A musical like Show Boat doesn’t come around very often. For one thing, the sheer size of the production made it necessary for composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II to seek the help of Florenz Ziegfeld, who was famous for creating lavish spectacles, to produce the 1927 Broadway premiere. In the present day, it takes the resources of a major opera company to really pull it off. We are lucky the San Francisco Opera's doing the landmark musical at all, seeing as Show Boat's not exactly an opera. Although the cast has varied since, this particular production premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2012 and has played Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera.
The importance of Show Boat in the history of musical theater can’t be emphasized enough. Before it came along in 1927, the idea of a "serious" musical was a contradiction in terms; Roaring Twenties productions were light, silly spectacles that provided plenty of popular standards, but not much in the way of plot. With a script adapted by Hammerstein from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel of the same name, Show Boat tells a sweeping tale of show biz, racism, bitter poverty and tragic love that spans 40 years (or, in butt-in-seat terms, two hours and 45 minutes). The subject matter may be deep, but Show Boat also contributed its share of classics to the popular music canon, most notably “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
It was also the first racially integrated musical, with black and white performers singing together. The part of Joe, the stevedore who sings “Ol’ Man River,” was specifically written for the great bass-baritone singer and actor Paul Robeson, although due to production delays and scheduling conflicts Jules Bledsoe originated the part. At the same time, the other major African-American role in the show was played by Tess Gardella, a popular Italian-American blackface performer best known for the stage persona Aunt Jemima. It was an interesting time.
With this history in mind, it’s impressive how well Show Boat stands up today. Some of the rough edges of the dialect in the lyrics and dialogue have been smoothed out over the years; the very first lyric of the show is now “Colored folk work on the Mississippi, colored folk work while the white folks play,” rather than opening with a much harsher word. Now such language is reserved for bad guys like the villainous engineer Pete (James Asher). In fact, the play’s portrayal of racial prejudice is so stark and damning, it’s hard to imagine how Show Boat went over when it first premiered in a still-unapologetically segregated United States.
Hammerstein, of course, would continue to tackle racism head-on in later musicals such as 1949’s South Pacific.