scene 1. The levee at Natchez on the Mississippi, late 1880s
A show boat, the Cotton Blossom, is in town. When the boat’s cook, Queenie, arrives from the market, Pete, the engineer, demands to know who gave her the brooch she’s wearing, but she responds evasively. Stevedores and townsfolk assert that workers get no rest because of the show boat. Steve Baker, the boat’s leading actor, has placed near the gangplank a picture frame showing his wife, leading lady Julie La Verne. Pete steals the picture and stealthily heads for the towboat. A crowd gathers to hear Captain Andy Hawks’s description of the evening’s show. Pete is furious that Julie gave his gift to her—the brooch—to Queenie. Seeing Pete pestering Julie, Steve exchanges blows with Pete, who is then fired by Captain Andy. Parthy, Andy’s wife, despises show people and warns Julie to have nothing to do with her daughter, Magnolia. Ellie May Chipley, the company’s comedienne, fails to persuade Andy to give her dramatic roles if Julie leaves the company.
A dashing gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, appears on the levee. He tells Sheriff Vallon he’s there for a short time, but Vallon warns him not to stay more than 24 hours. Suddenly Ravenal sees Magnolia and is instantly captivated. WhenVallon announces that the judge would like to see Ravenal, he excuses himself politely. Magnolia asks Joe, a worker on the show boat, whether he knows the young man she was talking to. He doesn’t, but he’s seen his kind before on the river. She rushes off to find Julie. Joe believes the river will know—it knows everything.
Scene 2. The show boat’s kitchen
Magnolia tells Julie she’s in love, although she doesn’t know the young man’s name. Julie worries that he’s a “no-account river feller.” If he were, answers Magnolia, she’d stop loving him, but Julie knows otherwise and sings a song expressing her feelings. Queenie—surprised that Julie knows the song—adds her own exasperated verse about Joe.
Scene 3. Outside a waterfront saloon
Ravenal declares that if he loses at gambling today, he knows that things will go better for him later.
Scene 4. The show boat’s stage
Queenie and the boat’s workers sing a song about keeping unhappiness far away.  Julie begins singing it herself, but as everyone joins with her, she suddenly cries out, “Stop singing that rotten song!” She manages to rehearse with Andy, Steve, and the company’s resident villain, Frank Schultz.
Ellie, arriving late, whispers something in Steve’s ear. When he whispers it to Julie, she collapses. Knowing the sheriff is on his way, Steve pulls out a knife, cuts Julie’s finger, and sucks blood from it. Vallon arrives, informing Andy that in Mississippi it is unlawful for a Negro woman to marry a white man. In this case, he accuses Julie (whose last name he identifies as “Dozier”) and Steve, who defiantly responds that he has Negro blood in him. Vallon advises that Andy cancel that evening’s performance and departs. To Magnolia’s dismay, Steve and Julie—intending to leave the company—go off to pack.
Andy does plan to cancel the performance, but wonders about tomorrow. He decides to assign Julie’s role to Magnolia, who knows all the lines. To play opposite her, Frank suggests a gentleman he just met. He brings in Ravenal, who is immediately hired. Julie says goodbye to Magnolia, who sadly begins rehearsing with the enraptured Ravenal.
Scene 5. In front of the show boat’s box office
Ellie sings to the Natchez girls about the sacrifices one makes in being an actress. Queenie goes into a vigorous sales pitch for the show.
Scene 6. Stage of the show boat
A melodrama is performed, with the embrace between “Parson Brown” (Ravenal) and “Miss Lucy” (Magnolia) drawing enthusiastic applause. When Frank, as the villain, grabs Magnolia, a patron shoots his gun in outrage!
Scene 7. The show boat’s upper deck
Knowing Parthy will be preoccupied and unable to interfere, Ravenal convinces Magnolia to marry him the next day. The two are ecstatic.
Scene 8. The levee
The public is invited to the wedding. Magnolia and Ravenal are headed for a Natchez church when Parthy rushes in with Vallon and Pete. Everyone is shocked when Parthy accuses Ravenal of having killed a man the year before. Vallon admits that Ravenal got off on self-defense, at which Andy expresses no objection, admitting that when he was nineteen he, too, killed a man. Hearing that Magnolia and Ravenal are going to marry, Parthy faints. Andy declares that the wedding can now proceed.
Scene 1. Chicago World’s Fair, 1893
Ravenal and Magnolia make merry with Chicagoans, dazzled by the Columbian Exposition. Feeling that luck is with him, Ravenal goes off to gamble.
Scene 2. A suite at the Palmer House, Chicago
Life feels blissful for Magnolia and Ravenal.
Scene 3. The show boat
Andy reads Parthy their daughter’s letter describing her life with Ravenal. Parthy disapproves of how much they are spending on luxuries. Andy proposes a trip to Chicago to see the Ravenals and Kim, their daughter.
Scene 4. A room on Ontario Street, Chicago, 1904
At a boarding house, Frank and Ellie ask the landlady about renting a room. Incensed that her current occupants haven’t paid their rent in weeks, Mrs. O’Brien is planning to get rid of them. She reveals, too, that the man is a gambler and that everything he and his wife own has been pawned. Frank and Ellie are astonished when Magnolia arrives. She explains that these are temporary quarters, prior to her moving with Ravenal to the lake shore. Sensing that Magnolia needs money, Frank offers to get her a job singing. Mrs. O’Brien hands Magnolia a letter from Ravenal, enclosing money for Kim’s school expenses. With nothing left to pawn and no more friends to lend them money, Ravenal is leaving Magnolia, hoping she and Kim will return to Andy and Parthy. Magnolia tells Frank and Ellie she refuses to live on charity while enduring her mother’s disapproval.
Scene 5. St. Agatha’s Convent, Chicago
Ravenal explains to Kim that he must soon leave for “a business trip.” Kim tells her father that when she misses him, she does what he always told her to do—she pretends that they’re together.
Scene 6. The Trocadero Club
Jake, the pianist, tells Max, the owner, that Julie, their singer, is having a tough time: Steve has just left her, saying he couldn’t compete with the other man in her life - “Johnnie Walker.” When Julie appears, Max threatens that if she misses the evening’s show, she’ll be out of a job. She rehearses a new song.
Frank, recently hired with Ellie as the Trocadero’s comedy act, asks Max to audition Magnolia. Seeing how lovely she is, he consents. She sings the song she’d heard Julie sing years before. Julie is startled to hear her voice and then to see her, although Magnolia has no idea her old friend is there. Having made her decision, Julie leaves.
Magnolia’s singing pleases Max, but he upsets her by saying he dislikes the song. The maître d’ appears with a message from Julie—she’s “going on a tear.” Max fires her, but there’s more to the message: Julie suggests he hire the girl who just auditioned. Frank encourages Magnolia to try her song at a livelier tempo, and when she does so, Max gives her the job.
Scene 7. Lobby of the Palmer House
Having arrived in time for New Year’s Eve, Parthy and Andy can’t locate the Ravenals, who they thought were staying at the Palmer House. Parthy goes off in search of them, while Andy flirts with some attractive ladies.
Scene 8. The Trocadero Club, New Year’s Eve
The club’s orchestra and dancers perform followed by Ellie and Frank. Astonished to see Andy, Frank tells him that Ravenal has left Magnolia, who is now performing at the club. Max informs the audience that “Julie Wendell” will be replaced by Magnolia Ravena[, who quietly begins a sweetly sentimental waltz song. Seeing Andy in the audience increases her confidence, and by the end the crowd is singing along with her. She embraces her father as everyone shouts, “Happy New Year!”
Scene 9. In front of The Natchez Evening Democrat
Joe reflects on the never-changing Mississippi River.
Scene 10. A Broadway theater
An emcee introduces Magnolia, now a great star. She sings two songs for the Ziegfeld Follies audience.
Scene 11. Outside the show boat
Ravenal meets Andy, who informs him of Magnolia’s European successes and that she is, in fact, on the show boat this very evening. Ravenal sadly recalls his love for Magnolia.
Scene 12. Levee at Greenville, 1927
After forty years together on the show boat, Queenie remains as frustrated as ever with Joe. When a woman compliments her on her dress, she reveals that it was a present from a Broadway star, Miss Ravenal. She delights the Greenville crowd with a song from Kim’s latest show.
As the audience leaves following the show boat’s evening performance, Magnolia sees Ravenal. He is about to beg forgiveness when an old lady, recognizing Magnolia, interrupts. She remembers Magnolia’s debut performance, the handsome young man who looked at her with such feeling, and the loving way she gazed at him. “And to think, it was only make believe,” murmurs the lady, bidding Magnolia good night.
Ravenal is again begging forgiveness when Magnolia sees Kim, who rushes to embrace her father. For one moment the family is united, as Joe’s voice is heard once again.

The All-American Musical Comedy

Ethan Mordden

Jerome Kern started the whole thing. Reading Edna Ferber’s latest novel, in 1926, the composer began to visualize it as a musical, and he called Oscar Hammerstein to see if he’d write the book and lyrics.

“How’d you like to do a show for Ziegfeld?” Kern asked. This was a great kickoff, for Florenz Ziegfeld was Broadway’s top showman, shockingly spendthrift in his zeal to perfect every production. For some time, he had been known only for his more or less personally handmade revue, the Ziegfeld Follies, stuffed with star talent and even star support, sexy yet artistic, zany yet glamorous: Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, and of course the Ziegfeld showgirls, sometimes garbed in splendor and sometimes wearing little more than lighting. 
Lately, however, Ziegfeld had been producing narrative shows, and Show Boat, Kern assured Hammerstein, told a wonderful story. It was a backstager; it was history; it was moving; it was thrilling. There was music on every page! It’ll be Broadway’s biggest musical—and everyone knew that Ziegfeld loved big. No one but Kern and Hammerstein could write it, and no one but Ziegfeld could produce it.
Hammerstein was intrigued, and Kern told him to get a copy of the novel and read it; they should get to work while Ferber and her show boat with that standing-room-only title were still a meme of the season.
“Is Ziegfeld enthusiastic?” Hammerstein asked. Kern chuckled. “He doesn’t know anything about it yet.”
There’s something strange about this story. Kern had been developing as a composer throughout the 1920s, with imaginative and original melodies and harmony, and Hammerstein was a pioneer in matching lyrics to the characters singing them. These two were, arguably, the best of their kind—but how on earth did Kern see Ferber’s novel as the basis for a musical?
Let this be said: Ferber was a romantic who invoked sweeping panoramas of American history, in which a strong, practical woman is paired with a beautiful but weak man. One could almost sum up her fiction as How the West Was Won by Eleanor Roosevelt Married to Benedict Cumberbatch. However, the twenties musical was never that roomy. It was Sally (dancing orphan makes a hit on Broadway), Blossom Time (Franz Schubert loses the girl but gets the Unfinished Symphony), Good News! (a college show: the boys major in football and the girls take Applied Romance). These are zany or sentimental pieces, not serious ones, because there weren’t any serious twenties musicals.
Actually, there was one, Franke Harling and Laurence Stallings’ very little known Deep River (1926), which opened not long after Ferber’s novel appeared and which shared its Southern setting and racial discussion. Uncompromisingly grim and lacking a melodious score, Deep River closed in four weeks, but it did at least give a Broadway debut to Jules Bledsoe, who was to introduce “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat the following year.
Interestingly, Kern and Hammerstein didn’t go to Ziegfeld directly. They negotiated first with Ferber, entering into a three-way partnership in perpetuity of copyright. Wasn’t she leery of the notion of musicalizing her book? She did love the theatre, true. She wrote plays herself, and, when not feuding with that acerbic wit and theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, first-nighted with him on his complimentary pair. Further, Kern and Hammerstein assured her that Ziegfeld was their next stop—and that name, again, was magic in those days.
However.  Here were Kern and Hammerstein and their silent partner Ferber gearing up for what was sure to be the first realistic musical, while the intended producer saw his shows as a fanciful celebrations of the sweetheart and the clown: of youthful beauty and cockeyed fun. She would thrill the heart and he would lift the spirit. Sally was like that: part Marilyn Miller, the greatest musical-comedy diva of the age; and part Leon Errol, a leading shtick comic; and no one cared about the other parts. Show Boat did have a sweetheart, Magnolia Hawks, raised on the show boat. And her father, Captain Andy Hawks, would be the designated comic. But the story of Show Boat has other parts, important ones. It wasn’t what anyone would have thought of as a Ziegfeld show.
But Ziegfeld took Show Boat, and Kern and Hammerstein set to work, taking over a year to figure out how to adapt Ferber’s saga. At first, they sometimes hit false notes, especially the clichés of operetta. For the lovers, Magnolia and her gambler suitor, Gaylord Ravenal, they created “The Creole Love Song,” completely out of character for both of them, something Sigmund Romberg might compose for, say, Louisiana Moon or some such title, a bolero on ethnic flirtation. (“Artful way of winning,” Magnolia observes, “her whose heart is spinning.”) Is this how these two confide in each other, with these posturing cartoons? And what does the sheltered Magnolia know of Creole courtship etiquette? Why not cut to the simple truth of the matter, in a waltz with good old-fashioned sweep to it?: “You Are Love.”
Now you’re talking. Getting ever more intimate with their subject, Kern and Hammerstein looked on Julie, the show boat’s leading woman and Magnolia’s best friend, as their secondary heroine and a major link with the serious nature of Ferber’s novel. Julie has her doom built in, as she is half-black and “passing” for white (as the old phrase puts it), a dangerous game in the South of the 1880s, when Show Boat begins. The authors cleverly deposited a clue to Julie’s secret, letting her sing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a black song that, in a segregated society, no white person would have heard. Later, during a six-minute spiritual, “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” Julie takes over the number from the black chorus, helplessly joining in on the music of her genetic inheritance and then, suddenly, turning against it. “Stop that rotten song!” she cries, as if she senses that this is the day when she will be unmasked. Without question, Julie is the first tragic figure to appear in a classic American musical.

L to R: Jerome Kern (left) and Ira Gershwin working on the film musical Cover Girl; Oscar Hammerstein II (right) and long-time collaborator Richard Rodgers at work; Legendary impresario Florenz Ziegfeld
By now, Kern and Hammerstein were in command. For Julie’s reappearance in Act Two, as a cabaret singer—a sequence that isn’t in Ferber’s novel—they wrote “Out There in an Orchard,” an antiqued story ballad about a young man who leaves his beloved to make his fortune, returning only to find that she died but moments before. “Moonbeams saw me kiss you,” he laments—for the number needed to show us a Julie torn apart, by alcoholism and despair. And of course Hammerstein’s lyrics relate this doleful tale to Show Boat’s story itself, for Julie herself departs in Act One.
So the number struck the right chord. But it lacked a great melody, and the moment really called for a Big Number, to rouse audience sympathy. All of Show Boat’s famous songs, at this point, would be heard in the work’s first half, making the score top-heavy. “Make Believe,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Life On the Wicked Stage” (the song’s  actual title, quoting a phrase very common at the time, though the first line, adhering to Kern’s repeated quarter notes, is sung as “Life upon the wicked stage...”), and “You Are Love” are all in Act One, and the last of the hit tunes, “Why Do I Love You?,” occurs in the first scene of Act Two.
Clearly, “Out There in an Orchard” wasn’t strong enough to anchor the middle of Act Two. Then Kern thought of substituting for it a number he had written with P. G. Wodehouse for Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918). Cut during the tryout, the song is a happy ditty, a young bride’s lighthearted goof on her intended on the day of the wedding, citing all his faults yet concluding that he’s wonderful: “Because he’s just my Bill!” Suddenly, Kern realized that the song not only could go into Show Boat but had to. Giving Julie a playful rather than mournful number was brilliant dramatic thinking, because she could sing it mournfully, projecting her sorrow through irony. So “Bill” finally found a home, and Julie got her Big Number in Act Two.
Yes! Now all the Show Boat pieces were falling into place. Still,  the central number—really, the foundation on which the whole score rests—was neither a love song nor a plot number nor even a character piece, but something so monumental that no musical had ever hosted anything like it. This was “Ol’ Man River,” and Edna Ferber may have been the first of all to realize how special Show Boat was going to be. Kern played it for her directly after it was written, and, as she later recalled, “The music mounted, mounted, hair stood on end, the tears came to my eyes, I breathed like a heroine in a melodrama.”
Meanwhile, Hammerstein was writing the libretto as well, using much of the novel but straying from it where necessary. Most of what happens in the second act is Hammerstein’s invention, especially the Chicago scenes, a homage to Ziegfeld, a Chicago boy himself; his career began in a cabaret very like the one in which Julie rehearses “Bill.” Hammerstein also developed Ferber’s notion that theatre not only delights but enlightens and redeems us. Indeed, life itself, in Show Boat, takes on a theatrical flair, as when Julie’s husband, Steve, to save her from the law, effects a stunt straight out of an ancient melodrama of the kind the show boat presents, the sort that climaxes as some long-suffering character rises up to cry, “Troskeena Wellington, you can’t square what you have done!” And when Ravenal first meets Magnolia, she refers to the reunion of aunt and nephew after seventy-five years in The Village Drunkard, a show boat favorite. Ravenal rejects the concept—yet, after marrying Magnolia, he abandons her and their daughter...for twenty-three years.
Ziegfeld did feel that Hammerstein, a master of surefire corny comedy in his previous shows, let Show Boat’s second act get too serious. Yet the work played startlingly well on its first performance, in Washington, D.C. True, it ran some four hours long—and there is a legend, started by Ziegfeld’s secretary, Goldie,  that a stunned audience didn’t applaud after it was over. This is nonsense—and the entire four-city tryout did such good business that a substantial portion of the production’s capitalization was paid off by the time it opened in New York, on December 27, 1927, at the producer’s own house, the Ziegfeld Theatre (now demolished; the cinema bearing his name is located down the street from the playhouse’s old site). There were, however, many changes on the road, including the loss of “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” during the cutting of Show Boat’s overtime. Kern was heartbroken; he thought that number as close to the heart of the work as “Ol’ Man River,” and even composed Show Boat’s overture around it. And when the first vocal score was published, Kern insisted that the song take its place right along with  “You Are Love” and “Make Believe” as if it had never been dropped.
Show Boat’s original cast offered an odd assortment. The Captain Andy, Charles Winninger, was a popular comic of the day, but the Magnolia, Norma Terris, never managed to assert herself on stage or film, and the Ravenal, Howard Marsh, is so little known that, despite having played the tenor lead in the three longest-running musicals of the 1920s—The Student Prince, Blossom Time, and Show Boat—he made no recordings of anything whatsoever. We already know that Jules Bledsoe played Joe. But while Bledsoe was black, his vis-à-vis, as Queenie, was a white woman named Tess Gardella who spent her career performing exclusively in blackface makeup, billed only as “Aunt Jemima.”
It’s a paradox in the saga of Show Boat, which is celebrated for its honesty in dealing with race relations. However, in 1927, white actors made up as blacks—a holdover from the nineteenth-century minstrel shows—were still very much a part of the entertainment scene. Less than three months before Show Boat opened, Hollywood set forth the first movie musical, The Jazz Singer, essentially a silent film with song sequences spliced in here and there. But the singer was Al Jolson, a sensation of the day—and Jolson habitually performed his roles entirely or partly in blackface. Indeed, the last shot of The Jazz Singer—the movie’s farewell kiss, so to say—is a view of Jolson on stage on one knee, his arms stretched out in supplication, his voice crying out, “Mammy!” And Jolson, though born in Russia, white of race and Jewish in religion, is made up as a black man. As L. P. Hartley wrote, in The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”
Film buffs might recognize the actress who played Captain Andy’s busybody wife, Parthy Ann, for she was Edna May Oliver, the go-to comedienne for sour-old-lady parts. She was in everything from Shakespeare to a Sonja Henie ice-skating musical. But Show Boat did offer one star. In fact, it created her stardom: Helen Morgan, the Julie, who used her trademark pose singing atop an upright piano for “Bill.” Morgan was among the Show Boat stage veterans who made the 1936 Show Boat film (recently released on DVD), and while she modestly stands next to the  piano for “Bill” instead of climbing onto it, the number remains one of the glories of musical history.
Each era repurposes Show Boat to suit its artistic policies. In 1946, Kern and Hammerstein revived the show in Carousel style, removing some of 1927’s crazy bits to homogenize the piece. Harold Prince’s 1994 version emphasized the racial issues. But Show Boat never was meant to be all that unified. The piece “was born big and wants to stay that way,” Hammerstein once wrote, which is another way of saying that you can’t resolve the contradictions of an epic without losing some of its grandeur. Asking for consistency in a work that spans some forty years is hopeless; like Walt Whitman, Show Boat contains multitudes. It’s white and black, fantasy and reality, joy and despair, old and new, South and North: everything going off at once, like life in America.
Ziegfeld understood that. He billed Show Boat as his “all American musical comedy.” And, much later, when conductor John McGlinn planned the greatest classical-pop crossover show album of all time, with virtually every Broadway classic to choose from, he took Show Boat, filling three CDs with the complete original version along with  dropped numbers, added numbers, the works. (The Hammerstein estate tried to veto the project, but we remember that Edna Ferber owned one-third of the property, and the Kern and Ferber estates outvoted the Hammersteins.) The discs even boast an all American cameo by Lillian Gish, so intrinsic to our national arts culture that she worked for D. W. Griffith in early silent-film days.
One sometimes hears that Show Boat was the first integrated musical, with no finagling specialty turns, but there were integrated shows from the late nineteenth century on (even earlier in Europe, for example Gilbert and Sullivan).  Anyway, Show Boat did have specialty turns, at least in 1927. Even in its current incarnation, what is “Hey, Fellah!” but Queenie’s chance to cut loose and entertain with a dishy one-step?
Nevertheless, Show Boat was indeed the first musical with a compelling story merged with a fabulous score. It’s so rich a piece, covering so many lives, that it doesn’t answer all our questions. Why did Captain Andry marry the odious Parthy Ann (though she’s worse in Ferber’s novel than in the musical)? Why did Ravenal abandon his family? Shame? Boredom?  And what happens to Julie after “Bill”? Show Boat gives us so much to think about that we have to keep coming back to it just to try to catch up with all its events.
And now it’s time for a cliché—because how else does one end a piece on this timeless masterwork but to say that, like Ol’ man river, it just keeps rollin’ along?
Called the “preeminent historian of the American musical” by the New York Times, Ethan Mordden is the author of several stories, novels, essays, and non-fiction books. He has written for numerous publications, including the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal; his latest work, Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre, was published in 2013.


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Conductor's Note

John DeMain

Back in the 1980s, a young man by the name of John McGlinn called me at Houston Grand Opera, where David Gockley and I were preparing a new production of Show Boat to tour America, play on Broadway, and even perform at the newly built opera house in Cairo, Egypt.

He introduced himself as a sort of music theater musicologist, asking for an opportunity to research and resurrect all the musical materials related to Show Boat from its inception through its various reincarnations. Until that time, the Rodgers and Hammerstein library was licensing a version that was a hodgepodge of the 1927 original and the 1946 revival. McGlinn did magnificent sleuthing and created a priceless treasure of music theater history as embodied in his complete recording of all the original Show Boat materials, featuring Frederica von Stade and Teresa Stratas.
We now have access to all the original orchestrations of the 1927 performance, as well as songs such as “Hey Feller,” that were inserted in subsequent productions. For these performances, we are restoring the complete “Mis’ry” number for the African-American chorus, “Dance Away the Night” for Magnolia, and “Hey Feller” for Queenie. “Hey Feller” is a Charleston and is the only musical number that suggests the passing of time, which I feel is very important to the show. We are doing the 1947 overture, however, as the original overture plays the “Mis’ry” song in its entirety, and we prefer to integrate it as more of a surprise inside the show itself.
I hope you will enjoy the vintage sound of our performances, paying particular attention to the banjo and guitar that are present throughout the show. In many ways Jerome Kern is like an American Schubert, giving us unforgettable melodies embodied in great songs and duets. It is a pleasure to perform this work with members of the great San Francisco Opera Orchestra, who so beautifully traverse the varied terrain that makes up this seminal American work. Our amazing cast and chorus deftly sing and dance, and also soar to great lyric heights in this score that bridges the ocean of European operetta and American vaudeville, opening the door for the great American musicals that follow in the path created by Show Boat.

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Director's Note

Francesca Zambello

Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II is the beginning of our American musical-theater history, a work that set a benchmark for everything to come. We could not have had Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Sondheim without this work.

Nor could we have found a bridge from opera to our own evolving American art form.

It is the musical-theater work that starts us on our journey. I have long held to the notion that musical theater is ‘our’ version of opera. With it we have forged something as popular as opera was in the 19th century for our culture. We now need to find a way to allow opera and musical theater to live harmoniously in our American theater and opera-house landscape.

Show Boat has it all. It gives us a rich musical study in opera, operetta, vaudeville, and musical comedy, but—equally important—a compelling American story of social and political importance. Through Magnolia Hawks, a young girl coming into womanhood, the story confronts the powerful issues of miscegenation and racial injustice along with the tenderness of youthful love and the tragedy of abandonment with a child. Ferber's story took a clear-eyed, revolutionary look at the sprawling, messy society of the post-Emancipation years, the Industrial Revolution, and the conflicts between the North and South—issues still with us today. The work is compellingly historic and contemporary all at once.

With this production we have married the worlds of opera singers, musical-theater performers, and dramatic actors. We have cast opera singers in the roles of Ravenal, Magnolia, Joe, Julie, and Queenie, and musical-theater performers as Ellie and Frank, while using actors for the spoken roles. The work also has two chorus groups (one Caucasian and the other African-American), as well as dancers. Only in an opera house could we get this mix of performers, as well the orchestral forces envisaged originally.

Show Boat has many versions. We have worked with the Kern Estate and Ted Chapin of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization to secure their approval of our version. I am proud to bring this work to the stage of the War Memorial. The San Francisco Opera staff, artists, chorus and orchestra are some of the finest in this country so I am excited to bring our boat to their berth.

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Edna Ferber: Author of Show Boat

Jane Ganahl

Sitting in the audience of a Connecticut playhouse in 1924, author and playwright Edna Ferber watched in horror while the opening performance of her play, Minick, was interrupted by an invasion of bats that had been hiding in the rafters.

Edna Ferber

After audience members fled for the exits, the disappointed cast and crew gathered in the empty playhouse. Next time, producer Winthrop Ames jokingly told them, perhaps a better idea would be to charter a show boat and drift from town to town.
Ferber, then thirty-nine and a budding superstar of American letters, had never heard of the culture of show boats: floating theaters that traveled up and down major rivers from the 1870s to the 1930s bringing music, dramatic productions, and dancing to isolated river towns. She was immediately fascinated. 
As Ferber wrote in her memoir, A Peculiar Treasure: “Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way. It was not only the theater — it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself. I spent a year hunting down every available scrap of show-boat material; reading, interviewing, taking notes, and making outlines.”  
After capping her year of study with four days aboard one of the few remaining show boats, the James Addams Floating Theatre, Ferber was confident that she had obtained “a treasure trove of show boat material: human, touching, true,” and spent the next year writing the novel. When Show Boat was published in 1926, it was an immediate hit. With its heady combination of steamy romance, unflinching presentation of racial problems, and glowing nostalgia for a vanishing American past, the novel was number one on the bestseller lists for twelve weeks.
Reception among critics was mostly positive. In his New York Times review, Louis Kronenberger wrote: “With Show Boat, Miss Ferber establishes herself not as one of those who are inaugurating first-rate literature, but as one of those who are reviving first-rate story-telling.”
Throughout her acclaimed five-decade career—which included 12 novels, 12 collections of short stories, two autobiographies, and nine plays—Ferber was most drawn to tell the stories of America’s working class: people of every ethnicity and occupation, who struggled against great odds. She was doubtlessly influenced by her childhood, which was made challenging by the business failures and early blindness and death of her Hungarian-born father, Jacob Ferber; by the labor of her mother in several family stores; and by a period of seven years in which, Ferber remembered, she endured daily anti-Semitism.
Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan on August 15, 1885. After high school, she got a job as a reporter at the Appleton, Wisconsin Daily Crescent, later working at the Milwaukee Journal before publishing her first novel at twenty-six. In 1925, Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel, So Big, which sold 3 million copies—a staggering number in those days—and solidified her stature as one of America’s premiere novelists of either sex.
As her fame grew, so did her profile as a literary lioness—one whose claws could be sharp. Publisher Bennett Cerf called Ferber, “an absolute monarch who made Catherine the Great look like Little Orphan Annie. She was a wonderful hostess when her dictates were unquestionably obeyed, but heaven help the oaf who stepped out of line.”
She joined the famed Algonquin Roundtable founded by Dorothy Parker, and felt right at home among the rapier-tongued wits of the Golden Era of New York publishing. Of her clique, Ferber wrote, “Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent and very, very tough. Casual, incisive, they had a terrible integrity about their work and a boundless ambition. Theirs was a tonic influence, one on the other, and all on the world of American letters.”
Ferber was also strident in her left-wing political views, campaigning for the Socialist Party of America in 1930 and serving as a member of the Progressive Citizens of America alongside Paul Robeson (for whom the role of Joe in Show Boat was written), Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Helen Keller, Aaron Copland, Eugene O’Neill, and Thornton Wilder. A profile of Ferber by Rogers Dickinson described her thus: “She enters the room in a rush, with a quick, firm step; though she is short, scarcely more than five-foot three, she dominates most groups.”  
Ferber never married, had no children, and despite all the publicity she got, was never known to have had a love affair. She once wrote: “Life itself is a writer’s lover until death” and was famously quoted for having written, “Being an old maid is a great deal like death by drowning: a really delightful sensation when you cease to struggle.”
Her great empathy for women and minorities led her to create consistently strong female protagonists, along with supporting ethnic characters—at least one of whom faced discrimination of some kind. Into some of her books, Ferber also wove the theme of the exploitation of labor. Giant, for one, set off an angry reaction in Texas upon its publication, but despite the bad publicity and mixed reviews, the book became a bestseller. (The movie of Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, was Dean’s last and earned him his second Academy Award nomination; he was killed in a car accident before the film was released.) 
In addition to Giant, many of Ferber’s books were adapted for other media, including movies of Ice Palace, Saratoga Trunk, and Cimarron (which won an Oscar). Three of these works—Show Boat, Saratoga Trunk, and Giant—also became musicals. When composer Jerome Kern approached Ferber about turning Show Boat—by all counts a serious book with some challenging subject matter—into a musical, Ferber balked, concerned that it would be transformed into a frilly stage show typical of the 1920s. But when Kern told her that he and Oscar Hammerstein II wanted to honor the seriousness of the issues the book raised, Ferber granted the rights.
Like the book, the grand musical Show Boat chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that travels between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi from the 1880s to the 1920s. Among the many unforgettable characters: the indomitable Magnolia who is thrust into stardom; the loving but irresponsible “river rat” gambler Gaylord; the mixed-race Julie, forced to leave the show when her secret comes out; and the black manual laborers Joe and Queenie, who show the less glamorous side of show boat life.
These characters and topics cemented Show Boat’s reputation as a revolutionary theatrical experience during a time when such things were not considered fodder for stage musicals. It was all thanks to Ferber, who was making a point: the lives of the working class and the disenfranchised are worthy of bringing to life.
Bennett Cerf, eulogizing at her funeral in 1968, called Ferber, “the gallant, dauntless, irrepressible champion of causes she believed in.”
Jane Ganahl has been a journalist, author, editor, and producer in San Francisco for more than three decades. She is the co-founder of Litquake, the West Coast’s largest independent literary festival, author of the memoir Naked on the Page, and contributor to many magazines, from Bazaar to Rolling Stone, Ladies’ Home Journal, and San Francisco Opera Magazine.

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Morris Robinson on Show Boat

Robert Wilder Blue

Growing up, Morris Robinson was immersed in music, from singing in the Atlanta Boys Choir to playing drums in the Baptist church where his father was minister.

But he gave up music for his first love, football, and became a two-time college All-American offensive lineman. After graduation and a successful career with 3M, his destiny took him back to music at 29.
“I was auditioning for the Choral Arts Society of Washington, D.C. When [director] Norman Scribner heard me he said, ‘You should be doing this for a living.’” A year later, Robinson made his professional debut as the King in Aida with Boston Lyric Opera.
Now the bass returns to San Francisco Opera—he made his Company debut as the Commendatore in 2011’s Don Giovanni—to take on the iconic role of Joe in Show Boat. “When I was approached to do this role, I was apprehensive. As a young African American singer, I was warned about being typecast. I knew ‘Ol’ Man River,’ but I wasn’t familiar with the complexity and dignity of this character. It was easy to think of him as the typical downtrodden, uneducated guy who sings a happy song white people like to hear. Upon studying Joe and the story, I realized he was very cerebral and central to Show Boat. Joe was probably born a slave and then finds this great job on a show boat. I think about what he observes and the quiet presence he has, watching everything that transpires.
Show Boat was avant-garde for its time. There are white and black choruses sharing the stage together, which was huge in 1927. It was progress. My eight-year-old son is in this production and completely innocent about these things. In rehearsal, the director was telling the kids about how it was a different time, one in which white and black children would get in trouble for sitting together. We shouldn’t shy away from presenting this because it’s uncomfortable. It’s important for us to know where we’ve come from and reflect on the changes.
“’Ol’ Man River’ should be presented as it was conceived, to be sung with great dignity. Everyone associates the song with the great Paul Robeson, so I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to present it the right way. When I begin to sing, I feel the audience’s stillness and anticipation, and I have to deliver the goods.”

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"Show Boat sizzles... You absolutely should experience this production!"

  –SJ Mercury News
"Peter J. Davison's grand sets and Paul Tazewell's period costumes are a bonanza of color and effect."

  –SJ Mercury News
"In 'Make Believe,' Michael Todd Simpson's first duet with Heidi Stober, he gives the show a sudden, expansive stillness. Time stops and the skies seem to open up."

  –SF Classical Voice
"A shatteringly great...unforgettable performance by bass Morris Robinson" as Joe and "a radiant and witty performance by Angela Renée Simpson" as Queenie.

  –SF Chronicle
Bill Irwin (Cap'n Andy) "is all fluid motion and spark-plug energy.... He is pure expression and heart."

  –SJ Mercury News
Harriet Harris (Parthy Ann) is "comically fierce."

  –SF Bay Guardian
"To hear 'You Are Love' sung by Heidi Stober and Michael Todd Simpson is to hear a classic operatic duet, as fragrant as Puccini."

  –SJ Mercury News
"The choruses are on fire. The dancers are off the charts."

  –SJ Mercury News
"'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man,' as ignited by Patricia Racette and chorus, will ring in your ears long after the curtain falls."

  –SJ Mercury News
"It's a grand, operatically scaled piece of storytelling...with magnificent melodies and big themes."

  –SF Classical Voice
Francesca Zambello's Show Boat offers "rollicking dance numbers and big crowd scenes, balanced by intimate emotion and sheer romance."

  –SF Chronicle
"It only took a few minutes of the overture, gleefully led by conductor John DeMain, for the audience to know that we were in for something both wonderful and fitting."

  –SF Chronicle
Soprano Heidi Stober, "singing with vivid, bright-toned charm, is an ingénue straight from the world of operetta."

  –SF Chronicle
"Kristen Wyatt and John Bolton provided a burst of music-hall pizzazz as the Cotton Blossom's second-banana team."

  –SF Chronicle

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Performances with Best Availability JULY 1 & 2

  • Sun 06/1/14 2:00pm *

  • Tue 06/3/14 8:00pm

  • Tue 06/10/14 7:30pm *

  • Fri 06/13/14 8:00pm *

  • Thu 06/19/14 7:30pm *

  • Sun 06/22/14 2:00pm

  • Thu 06/26/14 7:30pm

  • Sat 06/28/14 8:00pm

  • Tue 07/1/14 8:00pm

  • Wed 07/2/14 7:30pm

Save up to 30% when you purchase tickets to all three summer operas! Call the Box Office at (415) 864-3330 for information and to order! 

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by Roberta and David Elliott and by a generous challenge grant from Maurice Kanbar and Bernard Osher.

Ms. Racette's appearance is made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.