Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the conclusion of our extended series on the best musicals from the 1920s! This infamous decade was a booming time for musical theatre as the emergence of new talent — both onstage and off — led to a culture that more than ever celebrated outstanding individuals and their creative accomplishments. Broadway was the brightest place on Earth. The musicals of the 1920s are largely frivolous affairs — trivial books (if there IS a book) with sizzling scores, memorable dances, lavish production values, and the most exciting musical theatre stars of the century. Over these past few months, we’ve been looking at some of these notable productions. We’ve covered Sally (1920),Shuffle Along (1921), Rose-Marie (1924), Lady, Be Good! (1924), No, No, Nanette (1925), Dearest Enemy (1925), “The Cocoanuts” (1925), Oh, Kay! (1926), Good News! (1927), Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds Of 1928, The New Moon (1928), and The Little Show (1929). Today, we’re returning to December 1927, as promised, to conclude this blog series with one of the most important — and one of my favorite — musicals of all time: Show Boat (1927).
XIII. Show Boat (12/27/27 – 05/04/29)
What is there to say about this, perhaps the greatest American musical ever created, that hasn’t been said before? Produced by the great Ziegfeld, and featuring the music of Jerome Kern with a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein (of the future ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein’), Show Boat is more than just an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel about folks on a river boat; it’s the story of our culture — a romantic (and, at times, tragic) look at the ways in which our social mores have influenced the shape of American entertainment and defined who we are as a people. Well, all of that plus lighthearted comedy, melodramatic romance, dancing Ziegfeld girls, and “Ol’ Man River.” But beyond its social relevance, Show Boat has an importance in the history of musical theatre. I’ve referred to it many times on this blog as a marker — along with Oklahoma! (1943), another important American musical. These two shows, 16 years apart and connected by Hammerstein, feature dramatically coherent plots and thrilling musical moments that work in unison to tell a satisfying narrative. And though, as we’ve seen on this blog, many of the shows that came during that 16 year gap fall short of our expectations of dramatic integration, Show Boat, to use a metaphor, planted seeds — seeds that finally grew with Laurey and Curley in 1943.
For those who have yet to experience the wonder of this classic piece of American history, it is necessary to provide an understanding of the story, which, atypical for a ’20s musical, is imperative to the enjoyment of the show (and thus responsible for its longevity). The story begins on the Cotton Blossom in 1887 and is centered upon the romance of riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Marsh) and beautiful Magnolia Hawks (Norma Terris), daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger) and the prudish Parthy Ann Hawks (Edna May Oliver). When the show’s headlining couple, Steve and Julie (Helen Morgan), are forced to leave the boat following charges of miscegenation (Julie is a mulatto), Magnolia and the now hired Ravenal are promoted. They fall in love and marry at the close of the first act, despite the reservations of Parthy, who’s learned that Ravenal was once tried for murder.
The second act picks up six years later, with the couple happily married and living in Chicago. By 1903, they have a daughter, Kim, but due to Ravenal’s excessive gambling, are flat broke. When Ravenal deserts Magnolia, she gets a job (thanks to some old boat friends) and becomes a hit at the Trocadero, filling a spot vacated by an alcoholic Julie. Come 1927, Kim has become a big Broadway star, and Cap’n Andy arranges a reunion between Magnolia and Ravenal as the curtain comes down.
Though I have given a brief summation of the plot, I’ve done the show a grave injustice — for its impossible to tell the story of Show Boat without the music. For instance, though Julie’s lineage isn’t officially confirmed until the notorious ‘miscegenation scene’, the audience is clued in beforehand when Julie sings a song to Magnolia — a song that “only colored folks” know. The colored folks in question are Queenie, the ship’s cook, her dock worker husband Joe, and the rest of the servants, who join in for the riotous and now well-known “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Click here to listen to a 1928 recording of Helen Morgan, the infamous chanteuse who played Julie in the Original 1927 Production, the 1932 revival, and the 1936 film adaptation. Below is a recording by Tess Gardella, also known as ‘Aunt Jemima,’ who performed the role in blackface for the original production.
Though Gardella did play Queenie in blackface, the majority of the black characters were played by African Americans, marking one of the first times — and certainly the first time in a production as large as this — that blacks and whites shared the stage. Still, with the stereotyped characterizations (fitting in with white sensibilities of 1927), and the script and score’s decided use of the “‘n’ word”, many have (foolishly) declared Show Boat as flawed because of its racist depiction of African Americans. (There were protests when the show played Broadway last — in a moderately misguided 1993 production.) But this couldn’t be farther from the truth! Sure, the fact that it was produced in 1927 is going to make it a different representation than one would see in a work created in 2014, but we can’t fault the show for being of its time. Additionally, the show’s whole thematic construct — and this is where Kern’s score becomes a major player — is that African American entertainment (jazz, charleston, etc.) has become such a part of our culture that prejudices between the races are foolish; we are all American.
That’s why the song that Magnolia sings for her audition at the Trocadero is the same one taught to her by Julie, Queenie, and Joe on the Cotton Blossom. That’s why Kim’s big 1927 number — and it’s been changed so much, that I can’t give a definite example — is designed as a hot charleston with musical themes distinctly associated with black music that has been heard earlier in the show. That’s why the biggest number in the entire score (yes, “Ol’ Man River”) is given to Joe, the wise dock worker who knows that in life, only the river is a constant. Click here to hear the original Joe, Jules Bledsoe’s recording of the number. Below is Paul Robeson from the 1936 film adaptation, which has just been released on DVD and remains the BEST cinematic representation of the show. (The role was designed for Robeson, and though didn’t originate Joe, he played him in the Original 1928 London Production, the 1932 Broadway Revival, and throughout several tours over the next decade.)
But the entire score is a delight, and I’m not overstating when I say it may be the best Broadway musical ever written. I wish I could include every song written for the score in this post, including those deleted before Broadway (like the wonderfully melodramatic “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round”), those written for the 1936 film adaptation (like the jubilant but cringeworthy “Gallavantin’ Aroun'”), and all of Kim’s numbers, which I alluded to above, that tried to fill the vital 11 o’clock position in the show (like “Nobody Else But Me” from the 1946 revival). Instead, I can only give the highlights, leaving you curious newbies to seek out the full score for yourself. Below is one of my favorite tunes, “Why Do I Love You?”, performed by Edith Day, Howett Worster, and the Original 1928 London cast.
Given the strength of the music and — miraculously — the book, it should come as no surprise that Show Boat is revived often and has been seen several times on Broadway since the original production closed. From the 1966 revival, here are Barbara Cook and Stephen Douglas with “Make Believe.”
My favorite recording, however, is the 1988 EMI extravaganza, which includes the complete score and all of the cut/added numbers as conducted by John McGlinn. From this recording, here is the brilliantly soaring “You Are Love.”
Again, it should come as no surprise that Show Boat has been adapted for the big screen several times. You may have heard of the 1951 MGM version with Ava Gardner (as Julie) and Howard Keel (as Ravenal), but it cannot be considered faithful to the stage production. You’ve seen a clip above of the 1936 film, which included several cast members from the original production, and the various tours that followed. But, were you also aware of a 1929 adaptation? It was originally produced as a silent, but near the end of production, it was decided to add a little bit of sound. So a prologue was shot in which audiences got to see five numbers from the stage musical as performed by the original cast members. Unfortunately, not all of the footage has survived (or, rather, been made available), but click here to see Tess Gardella and company do “Hey, Feller!” for the 1929 prologue. Below is Gardella and company with “C’mon Folks” (a.k.a. “Queenie’s Ballyhoo).
Audio remains, however, of Helen Morgan’s “Bill.” And though she recorded and performed this many times over the years, there’s something magical in knowing that this recording was made on the Ziegfeld stage, with the original accompaniment. (This number was originally written for Oh Lady! Lady!!, a 1918 Princess Theatre Show, but was excised and used here with revised lyrics.)
The importance of Show Boat is immeasurable, and I find myself once again asking the question that began this post: What is there to say about this, perhaps the greatest American musical ever produced, that hasn’t been said before? It’s everything a musical should be — strong themes, great music, memorable characters. Come to think of it, it’s not just a piece of musical theatre. It IS musical theatre. So, as one last treat — here’s silent home movies of the 1932 Ziegfeld revival.
Come back next Monday when we start a month long series of posts on musical revues of the ’30s! And tune in tomorrow for the best from the final season of That Girl!