The History of Show Boat

In 1925, Edna Ferber spent several weeks on the James Adams Floating Palace Theater in Bath, North Carolina, gathering information for the novel she planned to write about a disappearing American phenomenon: the River Show Boat. In a few short weeks, she would gain what she called a "treasure trove of show-boat material, human, touching, true." In 1926, Ferber published the result of her new found love, the best-selling novel, Show Boat.

Show Boat is the story of three generations of the Hawks family on the River Boat, The Cotton Blossom. The saga spans the period from the mid 1880's to the then current late 1920's, and follows the fortunes of Magnolia Hawks and her gambling husband Gaylord Ravenal. Magnolia, or "Noli," struggles throughout the story with her relationship to the Cotton Blossom, owned by her parents, Captain Andy Hawks and his wife, Parthy. Interwoven into the story of the Hawks and the Ravenals is the story of the black workers and stevedores along the Mississippi and on the Cotton Blossom. Queenie and Joe are two black workers who figure significantly in the lives of the family aboard the River Boat; they also are part of the sub-plot of the plight of African-American workers in the Post-Civil War South. Julie La Verne is a racially mixed performer on the Cotton Blossom whose husband, Steve, is white. The couple is banned from the floating theater by a strictly enforced local law against miscegenation.

In the second act of the book, Noli and Ravenal separate, and she leaves the familiar stage of the River Boat and the waters of the Mississippi for Chicago, and a future as a musical comedy star. Magnolia and Ravenal's daughter, Kim Ravenal, follows in her mothers footsteps as an actress and performer. The second act climaxes in the reunion of Magnolia and Gay as they watch their daughter, who has achieved international stardom, perform as they had years before. The entire plot of the novel and the book is tied together by the dominant image of the Mississippi River. Ferber's motif is beautiful: the characters in the story float through their lives, moving through both peacrful and turbulent times, much as the Cotton Blosssom navigates the unpredictable waters of the Mississippi.

This brief synopsis of the plot of Show Boat does not clarify the history of the text in its various forms through the years. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II were the two men responsible for bringing Ferber's novel to the stage. The original broadway production, produced by Florenz Ziegfield, opened on December 27, 1927, as was an immediate success. The production starred Norma Terris, Howard Marsh, Edna May Oliver, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson. While the production in many ways followed the tradition of its vaudeville predecessors, there was something unique about Kern and Hammerstein's work. The audiences who flocked to the performance knew that musical theater had been revolutionized, but they had yet to learn exactly how.

The next production of Edna Ferber's Show Boat was the original Hollywood version of the text which reached audiences in 1936. Director James Whale brought the activities on the Cotton Blossom to life with many of the same faces from the Broadway original. Helen Morgan, Charles Winninger and Paul Robeson all brought their Broadway roles to the screen and adopted Kern and Hammerstein's book and score to the motion picture arena.

A second Hollwood adaptation, directed by George Sidney, was released in 1951. The 1951 reconstruction starred Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ava Gardner, and Joe E. Brown. This reproduction had a distinct Hollywood flavor, and had lost some of the charming innocence of the both the original Broadway and the original Hollywood versions. The motion picture, however, was again a tremendous success, and the cast recording of the music not only sold well, but also further solidified the place of Show Boat's score in the history of musical film and musical theater.

The most recent adaptation of the original production was hal Prince's 1994 Revival of Show Boat. the production won 6 1995 Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Michel Bell), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Gretha Boston), Best Direction (Hal Prince), Best Constume Design (Florenec Katz) and Best Choreographer (Susan Stroman). Prince reworked and reexamined the legacy of Show Boat from Kern, Hammerstein, and others, to create a contemporary success: a production that retains the innocence of the text yet is theatrically innovative. Eugene Lee's production and set design is also a magnificent example of combining modernity with simplicity. The 1994 revival, scheduled to close this January, integrates the history of this incredible text with reverance to the past and theatrical ingenuity.

Link to my Review of the 1994 Show Boat Revival.


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