KERN: Showboat (1932, 1946) (Naxos: 8.120789)
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1932 Studio Album and 1946 Broadway Revival
Music by Jerome Kern Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Show Boat shares something with the MississippiRiver so central to its story: it never flowsthe same way twice.
Perhaps more than any other work inmodern theatre, Show Boat has varied with eachnew incarnation, due to changes in political ordramatic fashion. Lyrics have been rewritten,songs dumped or added, scenes juggled andcharacters reconceived.
This recording reflects three of the variousversions of the score which have come down tous over the years since Show Boat opened onBroadway on 27 December 1927.
Actually, the musical began its journey toNew York three and a half years earlier, with anappropriately theatrical setting.
Author Edna Ferber was on the road with aplay of hers which was then called Old ManMinick. After a spectacularly unsuccessfullypremi?â?¿re in New London, Connecticut, producerWinthrop Ames tried to cheer up Ferber and thecompany with a whimsical notion.
'Next time,' he said,'I won't go out of townwith a show. I'll just let it play on a show boat.''What's a show boat?' asked Ferber andhistory was made.
Ames went on to explain to her that sinceshortly after the Civil War, large especiallyequipped riverboats had been sailing up anddown the Mississippi river, presenting comedies,melodramas and variety shows to the people inthe riverside towns.
Ferber instantly saw this as a setting for oneof those sweeping historical romances that hadmade her famous and in 1926 Show Boat waspublished to great critical acclaim as well ashuge popular sales.
One of the people to read it with particularinterest was Jerome Kern. The successfulcomposer of such Broadway hits as \Sally"and"Sunny"was always on the lookout for his nextproject. Before he had finished more than a fewchapters, he called up Oscar Hammerstein II, oneof his favourite collaborators, and told him hehad found their next vehicle.
Hammerstein shared Kern's enthusiasm forthe work and almost at once the pair of themwere outlining scenes and conceiving songs fortheir proposed show.
The only problem was that they didn't havethe rights to Ferber's novel.
Kern waited until the opening of his nextshow, Criss-Cross, on 12 October 1926. Heforced his way across the lobby at intermissionto confront the larger-than-life critic AlexanderWoolcott, a good friend of Ferber's. He beggedWoolcott to arrange a meeting, going on and onabout how he had to get the rights to ShowBoat. The waspish Woolcott let his friendexhaust himself before finally turning and introducinghim to his companion of the evening,Edna Ferber.
Fortunately, Ferber and Kern got along, as didHammerstein when he was added to theequation. The trio then aimed their sights onFlorenz Ziegfeld, the most flamboyant produceron the theatrical scene.
He, too, loved the idea and wanted it to openhis new Ziegfeld Theatre in February of 1927.
Hammerstein and Kern were capable of rapidwork, but they sensed this project could besomething out of the ordinary and theyencouraged Ziegfeld to fast-track something else,which he did, backing a now-forgotten rompcalled Rio Rita.
This gave the authors time to dig deep intotheir material and they produced one of themost mature and heartfelt works in all of musicaltheatre. During a period when triviality trumpedsubstance every time, Show Boat was a riskyproposition.
Not only was it a weighty, unwieldy story,covering several generations and many locations,but the themes built into it were bound to becontroversial. One of the major plot twistshinged on the issue of interracial marriage at atime when the Ku Klux Klan was still a powerfulpolitical force and lynch mobs were notuncommon in the Deep South.
But the authors stuck to their guns andwhen Ziegfeld started to get cold feet, they calledhis bluff, with Oscar's uncle Arthur offering topick up the production.
It finally opened in Washington,D.C. on15 November 1927. Hammerstein was later tosay that the show 'was born big and wants tostay that way', but at first, it was just a little toohuge for words. The opening performance rannearly five hours, with the dense plot slugging itout against Ziegfeld's penchant for overwhelmingproduction values.
The authors began cutting throughsubsequent tryout stints in Pittsburgh andPhiladelphia, reducing it to a manageable threehours by the time it opened in New York on27 December. The audiences and critics alikecheered it as 'the best musical show everwritten' and it ran an impressive (for that period)572 performances.
Since then it has been revived on Broadwayfive times and been turned into a film on threeoccasions. (The first, in 1929,was a largely silentversion, with a 'prologue' added at the lastminute, featuring fifteen minutes of songs fromthe musical.)But every version has been different inseveral interesting ways. The first line of theopening chorus was originally 'Niggers all workon the Mississippi'. As the years went by, theoffending word changed to 'coloured folks', then'everyone' and in one production during theheight of America's racial unrest in the 1960s, theline was cut totally, leaving nobody to work onthe river.
The other major problem has to do with theending. Kim, the daughter of long-sufferingheroine Magnolia Hawks, becomes a performerof a new generation on the show boat.
The original actress to play the role, NormaTerris,was a skilled impersonator, and so shewas allowed to do her 'party pieces' at that pointin the show. By 1946,Kern and Hammersteinrealized they needed something different, sothey came up with Nobody Else But Me,which proved be to the last song Kern everwrote. And in the last 1994 Broadway revival,Kim became a Charleston dynamo, leading thecast in a showstopping production number, setto Why Do I love You?.
The first eight selections here come from a1932 studio recording on the Brunswick label.
It features Helen Morgan, the original Julie fromboth the 1927 premi?â?¿re and the 1932 revivalwith her signature performances of Bill andCan't Help Lovin' Dat Man, as well as PaulRobeson, who didn't appear in the show until1932, but quickly made Ol' Man River his ownforever.
Also included on this recording are popularvocalists of the period such as Countess OlgaAlbani, James Melton and Frank Munn. Theorchestra is conducted by Victor Young,whowent on to enjoy a distinguished career as a filmcomposer.
When Show Boat was turned into a fullymusical film in 1936,Kern and Hammersteinwanted to add an additional song for PaulRobeson, so they created Ah Still Suits Me forhis character of Joe. In the film, it was sung byRobeson and Hattie McDaniel, who playedQueenie. It appears here in a 1936 studiorecording made with Elisabeth Welch, a stageand cabaret star who left Broadway in the early1930s to settle in England.
The remaining selections are all from the1946 Broadway revival which opened 5 January1946 and ran for 418 performances. Jan Clayton(as Magnolia) got top billing. She had first appearedin Carousel and then went on to a filmcareer, although she's best remembered today asthe original mother on the Lassie TV series.
Carol Bruce, who sings Julie, enjoyed aBroadway career for the next two decades, withshows like Do I Hear a Waltz? and Henry, SweetHenry to her credit, but for the remaining leads- Charles Fredericks,Kenneth Spencer andCollette Lyons - this production of Show Boatwould be the high point of their careers, withno subsequent New York stage appearances andonly a handful of minor film roles.
But whatever form they take, the music andlyrics of Show Boat continue to impress us,nearly eighty years after their creation.<