Showboat: A Scenario

By Steven Ledbetter

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Probably the majority of operettas and musical comedies before 1927 were based on original plots, though some (like Die Fledermaus) were adaptations of theatrical comedies. But no one had ever attempted a popular musical version of a serious novel. But Jerome Kern had been fascinated by Edna Ferber’s sprawling family saga covering three generations that lived and worked on a steamboat with its own on-board theater plying the Mississippi River, and he arranged to be introduced to the author at the opening night of his show Criss Cross, October 12, 1926, to get her permission to make a musical version. Actually, he had already told Oscar Hammerstein to buy a copy of the book and plan a dramatic outline, while he did the same. They compared their respective plans, which were surprisingly similar, and set happily to work.

During the ensuing year Kern and, even more his producer Florenz Ziegfeld, were nervous about the show’s prospects. Ziegfeld, in particular, felt that it would kill the evening to have the female lead, Magnolia, marry the charming gambler Gaylord Ravenal so early in the play. He wrote to Kern:

[Hammerstein’s] present lay-out too serious. Not enough comedy. After marriage remember your love interest is eliminated. No one on earth, Jerry, knows musical comedy better than you and you yourself told me you would not risk a dollar on it. If Hammerstein will fix the book I want to do it.

In the end, Hammerstein (and Kern) won over the flamboyant producer, partly through the device of labeling the show a “an American musical play” rather than a “musical comedy.” What made Show Boat so different–and so much a model for the highest aspirations of Broadway composers for decades afterwards–was written by critic Arthur B. Waters on the basis of the pre-Broadway tryouts in Philadelphia and Cleveland:

There have been a number of note-worthy operettas during the last few seasons which have attained a high level of excellence, but “Show Boat” is not simply an operetta, though Jerome Kern’s distinguished score can easily be ranked with the best of them. No, [it] has many of the finer attributes of musical comedy, operetta, even of revue, with a definite suggestion of legitimate drama that is not dragged in by the heels and never falls into the customary mawkish channels that mistake bathos for pathos.

At some point following the hugely successful opening of the show, Kern authorized the creation of a symphonic “scenario,” crafted by Charles Miller. The description of this symphonic medley as a “scenario” implies that it follows, in some sense, the plot of the musical. What it offers mostly, though, is a reminder–and only that!–of the extraordinary wealth of musical ideas contained in the show. How rare to find a single evening in the musical theater presenting a good half-dozen hit songs, to say nothing of another half-dozen the function effectively within their theatrical context! The “scenario” begins and ends with the single most famous and most impressive song in the show, “Ol’ Man River”; it continues with two other songs associated with the black characters in the show–“Can’t help lovin’ dat man” and “Cotton Blossom.” The medley continues with three numbers connected to the central love story, “Make Believe,” “You are love,” and the Finale to Act I, in which Magnolia and Gaylord are married. Like the novel, the musical play covers a long period of time, and Kern employs actual and invented “period numbers” to suggest the passage of time between scenes. “In Dahomey,” which comes next in the medley, was an imaginative recreation, a tribute to the Will Marion Cook show of the same name, which had been the first successful black show on Broadway (and which Kern had seen in its extraordinarily successful London run in the fall of 1903). The medley closes with another love song, “Why do I love you,” and the continuing theme of the play and the novel, “Ol’ man river.”

In Show Boat, Kern’s music flows and develops (as one early critic noted) with a flexibility and a dramatic insight that suggest the possibility of a “leit-opera”–that is, a musical-theatrical work with the kind of consistency and coherence found in Wagnerian opera. On the whole, that prediction has scarcely been borne out; with the exception of a handful of important later shows (one might suggest of Carousel, The Most Happy Fella, West Side Story, and Sweeney Todd), few shows aspired to the heights of Show Boat, and even fewer reached them.