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With some musicals, there aren’t enough interesting things to write about to make up a single slender volume. Show Boat, on the other hand, has been the topic of a small library of interesting works, including Miles Krueger’s landmark Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical. Now, Todd Decker makes a significant addition to the literature on this 1927 landmark. His book, Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, takes a different look at the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II masterpiece.

Show Boat has assumed the mantle of “the show that changed the American musical.” Its reputation is well deserved, even if it is somewhat simplified – there were other milestones that contributed to the evolution of the genre ranging from Victor Herbert and George M. Cohan’s work in the early part of the 20th Century, to Kern’s own contributions with the Princess Musicals, and some of Hammerstein’s pre-Show Boat gems.

But the huge production that Florenz Ziegfeld brought to his new theater in 1927 is one of the half-dozen shows that absolutely must be included in any discussion of the art form. It was revolutionary in so many ways that it has been studied from many different angles. After all, one really doesn’t think of the late 1920s as a time when a musical could be based on a troubling novel on such controversial topics as racial prejudice, marital abandonment and alcoholism. But Hammerstein took Edna Ferber’s novel and created a musical that, with Kern’s superb score and Ziegfeld’s lavish production, gave audiences a great deal to ponder as well as a lot to enjoy.

There’s enough substance in Show Boat to support detailed examinations of many aspects of its contents – music, lyrics, book structure, production values, star performances, including those of Helen Morgan, Jules Bledsoe, Paul Robeson, Tess Gardella (also known as “Aunt Jemima” in blackface no less) and Charles Winninger. Revivals and movie versions add even more aspects.

Decker begins his book by charting the changes to each of the characters between Ferber’s original novel and Hammerstein’s final script. For example, Ferber killed off Captain Andy, proprietor of the show boat “Cotton Blossom,” half way through her novel. Hammerstein kept him hale and healthy through to the final scene when his granddaughter has become a Broadway star. Hammerstein also changed the nature of that granddaughter’s stardom, shifting her from a dramatic actress to a musical comedy star, the better to accommodate song cues.

A full chapter is devoted to the on-again, off-again efforts to have Paul Robeson play the role of Joe, singing the legendary “Ol’ Man River.” Then a separate chapter is given to Helen Morgan’s contribution as Julie, whose “passing for white” in a south that prohibited miscegenation is the basis for the entire story.

After his thorough analysis of the piece as it debuted on Broadway, Decker then charts its revivals, touring productions and the film versions. Yes, versions – what other Broadway musical has been filmed so often? There was the 1929 partially silent movie which nonetheless gives us a chance to see and hear Gardella and Morgan. The 1936 version also had Morgan along with Robeson. Then, in 1951, MGM gave Show Boat the full treatment with Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson, William Warfield and Howard Keel. (There’s also an abbreviated version of Show Boat in the 1946 biopic on Kern’s life, Till The Clouds Roll By.)

Decker writes clearly with a habit of not only thoroughly discussing each of his major points, but also explaining why he is covering the point. Through it all he rarely seems to be lecturing. He rightly assumes the reader is interested both in what he has to say and why it is important in the broader portrait of the topic he creates. What is more, he backs up most of his assertions with proofs or examples that give his opinions and conclusions weight.

His chronology does sometimes get confusing, however. For example, he gives a tantalizing look at an early draft script with a “Paul Robeson Recital” scene but he doesn’t identify the date of that version of the script. There is a simple fix to that problem for the reader. Decker provides an appendix which details the archival sources he cites for the original Broadway production of the show. It is only a three page appendix and a serious reader may well want to scan it before getting too far into the main text of the book.

Not all of the interesting developments detailed in this volume are exclusively on the topic of race. Decker demonstrates an ability to analyze and explain a wide range of elements in his examination of Show Boat. For example, he provides an easily followed discussion of the impact of the change in the key for “Make Believe” from D-flat major/D-major to D-major/E-flat. This half step raise accommodated Howard Marsh’s vocal range, but had an effect on what Decker calls “the shape of Kern’s tune.”

Three helpful appendices, twenty pages of notes, a handy bibliography and a thorough index help the reader delve deeper after reading the text. That text does raise a couple of questions which the volume leaves unanswered, but they are rare. In one untypical oversight, he does report that the song “Bill” was replaced for the Drury Lane production in London, but doesn’t say by what. At another point he reports that Paul Robeson left the Broadway revival six weeks before it closed, but doesn’t say if his departure caused or accelerated that closing.

Still, here’s a well written, thoroughly researched and cogently presented new study on one of the most studied and, for that matter, most deserving of study musicals of the twentieth century.

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Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical
by Todd Decker
Oxford University Press
Hardback 310 pages – 18 black and white illustrations
ISBN 978-0-19-975937-8
List Price $35

March 5, 2013

Show Boat: 
Performing Race in an American Musical