By Albert Williams
A glorious world of unreality opened before their eyes….They forgot the cotton fields, the wheatfields, the cornfields. They forgot the coal mines, the potato patch, the stable, the barn, the shed….Here were blood, lust, love, passion. Here were warmth, enchantment, laughter, music….It was the theatre, perhaps, as the theatre was meant to be…a place in which one could weep unashamed, laugh aloud, give way to emotions long pent-up.
–from Show Boat, by Edna Ferber
Seventy years after its publication, Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat remains a vivid tale, even if its rambling, anecdotal style disqualifies it from the top tier of literature. Ferber, a onetime Chicago Tribune reporter with a keen eye for detail as well as a playwright’s dramatic flair, saw the show boats of the 19th and early 20th centuries as more than colorful nostalgia. These “floating palaces,” which brought much-needed entertainment to people living in rural isolation along the Mississippi River, contained what Ferber felt was missing on the Broadway of the mid-1920s. The melodramas and variety shows put on by the riverborne theaters lacked sophistication and polish, but they had passion–and Ferber felt they reflected the real American experience in a way that Shaw, Ibsen, and other masters of “modern drama” didn’t. Showboat staples like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and East Lynne addressed serious issues like racism and the oppression of women in a bold, accessible manner while satisfying a mass audience’s desire to be excited and dazzled. While writing for a general readership, Ferber was also aiming a message at the American theater elite: “Remember your mission,” you can hear her saying in page after page of her sprawling story. “Remember your roots! Remember your audience!”
Ferber’s best-seller found sympathetic readers in three of the hottest talents of her day. Composer Jerome Kern, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, and producer-director Florenz Ziegfeld were attracted by Show Boat’s commercial appeal and dramatic potential, but I think they were also turned on by Ferber’s populist vision. The kind of theater Ferber was advocating was the American musical–only in 1926 it hadn’t been invented yet. The operettas and revues created by Kern, Hammerstein, Ziegfeld, and their peers were glitzy and rarefied fluff almost exclusively concerned with upper-class images and dominated by a pseudo-European sensibility. And they were emotionally empty, their silly scripts serving as mere excuses for song and dance numbers. What the makers of the musical Show Boat set out to do–once they had won the adaptation rights from the skeptical Ferber–was to create an integrated work of music and drama in which a serious story and credible characters would share the stage with crowd-pleasing spectacle.
They succeeded wildly, as director Harold Prince and producer Garth Drabinsky’s revival demonstrates. At least they did in the first act, which tells the story of the Cotton Blossom show boat and its inhabitants in bold, clear strokes, quickly shifting from humor to poignancy while seamlessly interweaving dance, song, and spectacle. Kern’s diverse score expresses the richness of America’s European and African influences, while Hammerstein’s script explores links between reality and illusion. When Magnolia Hawks, the beautiful teenage daughter of Cap’n Andy Hawks and his puritanical Yankee wife Parthy, and handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal meet, they express their attraction in a game of “Make Believe”–the title of the duet they sing as they invite each other to pretend they’re in love. Kern’s music is gloriously fruity in the operetta tradition–because that’s how these naive youngsters in hormonal overdrive think of love–and Hammerstein smartly arranges for a Romeo-and-Juliet-style balcony scene, with Ravenal on the wharf singing to Magnolia on the boat’s upper deck. (This bilevel setting is turned upside down later, when Ravenal croons his disappointment that his inamorata is berthed on the deck below in “I Have the Room Above Her.”) The couple’s first kiss takes place on a stage, when Ravenal–now hired as the Cotton Blossom’s leading man opposite Magnolia–brings surprising feeling to their love scene even though he’s no actor. Or perhaps he is; beyond his good looks and gallant manner lies the suggestion that his entire persona (the “black sheep” son of Tennessee aristocrats) is a self-invented role.
Similarly, the Cotton Blossom’s leading lady, Julie, is acting even when she’s not onstage: she’s a mulatto passing for white, forced to hide her true identity from everyone but her white husband. Show Boat’s handling of racial issues, risky in 1927 and sometimes controversial today, highlights the double standard of a white-dominated society that draws on black culture but oppresses black people. The first hint that Julie is black comes when she sings the beautiful “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” best known today as a blues but here restored to its original ragtime feel; joining in the song is Queenie, the boat’s black cook, and Magnolia, the white-as-snow ingenue. Later, Magnolia’s affinity for black music is what will make her a vaudeville star–at Julie’s expense. She replaces her old friend in a Chicago nightclub revue–another example of white America’s simultaneous embrace and denial of its African heritage. Prince amplifies the linked racial and theatrical themes in his startling staging of “Ol’ Man River,” the somber spiritual sung by Queenie’s husband Joe and a beautifully harmonized black male chorus–who here function as stagehands, towing the scenery while singing of toting barges.
If Prince’s inventive exploration of the Ferber/Hammerstein narrative buoys act one, the director nearly goes overboard trying to resuscitate act two. Though it’s an epochal landmark, Show Boat is deeply flawed in its final half. Part of the reason is a dearth of good new tunes. Only one Kern-Hammerstein number–the charming but lightweight “Why Do I Love You?”–approaches the quality of act one’s masterful music; “Bill,” the haunting torch song sung by a now down-at-the-heels Julie, is a leftover from one of Kern’s earlier collaborations with P.G. Wodehouse, and the sentimental waltz “After the Ball” is an authentic Gilded Age song interpolated for period flavor.
But the main reason Show Boat’s second half flounders is that the script drifts away from Ferber’s book, sentimentalizing the pungent material to adhere to the expectations of 20s musical comedy. “Magnolia and Ravenal seem to be struggling toward an authentic life which the conditions of the play will not permit them,” wrote the New York Times’s Charles Morgan when he covered the 1928 London premiere, and he was right. As in the book, Ravenal gives up acting for the gambler’s life in 1890s Chicago, forcing Magnolia and their daughter Kim to shuttle back and forth between the Palmer House and a cheap Streeterville rooming house, depending on Ravenal’s luck at cards. And as in the book, Ravenal finally abandons his family, leaving Magnolia to raise Kim alone. This situation is a recurrent one in Ferber’s novels (reflecting her own upbringing as the daughter of a single mother in turn-of-the-century Chicago). Ravenal’s desertion is actually the best thing for Magnolia, forcing her to become independent–just as Cap’n Andy’s death in the book (he’s swept overboard in a storm) propels Parthy to take control of the Cotton Blossom, turning it into a greater success than Andy ever did.
But Hammerstein softens these protofeminist tendencies; daring in its racial elements, the musical is reactionary in its sexual ones. Take, for instance, the show’s best known song: Hammerstein penned an ode to “Ol’ Man River,” but in Ferber’s novel the river is a woman–mighty mama Mississippi, bringer of life and death–and Parthy and Magnolia are its human surrogates: indomitable, beautiful, unpredictable. Where Ravenal dies in the book, Hammerstein brings him back to Magnolia for a happy reunion so contrived that it makes The Pirates of Penzance look like a Frederick Wiseman documentary. He also keeps Cap’n Andy alive, while relegating Parthy to the status of shrewish comic relief. And he minimizes the character of Kim–so named because she was born on the river at the intersection of Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri–eliminating altogether her marriage to a Broadway director who, Ferber strongly hints, is gay. Prince’s “revisal” strengthens Parthy and Kim’s roles somewhat, reassigning the Ravenal/Magnolia duet “Why Do I Love You?” to Parthy (she sings it to baby Kim) and arranging for the grown-up Kim, a 1920s musical comedy star in the Marilyn Miller mold, to lead the company in a crowd-pleasing, climactic Charleston. In the book Kim and her husband are a serious actor-director team seemingly modeled on Katharine “Kit” Cornell and Guthrie McClintic; when Magnolia takes over the Cotton Blossom after Parthy’s death, Kim uses her inheritance from Parthy to start her own rep company. “I can do the plays I’ve been longing to do,” she bubbles, driving home Ferber’s ironic view of 1920s Broadway–“Ibsen and Hauptmann, and Werfel, and Schnitzler, and Molnar, and Chekhov, and Shakespeare even….
We’ll call it the American theatre!”
Superbly aided by choreographer Susan Stroman, production designer Eugene Lee, and costume designer Florence Klotz, Prince affirms himself as the most cinematic of Broadway directors as he bolsters the second act’s narrative weakness with a visual/movement montage depicting Magnolia’s rising fortunes and America’s cultural changes from the Gilded Age to the Jazz Age. (The historic Auditorium Theatre, built during the wave of civic expansion in the late-19th-century Chicago that Show Boat depicts, is an apt home for this production: in the book Ferber notes that the first show Kim ever sees is at the Auditorium.)
Still, one wishes the show were more emotionally moving. It’s effective in its comedy thanks to John McMartin’s antic Andy (a cross between Bert Lahr, Ed Wynn, Joe E. Brown, and Art Carney), Dorothy Loudon’s prunish Parthy, and the delightful burlesque-show clowning of Eddie Korbich and Clare Leach as Frank and Ellie, the Cotton Blossom’s second banana team; its romantic sequences owe much to the beautiful singing of Mark Jacoby’s Ravenal and Gay Willis’s Magnolia; and Jo Ann Hawkins White as a vibrant, refreshingly unmammyish Queenie and Michel Bell as Joe (singing “Ol’ Man River” with a voice as deep as the Mississippi itself) give the show its moral power. What’s missing is pathos, due largely to Marilyn McCoo’s bland, badly acted Julie: statuesque and beautiful but lacking in charisma, the onetime lead singer of the plastic-soul group Fifth Dimension fails to give her songs the nuance and emotional underpinning they need (local actor Paula Scrofano was infinitely more touching in Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace’s revival of several seasons back).
Show Boat is well worth seeing. It’s a classic work of (and about) American theater whose flaws are those of a new form struggling to be born, and whose many successes make it as good as anything on the musical stage today–or, for that matter, in the last 70 years.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Catherine Ashmore.