Show Boat – Studio Cast Recording 1962
Much has been written over the years about Show Boat, the seminal musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, which opened December 27, 1927, at the Ziegfeld Theatre, and promptly revolutionized Broadway, paving the way for what would eventually become the modern American musical. To be sure, other shows have since changed the course of the musical theater in this country (Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, and Company readily come to mind), but if one were to assess its importance in American cultural life, one would have to agree with renowned Broadway historian Miles Kreuger that “the history of the American Musical Theater, quite simply, is divided into two eras – everything before Show Boat, and everything after Show Boat.” To better understand this point, a quick history of the Broadway musical seems in order. Most Broadway historians trace the beginning of the native American musical to a hybrid presentation, The Black Crook, which opened on September 12, 1866, at Niblo’s Garden, a popular theater at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street in New York. That show happened through one of the most curious accidents in the history of the American stage. Earlier that summer, Henry C. Jarrett, an aspiring young theater manager, and Harry Palmer, a Wall Street broker, had joined forces to bring over to America a French dance company which had enjoyed tremendous success in Paris in a romantic ballet, La biche au bois (Doe in the Woods). But before they had a chance to open their production at the Academy of Music, the theater burned down, and with it the expensive settings the dancers had brought along with them. Jarrett and Palmer approached William Wheatley, owner of Niblo’s Garden, who was in the process of putting together a somber melodrama, The Black Crook, and proposed to combine their shows. Wheatley, already doubtful about the actual merits of his own production, readily agreed. When the show opened, critics could hardly contain themselves, and praised it for its novelty. As a result, The Black Crook achieved an impressive run of 474 performances, and grossed more than a million dollars, a staggering figure at the time. But its success didn’t stop there – for the next twenty-five years, it was steadily performed around the country; in New York alone, it received no less than eight revivals between 1868 and 1892. In fact, as late as 1929, it was still playing in Hoboken, New Jersey, with Christopher Morley and Agnes de Mille in the cast. Musical shows soon became fashionable, and in the absence of homegrown craftsmen able to meet the demand for them, audiences were treated to the frothy concoctions created in the glittering European musical centers of London, Paris, and Vienna. At best, these works were unrealistic, heavy-handed, and totally disconnected from the realities of American life. Eventually, composers like Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, and Sigmund Romberg tried to integrate American concepts and settings into their creations, but these still remained close to the traditions of the European operetta. Increasingly, however, innovative newcomers like George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, and George and Ira Gershwin began to write shows that more closely reflected the “American experience.” At the forefront of this trend was Jerome Kern. Born in New York in 1885, Kern tried to implement new concepts in a string of musicals (including Very Good, Eddie and Leave It To Jane) written with collaborators including Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse for the tiny Princess Theatre between 1917 and 1918. Strikingly, these shows were set in the present, had believable plots, and, most importantly, their songs blended with the action. Still, their impact was, at best, minimal, as Broadway producers didn’t seem eager to change tried and true formulas, and it wasn’t until Show Boat in 1927 that Kern was finally able to put into practice what he was advocating. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat marked a definite break with tradition and a departure from all the conventions that cluttered the Broadway musical at the time. It had a strong book with a romantic, credible story, well suited for a stage treatment; colorful characters, who were realistic and personable; and “a great title.” Untypically, at least for a “musical,” it also dealt with two unhappy marriages, alcoholism, the harsh realities of life for Southern Blacks, and the delicate subject of miscegenation – all of them topics that were taboo for a stage presentation. In spite of these obstacles, Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the libretto and the lyrics, found a producer willing to finance the project, Flo Ziegfeld, who made it the initial attraction at his newly built Ziegfeld Theatre. Preceded by the largest advance ticket sale up to that time, Show Boat opened to rapturous critical acclaim, immediately hailed as “an American masterpiece” (Robert Garland), and “a beautiful example of musical comedy” (Richard Watts, Jr.). In The American Musical Theater (Collier Books, 1975), his thorough survey of Broadway, conductor Lehman Engel wrote, “The show, coming as it did in the late 1920s, marked a turning point in the musical theater, and became a crucial link between the past and the future.” By now, most people are aware of the many characters whose lives are put under scrutiny in the book – the lovely Magnolia, daughter of Cap’n Andy, owner of the Cotton Blossom, the showboat of the title; Gaylord Ravenal, the handsome Mississippi gambler, with whom she falls in love, and who deserts her after they have moved to Chicago; Julie LaVerne, Magnolia’s friend and confidante, who hides a terrible secret – she is only half-white; Frank and Ellie, the husband-and-wife team, who help Magnolia get a singing engagement in the Chicago club where they are scheduled to appear; and Joe, the old black man whose serene philosophy about life is expressed in the song, Ol’ Man River. Laced with an abundance of memorable tunes (Make Believe, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Life Upon The Wicked Stage, and Bill), it is hardly surprising that Show Boat has endured. But, its merits and innovations notwithstanding, the musical is infused with the conventions of the period in which it was written. Today, its characters appear two-dimensional, its plot development is predictable (in fact, the action barely moves in the first act, while the second act covers a forty-year span, in an awkward decision to compress Ferber’s massive, sprawling saga into a traditional theatrical format), and the overall impression one gets today is that it is overly melodramatic and given to too many coincidences. But it marked a breakthrough, not only in artistic terms, but also in its honest portrayal of people, blacks and whites, having to cope with everyday problems. In that respect, Show Boat was quite unlike anything that had been seen before, and truly became the forefather of modern musicals. Since its creation, Show Boat has been performed many times around the world and in this country, including a much-acclaimed recent comeback to Broadway in a sparkling revival directed by Hal Prince. It was filmed twice: in 1936, with Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan, and Paul Robeson, and in 1951, in a lavish MGM production that starred Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ava Gardner, and William Warfield. And it has provided an unusual number of recorded versions, including the present one that was done at the instigation of Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records. After becoming head of A&R at the label in the late 1940s, Lieberson made it a personal crusade to do fresh, new presentations of the great shows from the past, many of which had never been recorded before. With the sonic breakthrough offered by stereophony in the late 1950s, everybody wanted the illusions of motion and directionality that were possible within this new technology, and new titles were added to this existing catalogue of “studio cast albums.” One such title was Show Boat. As reissue producer Tom Shepard, who was involved in the original recording with James Fogelsong, explains it, “Show Boat was our maiden voyage. There were numerous examples of the songs performed by members of the original Broadway and film casts. While knowing that we could never erase the memories of these legendary performances, Jim and I felt strongly that we could create something extraordinary and unique using our specially talented performers with their knowledge of and experience in the theatrical tradition.” To portray Ravenal, the producers brought in John Raitt, the popular Broadway star, who had created the role of Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel; and they turned to Barbara Cook, the lovely Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Marian in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, to play Magnolia, a role Cook would reprise in the 1966 revival of the musical at the New York State Theater. Rounding up the principal roles, they cast Anita Darian as Julie, William Warfield as Joe, Fay DeWitt as Ellie, and Louise Parker as Queenie, the – showboat’s sassy housekeeper. “We felt the cast was eminently suitable,” Shepard goes on. “We worked with them and with our musical director, Franz Allers, to create the feeling of a dramatic ensemble before we took them into the recording studio. We hired a chorus of theatrical professionals and we “staged” the recording to take advantage of the opportunities granted by the new stereophonic medium.” Recording took place at Columbia’s fabled 30th Street Studio, on December 14th, 17th and 18th, 1961, with the album released on July 16, 1962. To its credit, and that of its producers, it has never been out of the catalogue since that time. “Remixing and remastering these old tapes was quite a thrill,” comments Shepard. “Much to my surprise, they still sound terrific today, as they did almost forty years ago. After all these years, I remain intensely proud of having been involved with this recording.” Giving extra luster to this CD reissue, several tracks have been added as bonus material: a 1928 recording of Can’t Help Loving Dat Man by Tess-Gardella, an Italian actress who performed in black face and was known as “Aunt Jemima,” and who created the role of Queenie in the original production; Bill, performed by Helen Morgan, the original Julie, in a 1932 recording; I Still Suits Me, which was written for the 1936 Universal film as a duet for Joe and Queenie, performed here as a solo in a 1948 recording by Paul Robeson, the writers’ original choice to play Joe; and Nobody Else But Me, which was written for the 1946 Broadway revival of the show (Kern’s last song), sung by Jan Clayton, who portrayed both Magnolia and Magnolia’s daughter, Kim, in that production.
Gaylord Ravenal: John Raitt Magnolia: Barbara Cook Joe: William Warfield Julie: Anita Darian Queenie: Louise Parker Ellie: Fay DeWitt Cap’n Andy: Jack Dabdoub