Show Boat: Back to America’s Roots

We thoroughly enjoyed Lyric’s staging of Show Boat, even if it wasn’t quite the usual operatic offerings with unamplified voices. But the musical, which focused on fundamental transitional moments in history, was a fascinating study of art mirrors life mirrors art.

The story took us through the evolution of American theater – from roaming show boats to revues to the beginnings of the Broadway musicals we see today. Indeed, Show Boat has been heralded as the father of the American musical theater tradition. And, as director Francesca Zambello explained, Show Boat is “the beginning of America’s own version of opera. [It] is to this country’s audiences what 19th century opera was to Italian and German audiences, both in its level of accessibility and popularity. Because it is a crossover work, there are both the vestigial influences of Europe [Kern knew
his Puccini, Verdi, Mussorgsky and operetta], but also a real sense of American music, from jazz to gospel to vaudeville, with all the mix of languages of an immigrant country. It was just an incredibly forward-thinking show.”

I was also struck by how reflective the music and dialogue was of the times and the character. The speech and songs weren’t stylized, but came across as natural, and lent much realism to the plot, like a couple of the jazzier numbers.

Loved the staging – lots of truly funny moments. And the set was gorgeous – though it was somewhat disconcerting that people actually interrupted the orchestra on a few occasions to applaud the scenery (!). The cast, in general, was stellar. Nathan Gunn of course, is always fun to watch, since he has a bright baritone and consummate acting chops to go with. The Broadway stars held their own with the singing too, aided by the discreet microphone placements.

Chicago Classical Review writes:

When Show Boat opened in 1927, American musical theater consisted of either revue-type burlesque shows with Ziegfeld-girl eye candy or featherweight scenarios of college romances replete with flappers and raccoon coats.

With Show Boat composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II forcibly lifted the American musical out of its frivolous origins. With a key miscegenation subplot, the creators shined a bright light on America’s sorry racial history—a courageous act in 1927—and showed that the musical can be a richer, deeper, more serious art form, paving the way for works to come like Carousel, West Side Story and Rent.

Adapted from Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel, the story covers nearly a half-century in the life of Magnolia Hawks, daughter of Captain Andy of the Cotton Blossom showboat, who meets and falls in love with the charming but feckless gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Their history takes them to Chicago at the 1893 World’s Fair, where Ravenal abandons his wife and their young daughter Kim, and into the jazz age. The tale comes full circle back to the showboat for a tear-jerking if improbable finale in which the aged, guilt-stricken Ravenal returns to reunite with Magnolia—now a celebrated and successful singer—and their grown-up daughter. The darker secondary plot concerns Magnolia’s friend Julie, who is forced to leave the Cotton Blossom when it is revealed that she is half black and in a mixed-race marriage with Steve, which ultimately leads to her alcoholism and ruin.

Yet even more than the compelling storyline and blend of broad humor and stark drama it is the rich score that has kept Show Boat a beloved perennial, with such standards as Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Make Believe, Old Man River and You Are Love, all in the first act alone. There are a multitude of alternate songs written for various revivals and the 1936 film, and conductor John DeMain and director Francesca Zambello have done a masterful job of choosing material, restoring some gems—like the ominous chorus Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun‘—and giving welcome additional stage time to the principal African-American characters, Joe and Queenie.

The essential difference between opera and musical theater is that opera is primarily about voices while theater is primarily about songs and the production. And with the voices discreetly amplified for both dialogueand singing in this Show Boat, any evaluation of the vocalism has to come with a significant asterisk attached.

Lyric’s Roger Pines analysis of the opera:

Frivolity abounded on Broadway in the mid-1920s, thanks to shows with titles such as Manhattan Mary, The Merry Malones, and Yes, Yes, Yvette. Then suddenly there came to the stage a magnificent score with such dramatic power that it singlehandedly took musical theater several giant steps forward. That show – eagerly anticipated at Lyric Opera this season – was composer Jerome Kern’s masterpiece, Show Boat, with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

A major scholar of American musicals, Miles Kreuger, writes that they can be “divided into two eras: everything before Show Boat, and everything after Show Boat.” He mentions specifically what set this piece apart when it premiered 84 years ago:

• controversial themes were dealt with, yet without sacrificing wonderful tunes;

• for the first time in musicals, a protagonist progressed from impressionable teen to strong, independent adult;

• also for the first time, a Broadway show was racially integrated – with a black chorus and a white chorus onstage singing together.

Racial tensions are undeniably part of Show Boat and, from the start, the piece has provoked controversy. 1920s audiences were startled when the curtain rose on Act One. Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright write that “instead of a line of chorus girls showing their legs in the opening number singing that they were happy, happy, happy, the curtain rose on black dockhands lifting bales of cotton and singing about the hardness of their lives.”

Kern and Hammerstein recognized that during the decades of this drama, African-Americans had a long way to go to achieve equality in all aspects of their lives. The creative team revealed their sensitivity in the stoic feeling inherent in the show’s most familiar song, “Ol’ Man River,” and in the black workers’ stirring lament, “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.” Despite the efforts of Kern and Hammerstein, Show Boat continues toarouse sharply differing views among audiences and critics even today.

The show’s characters originated in a novel created by Edna Ferber, one of America’s most celebrated writers. To composer Jerome Kern, Ferber’s Show Boat (1926) seemed a natural for musical theater. Kern got Ferber’s approval, brought Hammerstein on board, and found a producer in the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld. With a terrific cast in place, the stage was set for something fabulous.

But Show Boat’s performance history didn’t begin promisingly: at the premiere in Washington, D.C., it ran a whopping four hours and ten minutes. Significant cuts were made, but at opening night on Broadway (December 27, 1927), there was – unbelievably – virtually no applause after any of the musical numbers. Everyone was astonished when the reviews turned out to be raves. Show Boat was launched, and it’s been conquering audiences ever since.

What an irresistible piece this is, bursting with songs that are truly enriched by the warmth and expansiveness of operatic voices! With Kern’s gift for melody married to Hammerstein’s unerringly characterful lyrics, everything is a highlight, from bouncy specialty numbers to three memorable love duets. The creators provided wonderfully lively moments with two boisterous songs for Queenie (soprano Angela Renée Simpson, debut), the Cotton Blossom’s feisty cook. Her husband, the warm-hearted stevedore Joe (bass Morris Robinson, debut – see “Entrances & Encores,” p. 16), can steal the show singing “Ol’ Man River,” the jewel in Show Boat’s crown.

Hammerstein’s libretto was unique for its time, actually creating an impetus for characters to sing; musical numbers emerged naturally out of the dialogue. Integrating song and story was the single greatest step in the development of the American musical. It’s already evident early in Act One’s meeting of Magnolia and Ravenal, with dialogue that moves seamlessly into “Make Believe.”

The Kern-Hammerstein duo also revealed character in ways their predecessors couldn’t approach. Surprisingly, it’s the key supporting female role, Julie, rather than the lead, Magnolia, who gets the most illuminating songs: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” provide deep insight into a woman whose devotion to the man she loves is ultimately her destruction. There’s no figure more touching in American musical theater.

Chicago Tribune’s review:

‘Show Boat’ makes new waves – at Lyric Opera

John von Rhein

Classical music critic

February 8, 2012

It’s high time to lay to rest the shopworn canard that American musical theater works are somehow unsuitable for presentation by the big American opera houses. As a matter of fact, no piece in the cavalcade of American musicals has a more legitimate right to be taken under the wing of a major company like Lyric Opera than the landmark known as “Show Boat.”

That’s because only a theater such as Lyric’s has the resources to satisfy the enormous musical and production requirements of the 1927 classic, with its tune-laden Jerome Kern score and finely-wrought book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, based on the sprawling novel of Edna Ferber.

“Show Boat” – which docks for the first time at the Lyric Sunday afternoon at the Civic Opera House, in a new production directed by Francesca Zambello – calls for a huge cast of operatically-trained voices (musical comedy singers as well), actors, dancers, large orchestra, two choruses (one Caucasian, one African American) and lavish production values.

Try putting all that together on a shoestring, let alone squeezing it into your average Broadway theater or touring house.

“Show Boat” is where modern American musical theater began, the show that set a benchmark for everything that came after. It is the first American musical where the songs grow out of character and narrative, where a frivolous plot is replaced by serious themes – in this case, racial tensions and miscegenation. These themes play out against a panoramic historical backdrop filled with social changes that parallel the lives of the Hawks family and their troupe on the show boat Cotton Blossom, from the 1880s to the 1920s.

The Mississippi River – apostrophized by the stevedore Joe (Morris Robinson) in the show’s most famous number, “Ol’ Man River” – represents the inexorable flow of time that opens and heals the wounds of the central characters. These include the stagestruck Magnolia Hawks (Ashley Brown), daughter of the show boat captain; the feckless gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Nathan Gunn), who marries Magnolia and later abandons her and their child; and Magnolia’s friend Julie (Alyson Cambridge), a singing actress of mixed race, who sacrifices her job as headliner at a Chicago nightclub to allow Magnolia her big break.



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