Book & (most) Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Jerome Kern
adapted from the novel of the same name, by Edna Ferber

INFO:

Opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre    December 27, 1927    575 performances (often revived)
Original Director: Zeke Colvin (Hammerstein II)
Original Choreographer: Sammy Lee
Original Producer: Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.
Original Leads: Captain Andy: Charles Winninger    Magnolia: Norma Terris    Julie: Helen Morgan (Paul Robeson didn’t appear in the show until 1928, in London.)
Cast Size: Male: 9    Female: 8, and 1 girl    Ensemble: As many as possible    Total Cast Size: 18 plus ensemble.
Orchestra: 20 or so, I’ve seen it with an orchestra of maybe 40-50.
Published Script: None
Production Rights: Rodgers and Hammerstein Library
Recordings: Many, at least 15 cast albums! The 1988 EMI three-album recording is the first to have all the music from the show. It featured legit opera stars Frederica Von Stade, Jerry Hadley, and Teresa Stratas.
Film: 1936, directed by James Whale, with some of the original Broadway cast. 1951, a huge adaptation with stars like Ava Gardner, fun to watch but not as well-regarded. 1989, performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse for PBS to tape. Most complete version.
Other shows by the authors: (together) Sunny, Sweet Adeline, Music In The Air, Very Warm For May

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

This show is enormous. ENORMOUS. It is an operetta, and requires legitimately trained voices, really almost classically trained. It is a very expensive, difficult show to pull off. About the only groups I’d see taking it on, and they’d have to really want to do this particular show to do that, would be opera companies, colleges and universities, and that’s really it. I can see why an opera company could be interested in this show.  Not certain why any college without a serious music department focused on opera or operetta would do this show.

Be Warned:

If you’re wondering if this show might be too big for your company, then it’s too big for your company, so stop wondering.

This show will not play well for a younger audience.

You will need highly trained voices in an almost opera-classical mode to sing much of the score.

The show uses the word “nigger” often, as it is about bigotry in the South, in 1900.  Will your audience understand why it’s used and tolerate it?  Will the NAACP march on your theater?  Much to consider.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: (From the 1946 script, as revised from the original by Hammerstein II.) The levee at Natchez, on the Mississippi, where colored stevedores labor on the dock. (“Ol’ Man River” partial expression.) The Show Boat lands, we see bigotry on full display as its Black cook, Queenie, heads off to market and a white man named Pete asks her where she got a piece of jewelry. But with a parade of sorts, the show people come ashore to promote. (“Cotton Blossom”) Pete steals the picture of the star of the show, Miss Julie, and slinks away. People wait for Cap’n Andy to disembark, including Parthy, Andy’s wife, who has an adult daughter now and has baked the man a cake. (Guess she knew he was coming…)

Andy takes over emceeing the show on the dock, selling the show to come aboard ship and introducing all of his star acts. (“Cap’n Andy’s Ballyhoo”) Pete corners Miss Julie, the show’s singing star, and is furious she gave a gift he gave her to “a nigger.” (This is the language in the show, and you need to know that about the show if you’re considering doing it.) Her husband, Steve, interrupts, knocking Pete down, threatening to kill Pete, and stopping the show. Andy covers – it’s all a part of the show, folks! Parthy gets the band playing. Quietly, Andy fires Pete, who promises revenge.

Julie is grateful Magnolia missed these adventures. Parthy asks Julie to stop giving her daughter, Magnolia, piano lessons. Parthy doesn’t want Magnolia mixed up with “anybody like you.” Parthy disapproves of the show boat life. Julie is distraught, ‘Nola is her favorite person next to her husband, Steve. She plans to leave the Show Boat. Andy is angry – Julie is the best singer on the river. A young girl, Ellie, asks for Julie’s slot in the show if she leaves. She tries to prove she can play a serious role, but Andy thinks she’s a comedienne.

A gorgeous, mature man, Ravenal, enters and catches Ellie’s flirtatious eye. The local lawman warns Ravenal he can’t stay in town more than 24 hours. He is a career gambler and womanizer, who ponders “Where’s The Mate For Me?”. And then, he turns to see Magnolia, young and beautiful. As they talk, he asks if she’s with the show. She wishes she were, then she could make believe she’s anything. He points out that anything can happen in real life, such as the moment just passed when he looked up to see her. And they can “Make Believe” right here and now, that they know each other, that they are in love. The moment is interrupted by the local law who says the judge would like a moment with Ravenal. Parthy in angry Magnolia was talking to a strange man. She knows his overdressed type – a river-boatr gambler. Parthy runs Magnolia to her piano, Queenie to her duties, and wants to know where Queenie’s “shirtless’ husband is with the potatoes.

Julie sneaks out to speak with Magnolia. Magnolia tells Julie that she’s fallen suddenly in love. Julie feels for her, in love with a stranger. Magnolia says if she found out Ravenal was of no account, she’d forget him, but Julie knows better and tells the younger girl once in love, forever in love. (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”) And Julie seems particularly and strangely defiant as she sings the song. Queenie joins them, singing about her own “shiftless” man, in a trio.

The auditorium in the Cotton Blossom (the name of the boat). Magnolia is at the piano, Julie on the bench. Andy wonders where his juvenile dance-comedy leads are, Ellie and Frank. Magnolia saw them headed into town with Pete. They’re trying to rehearse. Julie acts, Magnolia accompanies. Steve acts with Julie, the romantic leads. Ellie finally arrives, worried about something, and with a message from Frank to Steve. It upsets Steve, whatever the whispered message is. He whispers the message to Julie, who appears horrified, and Ellie says it’s all Pete’s fault, he took Julie’s picture. Andy and Parthy don’t know why, suddenly, Julie is unable to go on, and refuses to play the show that night. Steve wants to kill Pete. Pete’s on his way to the boat, with the sheriff, Vallon. Suddenly Steve pulls a knife, grabs Julie’s hand and cuts a finger slightly, and sucks the blood from the wound. Vallon enters and accuses Capn’ Andy of having a miscegenation case abroad – a white man co-habituating with a black woman. It’s a criminal offense in this state. He claims that Julie is black, born to a white father and black mother. Julie admits this is true. Vallon prepares to arrest them when Steve points out he has “negra blood” in him, and as Vallon states, “one drop of negra blood makes you a negra in these parts.” (Again, dialogue from the show.) Vallon questions everyone and they all agree he has more than a drop of her blood in him. Vallon warns them not to do a show tonight with mixed-blood. He departs.

Parthy waits for the other shoe to drop, vindicated ion her view of show people. Steve holds Julie close, and they prepare to leave the ship. Andy, over his head, starts rehearsal again without his stars. Magnolia insists on seeing Julie, over Parthy’s indignant (and bigoted) refusal. Andy’s proud of his girl. Ellie volunteers to become the new romantic lead, and is turned down. Andy wants Magnolia to try it out, she knows all the lines. Frank enters, utterly drunk. Ellie suggests him for the lead, but Frank says that in town, he found a beautiful man better suited for the role. Enter Gaylord Ravenal. Andy asks if the man has ever acted, but he is not interested until Magnolia enters. Magnolia insists Julie is the same person she was an hour ago, and if she goes, then so does Magnolia. Andy informs his daughter (over his wife’s objections) that she’s covering the lead, and Julie, trying to save Magnolia, insists it’s a great opportunity for the girl. Julie and Steve depart as Joe, Queenie’s husband, sings”Ol’ Man River”.

Magnolia is introduced to her potential leading man. They try a scene, and are suddenly kissing.

The box office, three weeks later. Ellie sells tickets. A picture of Magnolia and Ravenal graces the front, and Frank, passing by, tries to pose like the handsome, new leading man. Ellie and Frank grouse that Magnolia and Ravenal aren’t acting on stage – they’re really in love. Franks asks Ellie to marry him, so he can take her away from this strange life style. But Ellie enjoys “Life Upon The Wicked Stage”. Parthy has it out with Andy, she hates that Ravenal keeps staring at their daughter. But Andy likes the man. So she trots out a letter from Pete (always making trouble), saying he has news about Ravenal. Andy isn’t interested in anything Pete has to say. Parthy decides to hear what Pete has to say.

The auditorium fills with audience, colored people in the balcony. Magnolia and Ellie are acting on-stage. Andy stops the show to announce that a man in the audience needs to rush home, his wife’s sister has fever. He then continues the terrible melodrama. Ravenal makes his dashing entrance. As the scene progresses, a backwoodsman doesn’t like how the Magnolia character is treated by the Frank character, and the man has a gun. Ravenal saves the day in every way. Andy tells the audience the rest of the story in a one-man display of showmanship. Frank and Ellie perform a comedy number, “I Might Fall Back On You”.

The upper deck of the show boat. Ravenal waits for Magnolia to meet him, late at night. He tells her he wants to marry her the next day, and it’s her father’s idea. (“You Are Love”) The next morning, “The Wedding Scene”. Everyone celebrates the upcoming wedding when Parthy enters with Vallon and Pete. She lets it be known that last year, Ravenal killed a man, and was let off on self-defense. Cap’n Andy is amused, and announces he murdered a man when he was 19, which stuns his wife, Parthy. He insists the wedding continue, and Parthy faints. Andy ‘s thrilled that she’s fainted – the wedding can go on, now.

ACT TWO: “At The Fair”, more precisely, Chicago world Fair, 1893. The crowd enjoys the wonders. Magnolia, her young daughter Kim, and her mother, Parthy, are there. Of course, Parthy disapproves of everything. They’re to meet Ravenal, and Parthy asks for the hundredth time how Magnolia’s husband makes his living…and apparently quite a good living. Parthy complains about a new kind of dancer on display, the couchie-couchie dancer, when she suddenly realizes that Andy is in the crowd watching one. He is having a wonderful time, and Parthie finds it all immoral.

The hotel lobby. Ravenal is greeted by Hetty Chilson, owner of local bars and gambling rooms. She lets him know some big gamblers are in town, as Magnolia meets him and he gives her flowers. Ravenal explains that Chilson’s club is where great men meet, smoke, have a drink, play a game or two. And he explains it’s the crowd in her club that pays their bills. He offers to skip the club that night to be with her, and we see how in love they are. (“Why Do I Love You?”) Parthy writes a letter to her daughter, which Magnolia reads. She plans to take a vacation with Andy where Magnolia stays, in St. Louis. Ravenal returns after midnight…without his walking stick or ring. He’s had a poor night at the club. He just came in to say hello, he’s going back. And Magnolia figures that he needs her fur coat. She panics, she does not want her mother to see them like this. He says his gambling is a sure thing. (“When Good Luck Comes My Way”)

Ellie and Frank are shown around the hotel Ravenal and Magnolia told parthy they stay, by a landlady. She explains the place is largely empty because their things are in pawn. She describes Ravenal and Magnolia, and times are hard. Magnolia enters, stunned to see them. Ellie and Frank have a major booking as an act. The Landlady tells Magnolia that her husband said they’re leaving, paid up the rent…and left her a letter. Frank and Ellie know Ravenal is a gambler and are not surprised. Ellie is disapproving, but Frank offers his help. He suggests she go back on the stage, and perhaps she could perform where they are booked, at the Trocadero. They leave, she reads the letter. He has left her, admitting he’s no good. The money he leaves her is to get her home again.

The Trocadero rehearsal room, two weeks later. As a rehearsal goes on, a hollow-cheeked woman sits and waits to sing. She is down and out, and we see that it’s Julie. She’s not feeling well, and doesn’t want to sing, but the stage manager (or director) warns her if she “goes on another tear”, she’ll be fired. She sings “Bill” beautifully, and the heartache in it is real, and then leaves. Frank brings Magnolia to sing for the Director. He asks what sort of songs she sings, and she says “negro songs”. He says “Soon songs?” (Dialogue from the script.) She sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”. The men are enchanted, but Jim worriedly asks Magnolia “You a nigger?” It’s then that they find out their lead singer, Julie, is going on a drinking tear. She’s fired, Magnolia has a job. They all leave and Julie, who has been watching, asks Charlie (the waiter who said she’s going on a tear) to help magnolia, like he always helped her. She has a last drink, sings “Bill”.

St. Agatha’s Convent. (“Nun’s Processional”) Ravenal is greeted at ther school there by Kim, his daughter, age 7. They share a moment before he leaves town. (“Make Believe” reprise)

The Tracadero, New Year’s Eve, a party. Ellie and Frank perform for the crowd. (“Goodbye, My Lady Love”) Andy is at one table, celebrating. He’s with several interesting ladies, and buys drinks and dinner for all. Frank recognizes Andy, and Andy introduces the interesting ladies. He’s in Chicago to surprise Magnolia and Ravenal – he clearly knows nothing of the truth. He left Parthy back at the hotel, and is now having a fine time. Frank tells Andy that Nola is here, and is going to perform. Andy protests, Ravenal would never let her perform. Frank lets Andy know Ravenal is gone. Magnolia desperately needs to be a hit tonight. Enter Magnolia on stage, singing “After The Ball”. She is shaky, and the crowd starts to demand Julie (who is long gone). But Andy stands up, gets the crowd quiet and encourages Magnolia, who sings just for her father.

A Hollywood shooting lot. The star of the movie being shot – an adult Kim. A reporter tries to get her life story. She lets us know that her mother, Magnolia, is on set and that they will be doing a number together shortly. They talked her out of retirement because Kim is intimidated by this new invention, talkies. The Director takes over to rehearse the scene with mother and daughter. The two women sing together, “Nobody Else But Me”. (This was the last song composed by Kern.)

A phone call for Magnolia come in, urgent, from Louisiana, Andy speaks to his daughter via phone, and tells Magnolia that Parthy’s health is failing. Parthy enters at rthe end of the call, clearly in fine health. He’s pleased, because now, Nola and Kim will visit them at the Cotton Queen. Parthy knows he’s up to something, and has arranged this. There’s a knock on the door of their hotel room, and there is Ravenal, older, a bit gone to seed. This is another of Andy’s maneuvers, and Parthy is deeply distrustful. He is thinking of seeing Magnolia, but knows she’s made a life for herself, now. Parthy is dead set against it, but Cap’n Andy insists that Ravenal will accompany them to the Cotton Queen, and there be reunited with his wife and daughter. They all decide to “Make Believe” to like each other.

The decks of the Cotton Queen. Joe is bringing in provisions, and Queenie is giving him a hard time. Nothing really changes. (“Ah Still Suits Me”) A grand reunion is in the making. Frank waits for Ellie, in town with Magnolia and Kim, all of them stars now. Cap’n Andy enters with Ravenal. Ravenal has had second thoughts, he can see Magnolia has a happy life, and doesn’t want to intrude. The women arrive, led by Parthy. Andy speaks to a crowd about his daughter, and Kim, both great stars now. They celebrate their stardom with a reprise of “Life Upon The Wicked Stage”.

Ravenal encounters Magnolia, who accepts him joyfully back into her life. (“You Are Love”), and Joe sings of “Ol’ Man River”, time rolls on, life does what it does

THE SONGS:

(NOTE – There are many revised versions of the show, with different numbers inserted or taken out. Again, this is the ’46 version supervised and rewritten by Hammerstein.)

“Cotton Blossom”, “Cap’n Andy’s Ballyhoo”, “Where’s The Mate For Me?”, “Make Believe”, “Ol’ Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Life Upon The Wicked Stage”, “When Good Luck Comes My Way”, “I Might Fall Back On You’, “C’mon, Folks”, “You Are Love”, “Wedding Scene”, “At The Fair”, “Dandies On Parade”, “Why Do I Love You?”, “In Dahomey”, “Bill” (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse), “Nun’s Processional”, “Goodbye, My Lady Love” (written by Joseph E. Howard), “After The Ball” (written by Charles K. Harris), “Nobody Else But Me”, “Ah Still Suits Me”

Hits include “Make Believe”, “Ol’ Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Bill”, “You Are Love”, “Why Do I Love You” (also excellent, “Life Upon The Wicked Stage”, “I Might Fall Back On You”) “Goodbye, My Lady Love” and “After The Ball” were hits long before Show Boat was written. Certainly one of the great scores of all time.

MY OPINIONS:

Feel free, as ever, to ignore my opinions and rating.  But then, don’t be surprised if you go down with the boat…

Show Boat is very often touted by Musical Theater historians (yes, there are such animals) as a breakthrough in the Musical Theater. It is looked upon as a distinct step toward a more adult, serious musical, willing to tackle difficult issues such as bigotry. (Hammerstein wrote many shows attacking bigotry, and had fantastic success at it, including South Pacific and The King & I.) From it’s opening scene, with stevedores laboring on a dock, it was different in some ways from earlier shows, which normally opened with a chorus of leggy girls.

I have always felt that such historians are being extraordinarily myopic, and not looking with any seriousness at European musicals of the day, such as those being authored by Kurt Weill – wildly experimental, far more “modern” than Show Boat, in some cases more “modern” than what we’re writing today. And frankly, I find much of Show Boat a snooze. Still, it is credited with raising the game in the American Musical – though you really can’t see much game-raising until the early 1940s, I think. There are fun and funny and zippy 1930s shows, to be certain. But if you’re looking for shows with any serious content in the 1930s (outside of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing and Porgy & Bess, and Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock), I suggest a look at Weill.

All of that said, the score has some of the best songs ever written for an operetta – and this is an operetta, the historians notwithstanding. It has all the earmarks of operetta, including rustic folk singin’ an’ dancin’, musical numbers that come almost out of nowhere, and a cornball a show within’ a show. Numbers like “At The Fair” remind us that this is an operetta and Hammerstein, who continued to write such numbers late into his career, such as “Kansas City” in Oklahoma, almost 15 years later, long after the demise of operetta.

It is the secondary love story that raises Show Boat from the run-of-the-mill, the story of a partially Black woman and a Caucasian man. This love story is almost adult. (The principle love story is operetta-stuff at first, but develops a bit…though it never rises much above melodrama.) The character of Julie and her relationship with her husband, Steve, is generally more complex, and in the show in general, couples get together and fall apart and have difficulties from serious and adult causes, such as compulsive gambling, and miscegenation. We even see the raising of a child by a single parent. At one point, Cap[‘n Andy announces he’s a murderer, and he is the most easily lovable character in the piece, though he is something of a coward. The script is very tight for the period in which it was authored, and deals dramatically and courageously with hard subjects. It is a fairly good script, though it is superficial in character development (as all Hammerstein is). For taking such risks in ’27, or even today, the show is commendable.

I’ve always wondered what this show might look like with a cast of about 20 or so, and all the trimmings removed to allow the love stories to dominate the evening completely. That will never happen, Show Boat fans, so no worries. Show Boat is, was and shall always be perhaps the last great operetta, a culmination of an old form rather than the birth of a new one, the most adult of that form, which is damning the show with faint praise indeed. (I think operetta is at its best when it is at its most fun, and the adults stay home. It is not a very mature or “adult” form of entertainment, and is the equivalent in Musical Theater terms to soap opera.)

Kern was a master, Hammerstein was capable of greatness, and this work represented both men at their peak, to that time. There are beautiful moments in Show Boat. But the few times I’ve seen it, including Harold Prince’s revival, I’ve found myself staring at my watch for an hour at a time. I know, perhaps I should have watched the show instead, and I would have if there’d been anything happening on the stage more interesting than those little hands on my really cute watch, going round and round.

More, I believe this show’s time has effectively come and gone. Go down the street and ask 100 people what a “show boat” was, and see if anyone knows. In its story-telling, the show feels antiquated, too quaint, too much not a part of today in any way. It’s possible salvation would lie in an extreme emphasis on the miscegenation and broken marriage tales, which still carry some modern bite – though not much anymore. It’s score, lovely lovely lovely for the most part, is also dated dated dated. The songs feels very much like it belongs to another era, not ours, and with a few exceptions for some of the more comic numbers, “Ol’ Man River”, and “Bill”, really won’t mean much top almost any modern audience. The fact that there may be four to five numbers that work at all well after the passing of almost 90 years is a small miracle, frankly, and a testament to the author’s craftsmanship.

In the end, this show is also at its best when it talks about family. Andy’s relationship with his daughter is the most moving ion the show, and when he stands up on New Year’s eve to encourage her to sing, I dare anyone to withhold their tears. It is one of the moments in the show that does work.

Show Boat is a huge, gigantic show, of a size profoundly prohibitive of it getting productions today. Perhaps, as I mentioned, made into an intimate, small-cast, small-orchestra, experimental version, it might find more resonance with a contemporary audience, and more productions. I don’t know, it hasn’t really been tried. But beyond that approach, this show is well on its way to being a sad dinosaur, really of interest only to Musical Theater historians, um, like me. The only consolation the show can take is that very few shows from the period not composed by Kurt Weill are likely to survive much longer.

There is another obvious phenomenon that supports this last statement. Every year, new shows are authored, and a few of them succeed and enter the standard repertoire. The newer shows generally get the most attention from theater groups around the world, groups trying to make money, with the exception of a couple of handfuls of classic musicals that will always get produced. Theater companies that can handle a huge show like this can also do classic Musical Comedies, and more contemporary, larger shows, and every year they have a few more choices in this regard. We’ve been putting up what we call musicals for over 100 years now, it’s a crowded market place. I’m sure someone somewhere will be signing Show Boat‘s score. But will the show be produced over other, more contemporary shows of size such as Follies, Sweeney Todd, or Ragtime?

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

Kern composes elegant music, with the occasionally unexpected interval or key change. He can be subtle, and is almost always highly melodic. He was the earliest real master of the show tune, along with Irving Berlin. The music to the show is rich, emotive, and borders on opera. It is musically interesting, but not particularly hard to play, to learn or teach.

Magnolia – Soprano, legit voice but not a heavy soprano, good range, good emotional expression, clear and clean top notes.

Ravenal – Romantic lyric baritone, full-voiced, near-legit, round and complete in mid-range, good high notes.

Julie – Alto, great touch with big, heart-felt ballads, beautiful emotional voice, a star.

Cap’n Andy – Tenor, great energy, character voice.

Parthy – Mezzo, limited singing.

Ellie – Alto, strong belt, musical comedy voice.

Frank – Lyric baritone, smooth voice, some belt, musical comedy voice.

Joe – Bass baritone, a huge, rumbling voice that comes up from the earth. Trained, classical voice optimum.

Queenie – Mezzo, some singing.

Kim (adult) – Soprano, sweet, lilting, fun voice, good mid-register belt.

Steve – Non-Singing. (Can double in ensemble)

Pete – Non-Singing. (Can double in ensemble)

Vallon – Non-Singing. (Can double in ensemble)

Kim (child) – Soprano.

Ensemble – Must sing and sing well, in the old-school operetta sense. Good voices, must harmonize, decent mid-ranges, good highs, belt preferable.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

The show borders on spectacle. It is quite, quite long, and needs movement. But the movement cannot get in the way of the need for legit singing, in cases where the leads are involved. Much of the “dance” is done by the team of Ellie and Frank, and by the ensemble.

The Choreographer for Show Boat must be familiar and comfortable with old school dance. Waltzes, vaudeville-type numbers, gently danced love duets with just enough movement to wind the lady up in the gentleman’s arms.

The numbers a Choreographer might stage include “Cotton Blossom”, “Cap’n Andy’s Ballyhoo”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Life Upon The Wicked Stage”, “I Might Fall Back On You’, “C’mon, Folks”, “Wedding Scene”, “At The Fair”, “Dandies On Parade”, “In Dahomey”, “Goodbye, My Lady Love” (written by Joseph E. Howard), “Nobody Else But Me”, “Ah Still Suits Me”. Some of these are strictly comic in intent, and boy, does the show need them.

“Cotton Blossom” is about spectacle, as the boat rolls onto the stage. It’s the south, tambourines and banjos and high-stepping and moves along those lines. This isn’t quite the opening number, but it should kick the show off and be fairly high energy. Same goes for “Cap’n Andy’s Ballyhoo”, which also introduces some of the characters, and the feel of the show within a show.

“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is, in it’s first presentation, an upbeat, more or less, cheerful, a light moment shared between women. These are performers, and so they have an innate theatrical bent that does not need to drop out for the “real life” numbers, not entirely. They know steps, they could “improvise” steps together as they go, and that feel would be fun and allow the number a sense of spontaneity which, again, the show could profit be.

“Life Upon The Wicked Stage” is a lot like the last number, in this version of the show, and the same notes more or less apply.

“I Might Fall Back On You”, like all the upbeat on-stage numbers, is fun, high kicking, strutting show-biz, circa the late 1800s. You need to know what sort of steps and routines this calls for, or do some research. Same will go for “Goodbye, My Lady Love”.

“Wedding Scene” is a book scene rather than an actual song, and communicating the story is the highest priority. It is celebratory until things fall apart, and the higher the characters get with joy, the lower they can fall…until Cap’n Andy saves the day with his own admission about having been a murderer. Then pick up the celebration again and place Parthy at the center of it, horrified as the world moves forward against her wishes.

The fair is a full-cast all-hands spectacle, intended to match the spectacle that opened Act I, at the opening of Act II. In lieu of a boat and actors, we are treated to a World’s Fair (which actually happened, of course), coochie-coochie dance at its birth, African natives dancing…a parade of bizarre images along these lines. Depending of the size of your budget and the number of dancers you can use, this may be far too much to do. Some healthy edits would not hurt this section, anyway. I personally believe there’s too much spectacle called for in the show, and not enough focus on the main characters, not enough heart. Some cuts here would,. I think, be welcome. Get enough going on up there with balloons and cotton candy and coochie dancers and strange images that we get the idea of a World’s Fair, and get into the story. This part of the play is overwritten. By the way, this is the 1900 Chicago World’s Fair. Here’s a few images, including the famous dance.

 

If you use “Ah Still Suits Me”, it should feel un-staged, real, improvised. And it’s about a man who moves and changes when it suits him, he does not move because others expect him to. That should help shape the movement placed in the number.

If possible, get some dancers in the ensemble. Ellie and Frank are your dance leads, they must dance well, in the period and style called for, a kind of high-energy, high-kicking ballroom.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Magnolia – Early 20s, must later play in her 40s. Beautiful and sweet, almost pure, but longing to participate in life. Not innately rebellious, not until she falls in love. But then she shows some spine, and thoughtlessness. We must understand why a man would fall in love with her on sight. Kind of tough inside, a survivor when it comes to it. Cast for voice, type and acting, some movement.

Ravenal – As much as ten years older than Magnolia. A man of the world, handsome, suave, tall, dark. A born charmer and liar. A professional gambler willing to take a risk, and even compulsive about it, which may explain his very rapid falling in love. A man who has a capacity to surrender himself to the moment. A weak man in the end. Cast for voice, looks and acting, some movement.

Julie – In her thirties or so. Stunningly beautiful, a woman rather than a girl. A deep soul carrying a terrible secret, a burden she fully expects will destroy her, and it does. Overwhelmed finally by the cruelty of bigotry, her life is destroyed. When she collapses, she really falls apart, drinks, probably dies young. But she is never so far gone as to stop loving the people she loves, and she is self-sacrificing. The noblest character in the play. Intact, a wonderful performer who can sing a song in a way that breaks hearts. Cast for voice, type and acting, some movement.

Cap’n Andy – Age 45-60ish. A complex man. A murderer in his teens, he’s now a competent showman and excellent story teller, even spell-binding. He adores his daughter, Magnolia, and he naturally enjoys people. In fact, he enjoys life, perhaps thanks to the burden he carries of having killed a man when he was young and gotten off for self-defense. Now, life is precious to him, and he will not waste it. But there is a streak of cowardice in him that prevents him from behaving with conviction when he knows that Julie and Steve are being mistreated. He simply allows them to quit his show, and then pushes into rehearsal, unwilling or unable to confront that great wrong that ruins Julie’s life. Cap’n Andy is the character that makes this story work, if it’s going to work. He needs a big comic range, from bravado, to cowardice. Cast for acting, type, voice, some movement. Requires a charismatic showman with experience, who can also move the audience.

Parthy – Andy’s fearsome wife, a bit younger than him. Humorless, critical, controlling, imposing her moral sense on anyone and everything that is not strong enough to resist. Requires an actress with strong comic ability, or the role becomes unbearable to watch. She is dry, skeptical, wry, unyielding, and finally overwhelmed when things cannot go her way. But in the very end, she loves her wayward husband (he looks, but it never goes farther than that…probably…), and her daughter. And she does care about the show boat she claims to despise, or at least the income it brings in. Cast for acting and type, then voice.

Ellie – Early-mid twenties at first, ages during the show. A show girl, vital, alive, sexy. She is very self-involved, and pushy. Ellie is always looking for the opportunity to become a star. She is willing to throw others under the truck to get where she wants, which makes her a not very nice person. A true trouble maker. Must be a very talented dancer and strong singer, attractive, and fun actress if we’re going to find her watchable.

Frank – Ellie’s husband, about her age. Clean-cut, tall, handsome, a fine dancer and smooth singer lacking great charisma, but a pro. He has a better heart than his wife, and cares more sincerely for others. Cast for dance, voice, looks and type, acting, but must do all well.

Joe – An often shirtless Black stevedore, a hard-working man in his mature years. Not well educated, very capable with his hands and with crafts. A man who watches life from a small distance, and marvels at its complexities. Must be remarkably charismatic when he sings “Ol’ Man River”. Cast for voice, then acting. Some movement may be required.

Queenie – Joe’s wife, Black, the cook for the boat. Irascible, blunt, hard-working, not particularly educated but street-wise and no-nonsense. A good role for a strong comic actress in her mature years. Cast for acting, then voice, some movement may be required.

Kim (adult) – A star, lovely, bright, vital, self-involved. Loves her family, though. Born in a trunk, she is utterly at home performing anywhere, even in front of the press. Cast for type and acting, voice, movement.

Steve – Julie’s husband, a mature man, crazy in love with her. But he later abandons her, when the heat of the moment in their Act One exit ends. We never really know what happened to Steve, only that he’s gone and now Julie is falling apart. Intense, masculine, the romantic lead in the show at the start. Cast for type and acting. Could double in ensemble.

Pete – The bad guy, a rat, a squealer, a lazy good-for-nothing sneak. Ant adult age is fine, perhaps a little past his prime so we get why he chases Julie, and why he seems so desperate. Cast for acting and type. Could double in ensemble in Act II.

Vallon – The local sheriff, a manly man, probably, but a bigot and a small-minded but of a jerk. Cast for acting and type. Could double ensemble in Act II.

Kim (child) – About 7 years old, one song and brief scene. Must sing well, look something like Magnolia.

Ensemble – They all must really sing, pretty close to operatic and legit sounds, all ranges. The will also need to dance more than a bit. And they should look like the period if possible.

SETS:

The show takes place first in 1900, and then, 27 years later. The look of the sets should strictly adhere to the period.

The sets include the Levee at Natchez on the Mississippi, a dock of sorts, which can be played with a few barrels and dock-type equipment, as well as workers. Then, that ship rolls on, and how you do that one is important, and up to you and your available resources. A false front on a rolling grid work could work, but we should see people singing and even dancing on the decks as the ship rolls in. Perhaps the ship can be in place and stationary behind a drop set mid-stage, and then raised to reveal the ship. Regardless, I’d place the ship at the back of the stage, to allow playing area in front of it.

We then see scenes throughout the ship, which might even split open and allow a sort of thrust stage to roll forward, where action will be played, revealing small kitchen, a stage, a few odd corners where action might be placed.. The box office can literally be a “box” office, carried into place by workers and set outside the gangplank leading up to the ship. This is where Act I will happen.

The Midway at the fair can be all flats of carnival games, grand buildings in the distance, a few moving objects (like a distant Ferris wheel), balloons, strange types of people performing. There are many photos available, and perhaps some film, from the Chicago 1900 world’s Fair. This can occupy the back of the stage if you use a proscenium stage, and opens Act II, so it can be set up.

The small room magnolia and Ravenal live in, cheap, run down, can be presented by flying in a cutaway piece with a door, perhaps a small closet, and rolling in a bed, a dresser that has seen better days. Fly it out or roll it out when done.

The rehearsal room at the Troc can be played on the apron “in one.” The Convent can also be polayed “in one”, and should be as it’s just marching nuns and children.

The music hall at the Troc can be a small stage set to one side, and the bulk of the action can be the tables and chairs in the audience area, carried on and off by cast.

The film studio can also all be “in one”, cameras roll on, and other equipment (for 1927, the birth of sound), perhaps a few simple set pieces or furniture. But simple, mostly a bare stage that can be struck quickly.

Then, lift the main drape at the end to reveal the boat, improved, bigger, a “Queen” now.

This is quite a job, and will require a head start and a real crew and budget. Your designer is going to need to get very creative about how to pull out all the stops and not sink the show in debt. You’re going to need a very good designer.

COSTUMES:

A very large assignment. The cast is very large to start with, and everything is period dress. At first, it’s 1900 southern, then 1927 Hollywood, then 1927 southern. Mix in the odd costumes for strange acts at the 1900 World’s Fair, and you have four sets of costumes to get through for pretty much your entire case. Oh, and let’s remember that the Show Boat actors probably have clothes the perform in that are more spangly than their everyday duds – though we first see them promoting their show, so maybe they’re already so dressed. But Magnolia should initially look like a virginal young woman with nothing to do with the show. Then, she’s in it, so that means a costume change. Ravenal walks in a smooth, extremely well-dressed if somewhat flashy gambler, and also becomes an actor, another change.

What are we looking at? Well, southern dress was not the same as in the Gone With The wind era, so you will need to do some homework. Plus, you have to dress everything from the Show Boat actors, to backwoodsman, to a sheriff, to homey and everyday town folk, to shirtless stevedores, to coochie-coochie dancers and other World Fair acts.

The 1900 costumes will be a real workout. Rental houses may have a lot of what you need. But you may well need to build the Show Boat cast costumes, what they wear when they are “onstage,” especially if you intend to present some sort of cast “uniform” for the large opening numbers. (You could, but I wouldn’t.) The show costumes can look make-shift to some extent, pieced together, and though they are kept in fine repair, they can be worn.

When we go to Chicago, the look of a Northern big city is different, and needs to be reflected in some of the costuming. The New Year’s Eve ball, an enormous set piece, is tuxes and hats, ladies in their finest for the period.

1927 doesn’t look anything like 1900, really, much of anywhere in the country, and will require its own research. You basically require two sets for the period, one for Hollywood – and when you dress Kim and Magnolia, they are now stars. They should stand out. And then, the Show Boat crowd reunion, and they have all gotten older and grown into success.

And one more thing…your leads all must sing a lot, and really need to be able to breathe. Ellie and Frank also dance a lot, and that needs to be taken into consideration for all their 1900 costuming. And many of the leads are seen in multiple locations, and for credibility’s sake, needs changes of costume during Act I.

Rent as much as you can, and get the shoes right for the period, and things like Magnolia’s fur. But you may be building many costumes.

PROPS:

Period parasols, props for the “onstage” stuff, Julie’s photo, Ravenal’s walking stick, Magnolia’s suitcases or bags, all period. The Hollywood scene may need cameras, and those are period early sound cameras (you’ll need to build something, most likely). Could be quite a job.

LIGHTING:

A moody piece with many numbers, many scenes. So there will be many cues, most likely. I would think this is going to be a rather large show to plot and light. The “onstage” numbers need to look “onstage” for the period, and for the show boat onstage scenes,, that does not mean electric lighting. Candle and gas-powered footlights and the like were common. But modern audiences expect far more. You’ll need to create a sense of that antediluvian lighting, without limiting yourself. A challenge in every respect, this is going to be a large job.

MAKE-UP:

Unobtrusive, for the period, though. And when they perform “on-stage”, they would clearly be made-up more daringly and obviously.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Costume Designer, Cap’n Andy, Parthy, Magnolia, Ravenal, Julie.

MY THOUGHTS:

The score is generally quite beautiful. The book has some smart dialogue and effective moments throughout. Yes, it is overall a more mature show than most shows of its time. But I believe its impact on the history of the theater is somewhat overestimated. Should this show receive future productions? Maybe, but it’s not likely there will be many, for all the reasons outlines above.

Then again, if the estate allowed an in-depth rethink of the show, a trimming of the book and score by a good 30-45 minutes, a trimming of the number of bodies, costumes, sets and musicians needed, a streamlining focusing on the love stories and bigotry that drives the tale in fact, perhaps this show could be today the masterwork we keep hearing that it was in 1927.

BUT there is always going to be the problem of the use of the word “nigger,” which is always going to offend some of the audience. It is used to point out how ugly bigotry is, of course, and it’s use is effective in this regard. Hammerstein had his purpose. He paints Julie as easily the most sympathetic character in the play, and Joe as the deepest thinker in his way. He is trying to make a point, but there will always be some in the audience who will not be able to see past the word to its intent. You can warn your audience that this word will be a part of the proceeding, and why – but that probably will not save your production from people marching in protest outside, which is both silly and unfortunate. Because the show’s one true strength lies in its message that we need to get past our bigotries.

I’ve given this show one of the longest and most thorough write-ups on this site, in an attempt to find a way to make this show workable today. I doubt I’ve succeeded, frankly, but perhaps there’s enough to think about here that other, brighter people will take it the next step and succeed at resurrecting a show I’m fairly sure time has passed by. I wish them success.

But I also feel it’s really time to get past the myth that Show Boat and Oklahoma stand as some sort of twin peaks of development in the Musical Theater. They were successful shows in their day, and they both found ways to advance to some extent the standard of story-telling typical of their respective eras. And that’s fine. But even a cursory look at each show reveals that they are both operettas, advanced in terms of complexity of characters to some degree, but that’s about it. In fact, I’d say Show Boat has more interesting and adult dialogue and situations in many cases than does Oklahoma. And it is not at all hard to demonstrate that other (and better) shows were more instrumental in the development of an adult Musical Theater, one that perhaps has moved into its senility or second childhood today. That is what worries me, today, and a large reason this site exists.

An art form is only as strong as the new works created within it, each year. The Musical Theater had its prime years from about 1941-1968 or so. Roughly, these were the “golden age” of Musical Theater. This is being authored in 2013, over 40 years removed from the end of that golden age. You could argue that the theater then passed through a “silver age” embodied by Sondheim and Webber, but that would have ended by late 1980s. There have been some wonderful shows authored since then, particularly Once On This Island, Rent, and Ragtime. There will be more wonderful works written. But there will need to be many more such works, actually produced well and in the largest of public arena’s, to keep this form we love alive and breathing. And there are older shows that should be set on the shelf to make room for newer shows. This is one such show, I think, just about ready for mothballs. And I welcome producers and directors with great ideas to prove me wrong and make this show sing again, alive and contemporary.