SHOW BOAT JUST KEEPS ROLLING ALONG By Peter Filichia
So here we are in 2022, which will mark a number of significant anniversaries for certain Broadway musicals.
This new year will celebrate them for CHAPLIN (ten years), THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (twenty), CRAZY FOR YOU (thirty), NINE (forty), GREASE (fifty), I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE (sixty) and NEW FACES OF 1952 (seventy).
Most miraculously, we’ll honor no less than the ninety-fifth anniversary of a musical that is still produced here and there as well as now and then. That’s hardly true of THE WHITE EAGLE, which opened a day before it, and LOVELY LADY, which debuted two days after it.
Instead, SHOW BOAT, which Florenz Ziegfeld brought to Broadway on Dec. 27, 1927, remains the most significant musical of the 1920s – and one of the most significant overall.
The 1951 film says in its credits that it’s “based on the immortal musical play.” That seems to be true. Will any musical produced this season still be in the public’s consciousness in 2117?
That second film remake is one of eleven notable iterations that SHOW BOAT has enjoyed: the original production, four official Broadway revivals, two City Center remountings, three film versions and a TV broadcast of a 1989 Paper Mill Playhouse production.
So, to honor that number, we’ll give eleven salient facts about the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein masterpiece. They come courtesy of Todd Decker’s book SHOW BOAT.
1. Winthrop Ames’ name was attached to 35 Broadway productions in the first 30 years of the 20th century. His most significant contribution to theater, however, occurred on the opening night of the tryout of a play called OLD MAN MINICK, which he produced. The show had not impressed the Boston audience; Ames afterward joked that the next time he produced a play, he’d open it on a show boat.
Edna Ferber, who’d co-written the play with George S. Kaufman, had no idea that such a thing as a show boat existed, but was interested, then intrigued, then possessed. She wrote SHOW BOAT, which became a best-selling novel that eventually resulted in the musical. What an irony that OLD MAN MINICK led to “Ol’ Man River” after Ferber sold the rights to Kern and Hammerstein on Nov. 17, 1926. A mere thirteen months and ten days later, the show opened on Broadway.
2. Kern and Hammerstein had been working on the show less than a month when they signed the contract with Ziegfeld on Dec. 11, 1926. He required a Jan. 1, 1927 delivery of a first draft, which was a big demand to make of his writers; didn’t he know that New Year’s Day is a holiday?
Ziegfeld gave Kern a $1,500 advance while dispensing only $1,000 to Hammerstein. Was that fair? Hammerstein had two jobs – book and lyrics – while Kern “only” had one: composing the music.
3. Ferber insisted that her novel had “no message,” didn’t have “any theme” and was “just fun.” Tell that to Kern and Hammerstein, who took it far more seriously. In the 1927-28 season when musicals had such songs as “Doin’ the Gorilla,” “I Got a Cookie Jar but No Cookies” and “Whoopsie,” here was “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” which had a marvelous subtext: Julie, the boat’s leading lady, knows it word-for-word and note-for-note. Because Queenie, the ship’s cook, is astonished that Julie would know a song that’s a staple of the African-American community, we get our first hint that Julie is black.
4. Ziegfeld didn’t mind that the young and naïve Magnolia only had to see riverboat gambler Gaylord to fall in love at first sight. What he objected to was the pair’s cementing their relationship early in the show. Ziegfeld believed that after any stage couple married, “the audience’s interest in the two is eliminated.”
He was also wary that the musical would only be a hit with those reviewing it. “I have stopped producing for critics and empty houses,” he decreed.
5. Still he plowed ahead with a cast of ninety-six, forty-four of whom were African-American. How wondrous that so many had jobs for a then-impressive 572 performances. (That run wasn’t enough for it to overtake IRENE as the longest-running Broadway musical, but landing in fourth place wasn’t shabby.)
6. That the 1929 film was mostly silent seems odd for a musical. However, SHOW BOAT had its fans from those who had read Ferber’s novel. Some readers may not have even known that it had been adapted into a musical.
That film starred Joseph Schildkraut as Gaylord and Laura La Plante as Magnolia. Cinephiles know Schildkraut from his 1937 Oscar-winning performance in THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA; theater fans can tell you that he originated the role of Mr. Frank in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. Given that those were Serious Dramas, many of those who still know Schildkraut’s name have probably never known that he could sing.
Apparently, La Plante couldn’t; she was dubbed. (Is this where Comden and Green got the idea for SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN?)
7. The most dramatic and moving scene in the musical? Julie’s husband Steve, aware that they’ll be prosecuted for miscegenation because she’s black and he isn’t, cuts her skin and sucks a bit of her blood. Now they can’t be arrested, because by law, both are black.
Yet that was excised for SHOW BOAT’s first film. Parthy, Magnolia’s mother, is jealous that her daughter regards Julie as more of a mother so she fires her to get her off the boat. This was deemed a safer way to go with Southern filmgoers.
8. Edna May Oliver, the first Parthy, had the chance to reprise her role in the 1936 film, but instead fulfilled a long-standing ambition to play the Nurse in the film version of ROMEO AND JULIET. Thirty years later, Margaret Hamilton, everyone’s favorite Wicked Witch, played the role in the 1966 Lincoln Center revival.
As for Parthy’s husband Cap’n Andy, Burl Ives, who annually advises us to have “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” played him in a 1954 City Center revival. In 1976 at the St. Louis Muny, so did Gale Gordon, Lucy Carmichael’s Mr. Mooney. (Yes, Mooney played the Muny.)
9. For the 1946 revival, Jerome Kern wanted Jan Clayton, then starring as Julie Jordan in CAROUSEL, to be Magnolia. But she’d been signed for a film called JENNY WAS A LADY. (Could “The Saga of Jenny” in LADY IN THE DARK have inspired this title?)
Kern said that if the studio would postpone the picture long enough for Clayton to open the revival, he and Hammerstein would write a song for it. He’d even only charge them one dollar.
Alas, Kern died before he could write it. So Hammerstein with his then-new partner Richard Rodgers wrote the song instead. Once the studio decided not to make JENNY WAS A LADY, R&H took that song – “So Far” – and inserted it into their next project: ALLEGRO.
10. MGM put up seventy-five percent of the $250,000 needed to mount the 1946 Broadway revival because it saw it as a tune-up for its 1951 color remake. After its first preview, Billy Rose, who then owned the Ziegfeld Theatre, told Robert Russell Bennett to change the overture. Why start with “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” dropped long before the 1927 Broadway premiere?
Rose had noticed that the audience applauded the overture’s next song – the hit “Why Do I Love You?” – so he reasoned with a score full of other hits – “Ol’ Man River,” “Life upon the Wicked Stage,” “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” – that crowds would applaud each of those, too, if they had the chance to hear them. Bennett obliged – “and,” he later observed, “the audience STILL only applauded ‘Why Do I Love You?’”
11. SHOW BOAT sailed overseas, too. In Paris, it was retitled MISSISSIPPI, and even a 2013 revival (yup, they’re still doing it there, too) was called SHOW BOAT MISSISSIPPI.
Ironically, the 1971 London revival ran the longest of any SHOW BOAT: 910 performances. But that may be, as AVENUE Q tells us, only for now. Never underestimate the staying power of SHOW BOAT, which may well get a 100th Anniversary Production in five years that could run five years or more.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.