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The 1927 Broadway debut of Show Boat proved the musical to be nothing shy of revelatory and earned it a firm place in the history of the development of American musical theater. Show Boat is widely considered to be the paradigm of a wholly new genre: the musical. The musical was a carefully orchestrated spectacle that combined the qualities of vaudeville, burlesque, operetta, and caricature.
Set in the late-1800s, Show Boat chronicles the life of a juvenile and susceptible Magnolia Hawks, daughter of Captain Andy Hawks. Captain Andy Hawks is coincidentally the captain of the show boat Cotton Blossom. Magnolia crosses paths with a deeply troubled man named Gaylord Ravenal. It is love at first-sight, and it is not long before they are married to each other. In due course, Gaylord’s compulsive gambling habits come to destroy his relationship with Magnolia, resulting in their separation. An auxiliary plot involves Magnolia’s friend Julie, who, according to previous standards, is referred to as “mulatto, ” and her love interest Steve Baker. The audience witnesses the hardships of Julie and Steve’s love, which at the time was strongly condemned, because it involved miscegenation.
Show Boat’s audiences are taken through the strenuous “battle” of these four lovers and the strife they face in relationships loaded with uncertainty and abstraction. Both Jerome Kern, the composer, and Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist and writer, are able to manage the difficult task of creating content that has both substantiality and entertainment value. For the very first time, a musical had integrated the libretto, or the text of an opera, and the score, which is a musical composition in written form, into a single, cohesive plot line. In the past, the songs in a performance had no correlation to the narrative, and the narrative had no correlation to the songs. Show Boat also had extremely positive implications for African-American actors – in particular, Paul Robeson – who would later come to realize that their roles in the American musical would lay the foundation for their performing careers.
The show’s plot and inclusive casting allowed for audiences to accurately view the hardships that African American individuals endured as a consequence of widespread, systematic oppression. This new source of cultural knowledge incited a “wake-up” in audiences across the country. Across its score, Show Boat features musical patterns of the popular song “Ol’ Man River, ” sung by Paul Robeson’s character Joe, the boat’s dockworker. The song showcased the perpetual and seemingly never ending struggles of the laborers working along the Mississippi River. Joe sings about how he and his contemporaries “slave away, ” while their white counterparts “play, ” referencing the issue of segregation in the workforce.
With the goal of making African American men such as himself appear strong and capable, Robeson would make periodic lyric changes in the hopes of instilling greater power in the future image of the African American man. He ultimately succeeded in this endeavor; advocating for change served to “personify” his character and shifted the way that audiences regarded him. Because of these lyrical changes, productions today often refuse to stick to the original language, choosing instead to honor Robeson’s edits and to and give the actors and their characters the recognition and praise they deserve.
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