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ClassicsOnline Home » KERN: Showboat (1932, 1946)
Show Boat shares something with the Mississippi
River so central to its story: it never flows
the same way twice.
Perhaps more than any other work in
modern theatre, Show Boat has varied with each
new incarnation, due to changes in political or
dramatic fashion. Lyrics have been rewritten,
songs dumped or added, scenes juggled and
This recording reflects three of the various
versions of the score which have come down to
us over the years since Show Boat opened on
Broadway on 27 December 1927.
Actually, the musical began its journey to
New York three and a half years earlier, with an
appropriately theatrical setting.
Author Edna Ferber was on the road with a
play of hers which was then called Old Man
Minick. After a spectacularly unsuccessfully
première in New London, Connecticut, producer
Winthrop Ames tried to cheer up Ferber and the
company with a whimsical notion.
‘Next time,’ he said,‘I won’t go out of town
with a show. I’ll just let it play on a show boat.’
‘What’s a show boat?’ asked Ferber and
history was made.
Ames went on to explain to her that since
shortly after the Civil War, large especially
equipped riverboats had been sailing up and
down the Mississippi river, presenting comedies,
melodramas and variety shows to the people in
the riverside towns.
Ferber instantly saw this as a setting for one
of those sweeping historical romances that had
made her famous and in 1926 Show Boat was
published to great critical acclaim as well as
huge popular sales.
One of the people to read it with particular
interest was Jerome Kern. The successful
composer of such Broadway hits as “Sally”and
“Sunny”was always on the lookout for his next
project. Before he had finished more than a few
chapters, he called up Oscar Hammerstein II, one
of his favourite collaborators, and told him he
had found their next vehicle.
Hammerstein shared Kern’s enthusiasm for
the work and almost at once the pair of them
were outlining scenes and conceiving songs for
their proposed show.
The only problem was that they didn’t have
the rights to Ferber’s novel.
Kern waited until the opening of his next
show, Criss-Cross, on 12 October 1926. He
forced his way across the lobby at intermission
to confront the larger-than-life critic Alexander
Woolcott, a good friend of Ferber’s. He begged
Woolcott to arrange a meeting, going on and on
about how he had to get the rights to Show
Boat. The waspish Woolcott let his friend
exhaust himself before finally turning and introducing
him to his companion of the evening,
Fortunately, Ferber and Kern got along, as did
Hammerstein when he was added to the
equation. The trio then aimed their sights on
Florenz Ziegfeld, the most flamboyant producer
on the theatrical scene.
He, too, loved the idea and wanted it to open
his new Ziegfeld Theatre in February of 1927.
Hammerstein and Kern were capable of rapid
work, but they sensed this project could be
something out of the ordinary and they
encouraged Ziegfeld to fast-track something else,
which he did, backing a now-forgotten romp
called Rio Rita.
This gave the authors time to dig deep into
their material and they produced one of the
most mature and heartfelt works in all of musical
theatre. During a period when triviality trumped
substance every time, Show Boat was a risky
Not only was it a weighty, unwieldy story,
covering several generations and many locations,
but the themes built into it were bound to be
controversial. One of the major plot twists
hinged on the issue of interracial marriage at a
time when the Ku Klux Klan was still a powerful
political force and lynch mobs were not
uncommon in the Deep South.
But the authors stuck to their guns and
when Ziegfeld started to get cold feet, they called
his bluff, with Oscar’s uncle Arthur offering to
pick up the production.
It finally opened in Washington,D.C. on
15 November 1927. Hammerstein was later to
say that the show ‘was born big and wants to
stay that way’, but at first, it was just a little too
huge for words. The opening performance ran
nearly five hours, with the dense plot slugging it
out against Ziegfeld’s penchant for overwhelming
The authors began cutting through
subsequent tryout stints in Pittsburgh and
Philadelphia, reducing it to a manageable three
hours by the time it opened in New York on
27 December. The audiences and critics alike
cheered it as ‘the best musical show ever
written’ and it ran an impressive (for that period)
Since then it has been revived on Broadway
five times and been turned into a film on three
occasions. (The first, in 1929,was a largely silent
version, with a ‘prologue’ added at the last
minute, featuring fifteen minutes of songs from
But every version has been different in
several interesting ways. The first line of the
opening chorus was originally ‘Niggers all work
on the Mississippi’. As the years went by, the
offending word changed to ‘coloured folks’, then
‘everyone’ and in one production during the
height of America’s racial unrest in the 1960s, the
line was cut totally, leaving nobody to work on
The other major problem has to do with the
ending. Kim, the daughter of long-suffering
heroine Magnolia Hawks, becomes a performer
of a new generation on the show boat.
The original actress to play the role, Norma
Terris,was a skilled impersonator, and so she
was allowed to do her ‘party pieces’ at that point
in the show. By 1946,Kern and Hammerstein
realized they needed something different, so
they came up with Nobody Else But Me,
which proved be to the last song Kern ever
wrote. And in the last 1994 Broadway revival,
Kim became a Charleston dynamo, leading the
cast in a showstopping production number, set
to Why Do I love You?.
The first eight selections here come from a
1932 studio recording on the Brunswick label.
It features Helen Morgan, the original Julie from
both the 1927 première and the 1932 revival
with her signature performances of Bill and
Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, as well as Paul
Robeson, who didn’t appear in the show until
1932, but quickly made Ol’ Man River his own
Also included on this recording are popular
vocalists of the period such as Countess Olga
Albani, James Melton and Frank Munn. The
orchestra is conducted by Victor Young,who
went on to enjoy a distinguished career as a film
When Show Boat was turned into a fully
musical film in 1936,Kern and Hammerstein
wanted to add an additional song for Paul
Robeson, so they created Ah Still Suits Me for
his character of Joe. In the film, it was sung by
Robeson and Hattie McDaniel, who played
Queenie. It appears here in a 1936 studio
recording made with Elisabeth Welch, a stage
and cabaret star who left Broadway in the early
1930s to settle in England.
The remaining selections are all from the
1946 Broadway revival which opened 5 January
1946 and ran for 418 performances. Jan Clayton
(as Magnolia) got top billing. She had first appeared
in Carousel and then went on to a film
career, although she’s best remembered today as
the original mother on the Lassie TV series.
Carol Bruce, who sings Julie, enjoyed a
Broadway career for the next two decades, with
shows like Do I Hear a Waltz? and Henry, Sweet
Henry to her credit, but for the remaining leads
– Charles Fredericks,Kenneth Spencer and
Collette Lyons – this production of Show Boat
would be the high point of their careers, with
no subsequent New York stage appearances and
only a handful of minor film roles.
But whatever form they take, the music and
lyrics of Show Boat continue to impress us,
nearly eighty years after their creation.
Like “Ol’ Man River”, it just keeps rollin’ along.
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KERN: Showboat (1932, 1946)