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.
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, and...my 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.
’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.