Thursday, December 08, 2005

Show Boat

The recent course I took on American Music required a number of projects - one of these was an appreciation I wrote of Kern and Hammerstein's musical Show Boat. Rather than let it gather dust, I will put it out here.

The 1927 production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat is often characterized as the beginning of the age of ‘serious’ Broadway musicals – shows that dealt with weighty subjects in a dramatic and forceful manner, free of either overt melodrama or its opposite. As such, it involved considerable risk on the part of the producers who chose to break with the lightweight dramatic tradition hitherto established as the successful commercial model of the American musical. Its success established the serious musical as a viable enterprise, even although many later exercises in the style failed, and many far less profound musicals continued to be successful. One can consider it as broadening the dramatic palette of the musical rather then effecting a sea-change but there is no doubt that the doors opened encouraged later musical masterworks such as Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess, the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals – Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel etc. and the Kurt Weill works, such as Lady In The Dark.

Edna Ferber was on her way to establishing herself as a successful author by the time she came to write Show Boat, and did so largely consequent to a fortunate conversation with the producer of her failed Broadway play, Old Man Minick. Winthrop Ames’s humorous suggestion that he would simply hire a showboat for his next production stimulated Ferber’s curiosity. This rapidly developed into a full-blown enthusiasm that led Ferber to interview any ex or current showboat performer she could find in New York and a visit to the showboat owners Beulah and Charles Hunter. By the summer of 1925, Ferber had accumulated enough background material to take herself off to the unlikely locale of coastal village in the French Pyrenees and write her second novel about life on the Mississippi[1] - a river she had never even seen![2]

She chose to cast the narrative through the eyes of three women, grandmother, mother and daughter who’s lives are shaped by the boat and the men who engaged with her, either deeply or in passing. The story does not follow a direct chronology, instead beginning with the birth of the daughter, Kim, named for (K)entucky, (I)llinois and (M)ississippi – and branching back and then forward in time. Undoubtedly, the main character of the book, and indeed the main plank upon which it is structured, is the Mississippi River itself, with its mostly steady and stately progress interrupted by flashes of high and even deadly drama as the river asserts its will above and beyond that of man. The human drama follows a similar pattern. Indeed there is relatively little dialogue in the book, and what there is pithy and highly dramatic. Characters are well, if not overtly deeply, drawn and provide strong contrasts in their outlooks, styles of living and eventual fate. This is not a novel of subtle distinctions, and thus does not require a good deal of work on the part of the reader to understand it. While this may prevent it from reaching the levels of the great novel, it provides a sturdy underpinning to anchor an accessible dramatic creation. Thus it is not hard to understand why Jerome Kern would regard Show Boat as eminently suitable as the source for a musical stage drama.

We can be thankful to John McGlinn[3] for a true appreciation of Show Boat the musical as originally performed, for he chose to record a version as close to the original 1927 performance version as was possible. Not an altogether easy task, as Show Boat, more than many musicals, was subject to cuts and revisions within a handful of years after its first performance, all of which altered the dramatic balance of the play. It took diligence and research to assemble the complete score, and it took some fortitude to record it as written, given the language used. Show Boat begins with the singing of that most reprehensible word – nigger – yet this is no coon song as we will see.

But first let’s outline the narrative as outlined by Edna Ferber’s book and then compare that with Oscar Hammerstein’s ‘book’ – the jargon used by writers of musicals for the libretto.

As mentioned above, we begin with Kim’s birth. Kim Ravenal, that is, thus ensuring that we know the central part Gaylord Ravenal will play in the story as soon as his name is mentioned. Kim is born on a boat in the midst of the Mississippi at its most dangerous, swelled with floodwater and with a rainstorm breaking overhead. We are in turn introduced to Kim’s near-spent mother, Magnolia, and her prim, efficient grandmother, Parthenia Hawks as she tends to her daughter. Her grandfather, Captain Andy Hawks follows, and finally we meet Gaylord Ravenal, ‘rain-soaked and mud-splattered’[4] following his snaring of a young inexperienced and ineffectual doctor’s assistant who is astonished to witness the midwife stimulate the Magnolia’s final expultorary push by filling the poor mother-to-be’s nose with snuff. The first chapter ends with Magnolia whispering to her husband, “Fooled them”, a reference not to those who expected a boy instead of a girl, but to the elements that had prematurely initiated her labor, and confined her to the boat. The elements, of course, including “The River”[5].

Thus from the very beginning, Ferber establishes the practically God-like properties of the Mississippi, a theme that runs throughout the book. She then abruptly breaks the narrative flow to cast back in time to Magnolia Hawks’ childhood, establishing the prim and proper character of her mother Parthenia, a character not-quite-so proper as to reject the advances of a lively and high-spirited suitor, Capt. Andy Hawks.

Much is made of Parthenia’s reluctance to engage with her husband’s other love-affair, his steamer, and only fitfully is she brought on board, ruffling feathers as she does so with her outright disapproval of the boatman’s life. Not so for the young Magnolia, who drinks in every aspect as she rides the river with her father. But the steamboat passenger business is starting to fail as the railroads more swiftly and conveniently convey their customers, and Capt. Andy is casting about for an alternative source of revenue. When a local showboat, The Cotton Blossom, comes up for sale he resolves to purchase her – without telling his river-averse spouse. A dream come true for Capt. Andy, who has spent his youth – a hitherto closed book to his wife – as a show boat actor.

“CAPT. ANDY HAWKS COTTON BLOSSOM FLOATING PALACE THEATRE[6]” now enters the tale, heedless to the near marriage-breaking protests of Parthenia. The boat – and through it the river – shatters the last of Parthnia’s landlubbing ways through the medium of two pretty young actresses, Julie Dozier and Elly Chipley. Their easy friendliness and proximity to her husband ensure that Parthenia comes on board for good.

The Cotton Blossom enters center stage in Chapter 4 of Show Boat and stays there until Chapter 13. It is here that we meet most of the characters that will become central to the musical. Early on, we are introduced to Julie Dozier’s husband Steve, cast in the role villain on the stage of the Cotton Blossom. Julie herself acts as a foil for Elly, who’s husband Schultzy plays a young man’s leading role. Along with Mr. And Mrs. Means (general business), Frank, the heavy, and Ralph, the handyman, they were all ‘like one big family’.[7] Not a happy family – Ferber makes it clear from the start that neither Capt. Andy nor anyone else was under any illusion that jealousies and dischords were absent.

Music was provided by George, playing the steam calliope as the boat approached an engagement at a riverside town or the piano during performance. Sounds that filled Magnolia’s ears. But she heard much more. Observing the African-American roustabouts, Magnolia learns songs such as “Down The Ohio”, quoted in the novel. She grows to adore Julie, as we learn of Julie’s attractiveness not only to her husband, but the men around and especially Pete, the engineer of the Cotton Blossom’s towboat, the Mollie Able. Pete plies Julie with unwanted gifts, some of which make their way to Queenie, the cook. Queenie and Jo, her husband, sing spirituals in the kitchen – more music that enters Magnolia’s blood. One, “I Got Shoes”, is reproduced, with music, in the text[8]. George teaches her to play the piano, but the real soul music comes from Queenie and Jo.

We meet Windy, the taciturn pilot, who is one of the few members of the crew indifferent to and capable of overcoming Parthenia’s endless efforts to ‘civilize’ the boat. A figure of implacable force, experience and stature, he embodies the river even as he masters it.

With the showboat’s muster finally fully established, Ferber abruptly breaks it up in Chapter VII, using one of the inhumane statutes that comprised the infamous “Jim Crow” laws as her weapon, and then recasts it to set up the central love affair of the novel. The showboat draws near to the fictitious town of Lemoyne[9], Mississippi, and Julie is taken mysteriously sick. Schultzy comes by to inform Julie that ‘Somebody’s stole your picture, frame and all, out of the layout in the lobby there[10]” and suggests it might be Pete, raising Steve’s ire. Once docked, Pete’s theft is confirmed by Windy, who has also seen Steve remove a similar photograph, and then announces that Pete and the town sheriff are heading up the levee.

This leads to the most striking scene in the entire novel. With both Julie and Steve in a state of high agitation, Steve takes out his pocket knife. The others, Capt. Andy included, watch in horror as he draws the blade across his wife’s hand and ingests her blood. Thereupon the sheriff arrives, and announces that he thinks that “there’s a miscegenation case on board[11]”.

“Case of Negro woman married to a white man. Criminal offense in this state, as you well know.” He then names Steve Baker and Julie Dozier. Steve responds with “You wouldn’t call a man a white man that’s got Negro blood in him, would you?”. The sheriff confirms this and Steve says he’s got more than a drop in him. When the implacable Windy confirms this, the sheriff is convinced and leaves without the couple, but effectively orders the boat to leave town. Capt. Andy does so, and lets Steve and Julie off at the next stop. Julie exits regaled with racist curses from Elly and wailing lamentations from Magnolia.

The story then jumps ahead a full five years, and this time it is Elly who is taking her leave, abandoning Schultzy for a gambler and an unlikely chance to play “Juliet”! Steve and Julie have been replaced by the aptly named Mr. And Mrs. Soaper, but Capt. Andy looks to his own family to fill Elly’s place. Fifteen-year old Magnolia’s years of careful observation pay off as, despite strenuous objections from Parthenia, she assumes Elly’s role. Her first performance causes quite a stir, as the nervous cast throw enough real emotion into the play to motivate an untutored member of the audience to draw his gun and come within a hair’s breath of shooting Frank, playing the villain. Only a swift change from evil to sweetness on Frank’s part soothes Magnolia’s erstwhile protector.

The boat moves on to New Orleans, and Schultzy, lured away by a letter telling of Elly’s hospitalization, has gone. But not without telling Capt. Andy that a man seen lounging on a landing had “said he’d acted and that was a life he’d like[12]”.

Thus we are finally introduced to Gaylord Ravenal, stony broke from gambling and ordered out of town by the police for a past unfortunate killing ‘in self-defence”[13]. Thus passage on a show boat is most desirable, and the assured Gaylord of “the Tennessee Ravenals” awes Capt. Andy into giving him Schltzy’s old acting position. Thereupon, Magnolia and Gaylord lay eyes on each other, and promptly fall in love.

A difficult position to sustain under Parthenia’s watchful and disapproving gaze. However, the passionate scenes in the plays they performed together gave them an outlet, and gave veracity to their performances. By simply expressing their love, they were becoming stars.

A return to New Orleans allows the now-solvent Gaylord to obtain his full sartorial potential, and the dazzling young man whisks Magnolia off the boat and onto the streets in beautiful carriage. Meanwhile Parthenia learns from a local about Gaylord’s unfortunate violent past, and expresses to her husband her outrage that her daughter ‘is out driving in an open carriage this minute with a murderer[14]”. What she does not expect is her husband to admit to a similar killing in his own youth, and she faints dead away.

Gaylord and Magnolia’s love affair inexorably advances. Gaylord, with the aid of parish church records, convincingly generating a past of distinction and society. He is a natural actor, completely capable of cowing a belligerent spectator. Still, on the boat, Parthenia holds puritanical sway over the lovers. But by Peducah, KY, Gaylord replenished through the card table, almost missing the performance, is able to – in the midst of a play – to propose to Magnolia between the lines of the script. With a ruse, she and he slip away and are married in church the very next day.

We now jump ahead again, into Kim memories, and first read of the death of her grandfather, Capt Andy. Then we resume with the post-nuptial history. Parthenia and Gaylord’s antagonism grows into hatred, a disdain not at all shared by Capt. Andy. During the winter after their marriage, Gaylord and Magnolia move to Chicago where Gaylord resumes his full-time gambling career. Magnolia learns to adjust to the ebb and flow of the family’s fortunes, and the unpredictable whereabouts of her husband. Pregnant, they return to the Cotton Blossom, Kim is born, and the Mississippi carelessly takes Capt. Andy.

Now we witness the beginning of the great rise of Parthenia Hawks, weathering the defection of Windy, the pilot, and the inevitable departure of her daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law. “Ruthless, unconquerable, headstrong, untamed, terrible” was the parting vision of Parthenia in her daughter’s eyes. “She’s the one, after all, who’s like the Mississippi”[15].

Back to Chicago, and in barely over a year Ravenal has lost Magnolia’s inheritance. The family veer from absurd extravagance to the penury, with Magnolia revealing a stoicism that keeps her bound to her husband. Kim, raised in ever varying conditions, is bathed, through her mother, with the same African-American music that fascinated her the little Magnolia. During the good times, her family take in Chicago’s multi-headed musical and dramatic life. Overshadowing their volatile life, Parthenia’s success taunts Magnolia. Magnolia’s pride prevents her from revealing the truth, or even asking for help during the lean times.

Kim grows and needs schooling. That requires a steady income, and it is this need that drives Magnolia to consider performing again. Gaylord laughs at her desire to return to the stage, and Magnolia’s impromptu performance of Negro spirituals at a drunken party of Gaylord’s friends reveals the incomprehension of an audience used to coon songs, even as it demonstrates to Gaylord the depth of Magnolia’s talent. Chastened, Magnolia abandons her plan.

Kim enters St. Agatha’s chapel school as Chicago itself lurches into a sense of civic responsibility. The infrastructure of free-wheeling gambling is slowly dismantling, and consequently Gaylord’s fortunes decline even further. They are at a nadir when Parthenia announces that she is coming to Chicago to see them. In desperation, Gaylord borrows money from a whorehouse madam, but Magnolia guesses the source and resolves to return the cash. She goes to Hattie Chilson’s house and receives a receipt from a woman she suddenly recognizes as Julie Dozier, clearly an employee of the institution. Horrified, she flees.

Now truly determined to earn some money on her own account, she resolves again to seek a singing role. This time she ends up at a Variety club, Jopper’s Varieties, towards the end of an audition session and manages, with the aid of a borrowed banjo, to perform “All God’s chillun got wings” and “Go Down Moses”. Spirituals these, again not the expected coon songs, but something about Magnolia and her African-American vocal infections impresses the younger of two impresarios, and she is told to return next week with right material. She goes home – only to find a letter from Gaylord on the mantelpiece and he is gone from her life forever.

At least he leaves $600 behind. With that, she buys a banjo and learns her new material.

We now rejoin Kim, many years later, giving an interview in her dressing room. We learn how Kim moved from the convent school onto the stage, to the New York National Theatre School, into her present position as a successful actress on Broadway. We learn that Magnolia is established on the stage and then the interview is interrupted by a telegram informing Kim that her grandmother, Parthenia, is dead.

Shortly after, Magnolia, unaware of this news, arrived with her son-in-law, Kim’s husband Ken. When the Magnolia hears of her mother’s death she resolves instantly to return to St. Louis and the Cotton Blossom. Magnolia’s return journey reawakens a host of old memories and sense of having never really left the river. Elly, now an old woman, greets as she alights from the train. We learn of Shultzy’s death twenty-two years past and meet Elly’s new man Clyde. Elly preens and prattles, but in the process Magnolia learns of her mother’s fatal stroke, and a flurry of familiar places, the great river and finally the Cotton Blossom itself appear – almost overwhelming Magnolia with a combined sense of grief and coming back home.

Magnolia stays. Kim, failing to understand the ties that hold her mother, writes and insists that her mother return to New York. We learn of the crucial differences between Kim’s art and her mothers – Kim’s learned and tutored, Magnolia’s absorbed naturally from her surroundings during her childhood and youth. In Magnolia we are led to believe there is true artistry, in Kim merely a supremely competent craftsmanship. A craftsmanship that extends into Kim’s marriage and her successful cultivation of the life of a Broadway star. Most of all there is no river in Kim’s soul.

Kim and Ken finally arrive, unexpectedly, three months later. Even more unexpectedly, Magnolia gifts them with the colossal sum of a half-a-million dollars, earned through Parthenia’s late blooming business acumen. Kim is elated, now she can produce the plays she really wants to. A perfunctory tour of the showboat follows, neither Kim nor Ken see the beauty there that will hold their mother and give her peace for the rest of her life. The couple leaves, Kim observing her mother standing on deck as having “something about her that’s eternal and unconquerable – like the River”[16]

A lengthy and convoluted tale that nonetheless maintains and sustains broad themes. How does the musical compare?

To begin with, it dispenses with a large proportion of the beginning of the book. The first scene shows us the Cotton Blossom and its towboat the Mollie Able. We have jumped directly into the center of the story, and are in the process of setting up the first main dramatic event, the exposure of Julie as a passing African-American. Onstage we have a chorus of African-American roustabouts moving cotton bales, plus a number of black women. Their opening song

Niggers all work on de Mississippi

Niggers all work while de white folks play -

Loadin’ up boats wid de bales of cotton,

Gittin’ no rest til de Judgement Day[17]

immediately establishes race as one of the central themes of the play. This is a protest song, more ironic than angry perhaps, but a protest nonetheless. In the singers hands, the word nigger has a sardonic tone, in Pete’s hands it is simply contemptuous as Pete demands of Queenie, “Where y’all get dat brooch you’re wearing?”[18]. She declines to answer. Onstage, Steve and Pete scowl at each other, while Windy, standing on the Cotton Blossom, observes it all.

A chorus of precious young white women enter, and cluster around a picture that Steve has just hung up. This is Julie, and the young women admire her beauty, even as the black girls parody their manner – in essence a cakewalk on their part. A handsome young man enters into a singing dialogue with the white girls, announcing Capt. Andy’s show and the handsomest man, Stephen Baker and beautiful Julie LaVerne as well. Simulataneously the black chorus return to their theme of the woes of the life, just the white chorus sing of laughter and thrills.

Thus in the very opening, Hammerstein has established the gulf between the races, the privilege accorded the white folks and denied the black, and a flavor of the contempt built into the very language that whites used about African-Americans. This is a very effective scene.

Parthenia (as her nickname Parthy) now enters, characterized rather as a shrew, and enters into an irritable dialogue with the phlegmatic Windy which serves primarily to introduce Magnolia (not yet named) as a young woman of eighteen years.

Capt. Andy enters and engages with the crowd. He introduces the showboat stars in turn, Elly, Frank Schultz – a fusion of Schultzy and Frank characters, Julie and Steve. Parthy reprimands Capt. Andy for giving ‘away his show for nothing”, but Andy encourages his cast to give a short dance. After that, the crowd congregates around the stars, Julie and Steve, and Pete returns to berate Julie for giving his gift to her to a nigger. Seeing this, the jealous Steve accosts Pete and punches him. An intentional drama that Capt. Andy swiftly finesses, “The boys jest showed you a scene from one of our bills…” and declares “…Jest one big happy family”![19] And singing resumes and the crowd leaves in high spirits.

At this juncture Gaylord is seen on stage, looking away from the audience. Andy fires Pete, and Parthy, who has taken against Julie, scolds Andy again for protecting Julie and announces that Julie is to no longer give piano lessons to and stay away from her daughter. Julie protests, declaring that could not stay on the Cotton Blossom without seeing Nola – using Magnolia’s nickname. Andy is fearful that Julie will leave, and Ellie steps in to offer herself, but is dismissed by the Captain. Parthy, after chasing Ellie way, then lectures her husband about his lack of attention to his daughter’s upbringing. Capt. Andy waits until Parthy has gone before speaking his reply out loud, but when egged on by Elly, declines to tackle Parthy immediately. He wants no more trouble – “Jest one big happy family – bah!”[20] he declares sarcastically.

Our attention now turns to Gaylord, who after demonstrating his gentlemanly manners to Ellie, engages the town sheriff in conversation to be reminded that he needs to be out of town in twenty-four hours. Gaylord muses in song “..where’s that mate for me?”[21], and Magnolia appears on the boat deck.

Falling in love on first sight, Magnolia tells Gaylord of her acting ambition, and they ‘just suppose that we’ve fallen in love at first sight”[22] leading into the duet “Only Make Believe”. The reverie is broken up by Sheriff Vallon who pulls Gaylord away to have a talk with the judge (not marriage in this case…).

Magnolia bubbles to Joe, Queenie’s husband, about the handsome Gaylord, and looks to find Julie to tell her all. Joe muses that “Better ask de ole river what he thinks…”[23] and sings “Ole Man River”, effectively establishing the implacable river as a central player.

Scene Two, Act One, finds Magnolia in Queenie’s kitchen, looking for Julie. The women talk of love, how it isn’t so easy to stop and Julie sings of Steve, “Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine”[24]. Queenie is surprised to hear Julie sing this - “…ah didn’t ever hear anybody but colored folks sing that song”[25], giving us the first clue as to Julie African-American ancestry. Joe enters, declaring that is his favorite song, and Julie, Queenie, Joe and small chorus reprise the song.

Scene Three occurs outside a riverfront gambling saloon. Pete, seeking his revenge, has shown Sheriff Vallon a picture of Julie, a black woman married to a white man and against the law. Ellie emerges and sings to her admirers that life on the stage ‘ain’t ever what a girl supposes”[26]. Then we learn from a conversation with a gambler just why Gayord has to leave town – he killed a man, but got off with a self-defense plea. Gaylord enters in clear good spirits, singing “If I am losing today, I will take my loss and pay. For I know that in time my luck will turn, it’s bound to turn”[27].

We return to the Cotton Blossom for Scene 4, where Queenie and the African-American chorus are sweeping the theatre hall, singing the prescient blues-inflected “Mis’ry’s comin’ aroun’”[28]. Julie implores the chorus to “Stop that rotten song”, cueing the rise of the curtain, and Andy, Steve and Rubberface’s appearance. They begin the rehearsal, but Julie is clearly upset. Ellie is late, and while waiting for her Magnolia reminds the group that she knows the plays inside and out. “You stick to the pianner”, commands Parthy, as Ellie arrives. Ellie goes over to Steve and whispers to him. He is shaken, and during the rehearsal whispers his news to Julie, who is struck with horror. She declares “No – no. I can’t play tonight. Don’t ask me!”[29].

Windy enters and tells everyone that Pete earlier stole a picture of Julie from the levee display and was at this moment on his way to the boat with the sheriff.

To the horror of the assembled cast, Steve then pulls his knife and cuts Julie’s finger. He sucks the blood shortly before Sheriff Vallon comes on board to declare that he “understands there is miscegenation case on board.”[30]

The scene that follows is derived almost wholly from the book as described above, and Steve, with “a drop of nigger blood in him”[31], and Julie are able to escape the charge but are forced to leave. This leaves Capt. Andy with two large holes in his cast. Over Parthy’s objections, Magnolia steps up to take Julie’s place. Gaylord, looking for passage out of town, impresses Capt. Andy and takes on the job of actor. The scene ends with the departure of Steve and Julie. Magnolia declares her undying friendship for Julie and moves to leave the boat with her, but is held back. Slightly by her father’s words, but mostly by the sight of Gaylord, her future acting partner. Joe, seeing the great changes, sings “Ole Man River”.

Scene Five begins with a boy and girl chorus extolling the virtues of Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal as they wait by the boat box office. Frank mistakenly thinks part of the praise is for him, but is soon put right, much to his chagrin. Now two backwoodsmen enter, buy tickets with Confederate currency, and declare that they and their guns will be at tonight’s show. Frank and Ellie sing of their uncertain love, “I Might Fall Back On You”[32].

Capt. Andy notes that no one is buying tickets for the colored seats on the balcony, and Queenie, pointing out the Captain that he doesn’t know how to attract black folk, pulls in a full house herself.

Scene Six, again drawn from the novel, shows us the same two backwoodsman, overly involved in the action, on the verge of shooting Frank the villain. He spots them in time, and changes his character in a twinkling to the pacific. With the play ruined, Capt. And steps in and does a bravura one-man show to act out the remaining story, with Frank returning at the end to dance.

Scene Seven brings Magnolia and Gaylord back together again on the upper deck. Gaylord proposes and she accepts as they sing ‘You Are Love”[33].

The finale of Act One takes in Gaylord and Magnolia’s marriage, a grand affair advertised by Captain Andy to the entire town of Natchez. The festivities are interrupted by Parthy carrying the new that Gaylord is a murderer, only to be told that her husband too killed a man. Parthy faints and the scene ends with the chorus singing “Can’t help loving dat man of mine”.

Act Two, Scene One, takes us away from the Cotton Blossom to the Chicago of the 1893 World’s Fair. The city is being shown at its brightest and best here, albeit with a tinge of irony. The scene opens with a series of barkers trumpeting the various wonders to be seen, which resemble a circus freakshow more than a monument to civilization’s progress. Magnolia, Parthy and Capt. Andy are waiting for Gaylord. Parthy presses Magnolia trying to find out just where Gaylord gets his money, but Magnolia remains mum. Eventually Gaylord arrives, flush with winnings, to treat them all. Gaylord and Magnolia happily sing “Why Do I Love You”[34]. The scene ends with another pointed commentary on race relations as a group of supposed African tribesmen sing over a pounding jungle beat “Dyunga hungy ungy gunga, hungy ung gunga go” only to reveal later that instead of being “In Dahomey”[35] their true home is Avenue A, New York, and they all speak English very well! Prominent banjo in parts of this song give it a minstrel feel, of which this is clearly a parody both lyrically and musically (particularly of the ‘jungle’-type ragtime song).

Scene Two reveals the other side of life with Gaylord. A now prosperous Frank and Ellie are being shown a room by a landlady, who tell them the tale of the inconsistent former tenants who move between this room and a posher residence. Only now, they are really penniless and need to go. One of the tenants enters, and it is Magnolia. She attempts to cover her circumstances by telling Frank and Ellie that she stays here to help out the landlady. Magnolia shows Frank and Ellie a photograph of the eight-year old Kim, and makes out that Gaylord is doing well. However, a letter from Gaylord arrives, and a frightened Magnolia asks Ellie to read it. Gaylord is leaving, enclosing $200 to cover Kim’s convent schooling. With the truth of their circumstances revealed, Magnolia tells Elllie and Frank the whole story. Frank suggests that Magnolia should take up a singing position, and they leave the distraught Magnolia.

Gaylord takes his farewell of his daughter Kim in Scene 3, singing to her at the convent school the comforting melody of “Make Believe”[36], even if it is quite clear that the song’s meaning is bankrupt.

Julie returns in Scene Four, by now a worn and alcoholic woman. She is at a rehearsal hall at the Trocadero trying out a new song, We learn from Jim, the manager, that Steve deserted her. Jim is about to close the audition, when Frank suggests Magnolia be given a chance. Borrowing a guitar, she sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”[37]. Julie recognizing the song and the singer, throws Julie a kiss and then leaves for a binge session, her job now open for Magnolia to take. Jim is impressed by Magnolia’s voice, but it takes an up-tempo “ragged” version of the song to convince him that she is the one.

Scene Five finds Capt. Andy and Parthenia back in Chicago, looking for Magnolia and Gaylord. As it is New Year’s Eve, Andy slips out leaving his wife to an early bed, and, picking up three young women on the way, heads off to the Trocadero.

Thus Capt. Andy is present at his daughter’s debut performance. This is just as well as, in Scene Six, we see Magnolia nervously trying to placate an audience fond of Julie. As she timidly begins a performance of “After The Ball”[38], Capt. Andy steps in and exhorts her to smile. Doing so, her confidence returns and she gives a show stopping performance. Beforehand, Frank has informed Andy of Gaylord’s desertion giving the Captain even more incentive to ensure his daughter’s success. It’s notable here that Kern and Hammerstein use an established and well-known song to authenticate the scene, rather than compose a period-style piece of their own.

We jump ahead all the way to 1927 for Scene Seven. Sitting in front of a sign proclaiming “ Lindbergh Arrives In Mexico City”, Joe and Queenie, now much older, reprise the autumnal “Ole Man River” and sing the jazzy and spring-like “Hey Feller”[39] respectively.

And from the Natchez shoreline to the Cotton Blossom for Scene Eight. Magnolia is singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, but on the radio. Listening are Capt. Andy and Gaylord, who met fortuitously elsewhere. Andy has telegrammed Magnolia to join them, and gives Gaylord the good advice to return to the stage and give up the life of a gambling ‘gentleman’.

The finale of the musical brings everyone together. We see Kim and Parthy at first, and Kim sings her grandmother a hit song from her successful Broadway show. Frank and Ellie turn up, quite coincidently, and then the reunion between Magnolia and Gaylord. Parthy unexpectedly gives them words of encouragement, the nervous couple makes up and kisses. The scene ends with Joe and chorus reprising once more, “Ole Man River”.[40]

The happy ending is perhaps the most significant departure from the spirit of the novel. As we can see, Hammerstein was loathe to kill off any of the characters introduced by Edna Ferber. It is most likely that he was bowing to theatrical convention at this point, but although it weakens the story of the main characters considerably by introducing less credible elements, it does not destroy the musical. Hammerstein clearly sees the racial element of the story as the paramount issue, and the love affair is convenient because it provides the audience with an expected and understandable plot mechanism, as well a solid dramatic vehicle for love song. The implicit irony of songs such as “Make Believe” with its underlying message that everything will be alright if you believe it will be alright is sufficiently underscored by the collapse of the Ravenal fortunes in Act II, the abandonment of Kim and Magnolia. So the eventual rehabilitation of Gaylord, put right with a few wise words from Capt. Andy, is perfectly acceptable in a land of endless second chances. And who knows where the story would go from there anywhere.

What Hammerstein loses, though, by ensuring the survival of his characters, is any and all sense of the Mississippi – “Ole Man River” – as a vehicle of capricious destruction. The musical sentimentalizes the river to an almost unbearable extent, and in doing so, goes right against the spirit of Edna Ferber’s writing. By eliminating death, the characters acquire an artificial immortality that again weakens the overall drama. Julie’s downfall into alcoholism, although tragic, is nothing compared with the novel’s portrayal of her as prostitute. Indeed Chicago emerges very well from the play. There is no sense of the dark undersurface that Ferber describes at length. Again, conventional morals and accepted practice for the 1920s musical probably drove this sanitization, but it again weakens the drama.

Where Show Boat the musical really scores on the dramatic front is with its stark portrayal of race. It does not outshine the novel in this respect, and it is telling that the miscegenation scene is taken almost verbatim from the book into the musical, but it does give the story a very solid dose of grim reality. It is striking how Hammerstein uses the African-American chorus as essentially a Greek chorus, providing clear commentary on the proceedings, whereas the white choruses sing of the not-quite-real. “Make Believe” is the central song of the lovers, but it might just as well be a comment on the entire entertainment industry which has ceaselessly peddled dreams as a salve for the populace.

The elevation of Queenie and Jo(e), essentially minor characters in the book, to a far more central role in the musical in some ways goes further than Ferber in giving humanity to the African-American. These are not caricature roles; they are wise, if uneducated, people capable of seeing and feeling more than some of the white folk around them. This comes at some expense. The strongest character in Ferber’s novel, Parthenia, is reduced to a much more two dimensional level in the musical. Indeed, the strongly feminist quality of Ferber’s approach is abandoned by Hammerstein. There is an implicit assumption that the men in the play, be it Capt. Andy or the wayward Gaylord, are the real center despite all of Magnolia’s achievements. This is most forcibly demonstrated by Act Two, Scene Six where Magnolia needs her father’s shouted encouragement to continue singing. With Andy long dead in the novel, Magnolia’s triumph is all of her own making. We lose too, much of the power of the novel that is generated by the interplay of the three central female characters. Lost, too, is the vital point of artistry developed by experience versus craftsmanship developed by education.

But let’s be fair to Hammerstein. Considering he had to create a dramatically coherent stage production with sufficient room for a lot of songs, he does a very effective job of presenting at least some of Edna Ferber’s themes. Show Boat fully deserves the reputation it has gained since that first production and remains an artistic highlight of American music. It’s a truly wonderful work.

[1] Ferber, Edna Show Boat

[2] See Kreuger, Miles Show Boat The Story of a Classic American Musical Oxford University Press 1977 for a concise history of the production.

[3] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Oscar Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta, The Ambrosian Chorus, Fredericke von Stade, Jerry Hadley and cast.

[4] Ferber, Edna Show Boat Doubleday, Dorian & Co., New York 1943 p.19.

[5] ibid pp.23-24.

[6] Ferber, Edna Show Boat Doubleday, Dorian & Co., New York 1943 p.67

[7] ibid p.92

[8] ibid p. 123

[9] No doubt based on the French explorer and first colonist of Mississippi, Pierre LeMoyne Sieur d'Iberville.

[10] Ferber, Edna Show Boat Doubleday, Dorian & Co., New York 1943 p. 136

[11] Ferber, Edna Show Boat Doubleday, Dorian & Co., New York 1943 p. 144

[12] ibid p. 175

[13] ibid p. 176

[14] ibid p. 203

[15] Ferber, Edna Show Boat Doubleday, Dorian & Co., New York 1943 p. 264

[16] Ferber, Edna Show Boat Doubleday, Dorian & Co., New York 1943 p. 398

[17] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Oscar Niggers all work on de Mississippi from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta.

[18] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Show Boat Libretto reproduced in booklet from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta EMI (BMG Music) D 224779 p. 55

[19] ibid p. 60

[20] ibid p. 62

[21] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Where The Mate For Me? from Show Boat Libretto reproduced in booklet from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta EMI (BMG Music) D 224779 p. 63

[22] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Make Believe from Show Boat ibid p. 65

[23] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Ole Man River from Show Boat ibid p. 66

[24] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man from Show Boat ibid p. 67

[25] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Show Boat Libretto reproduced in booklet from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta EMI (BMG Music) D 224779 p. 69

[26] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Life On The Wicked Stage from Show Boat ibid pp. 71-72

[27] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Till Good Luck Comes My Way from Show Boat ibid p. 72

[28] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Mis’ry’s comin’ aroun from Show Boat ibid p. 73

[29] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Show Boat Libretto reproduced in booklet from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta EMI (BMG Music) D 224779 pp. 75-77.

[30] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Show Boat Libretto reproduced in booklet from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta EMI (BMG Music) D 224779 p. 78

[31] ibid p. 79

[32] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, I Might Fall Back On You from Show Boat ibid p. 87

[33] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, You Are Love from Show Boat ibid p. 73

[34] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Why Do I Love You? from Show Boat Libretto reproduced in booklet from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta EMI (BMG Music) D 224779 p. 97

[35] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, In Dahomey from Show Boat ibid p. 99

[36] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Make Believe from Show Boat ibid p. 102

[37] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Can’t Help Lovin’ dat man from Show Boat ibid p. 104

[38] Harris, Charles K. After The Ball from Show Boat ibid p. 107-108

[39] Kern, Jerome and Hammerstein II, Ole Man River and Hey Feller from Show Boat Libretto reproduced in booklet from Show Boat conducted and directed by John McGlinn with the London Sinfonietta EMI (BMG Music) D 224779 pp. 108-109

[40] ibid p. 111

No comments: