The prospect of another Show Boat coming 'round the bend — this time, June 10, as a concert benefit for Carnegie Hall — quickens the heart of a fan of that landmark Kern & Hammerstein musical, but also raises a question: Exactly which Show Boat are we talking about?
Like Leonard Bernstein's rich Candide, which has seen countless revivals and several major-surgery revisions since its premiere, Show Boat is not a property that has been implacably fixed in stone since Day One. The Show Boat authors themselves — composer Jerome Kern and lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II — understood that theatre literature can flow and breathe and change with evolution in tastes and technology. They tinkered with Show Boat's songs and scenes long after 1927. In tweaking plot points or musical elements, Kern and Hammerstein had the advantage of a treasure chest of material they had collected in the process of writing the show. Modern directors also have access to some of the gold dust from the trunk.
Protecting the riches of that cache today are the heirs of the writers. The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization stands guard for Kern and Hammerstein, denying or approving changes sought by modern-day directors. To date, there has not been a production that re-sets Cap'n Andy's floating "Cotton Blossom" in outer space.
Show Boat has been so revised by its original authors and later generations of artists that there no longer exists for licensing a "pure" 1927 version of Show Boat. Over the past 81 years, songs and scenes have been cut or rearranged, a new song was written, amendments to plot and score were made for two film versions (1936 is the one fans prefer), songs that were trimmed or never made it into the Broadway opening night were interpolated back into the show, deepening the world of the play. Ted Chapin, president of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, told Playbill.com that his office follows the lead of the writers themselves: Kern and Hammerstein were on hand to revive Show Boat on Broadway in 1946 and that is the primary, most-produced version that is licensed today (although the 1994 Harold Prince-directed Broadway revision, a hybrid that draws on almost 70 years of Show Boat history, is also available from the R&H office).
"It's the last time Oscar Hammerstein had at it, and Jerome Kern — but he died while they were in rehearsal," Chapin said of the '46 revival.
It's this version — with Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations intact — that was the starting point of the Carnegie Hall concert being directed by Francesca Zambello and music-directed and conducted by Paul Gemignani. Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens, The Little Mermaid) penned the Carnegie concert script adaptation.
Following Carnegie Hall concerts of two other R&H properties, Carousel and South Pacific, this Show Boat, Chapin hopes, will be the template for future concert versions of the work. With its large cast, serious plot elements, underscored book scenes, and lavish settings that transport audiences to American towns and cities between Reconstruction-era Mississippi and Jazz-Age Illinois (circa 1887-1927), Show Boat is not the easiest musical to boil down into a lean concert.
In the general public's imagination, Show Boat is that flowery old-fashioned musical set around 1900 that chronicles the lives of show folk who play the river towns along the Mississippi, with resilient African-American supporting characters like Joe, who sings of the ambivalence of "Ol' Man River."
And there are those famous tunes: "Make Believe," "Why Do I Love You?," "You Are Love," "Bill," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and more.
"The challenge here is to try to come up with a modern concert version for us today," Chapin explained. "There was a very perfunctory narration-concert — a knitting together of some of the songs years ago. There may have been some revivals that were licensed as productions, but were actually done as concerts. But the idea here — as we did with both South Pacific and Carousel at Carnegie — is to try to come up with a decent concert version that gives enough of Show Boat so that the people who want to hear [a relative obscurity like] 'Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'' will be satisfied...and yet those who only want to hear 'Make Believe' will be satisfied. We'll see."
The Carnegie Hall concert will follow recent tradition and interpolate the soulful spiritual-influenced song, "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," sung by an African-American ensemble led by Queenie (to be played at Carnegie Hall by Alteouise deVaughn) and prefiguring the show's famed "miscegenation scene" in which a family on the Cottom Blossom is destroyed by racism. (The incantatory song was written for the 1927 Broadway premiere, but was ruthlessly shortened.) The events of the scene will change the lives of the boat's leading lady, Julie, as well as the main character of the show, Magnolia Hawks, daughter of impresario Cap'n Andy.
If you only vaguely know Show Boat, once you see it up close, the ambition and humanity of Hammerstein's writing (drawing on Ferber's original novel) will never leave you. In an era when showmen only gave white audiences frivolous, ostentatious, sentimental entertainment, Hammerstein infused the plot with African-American characters who were not just part of the (white) main characters' extended family, but part of the landscape. Show Boat dared to bring racism to the fore in an evening that also offered "belles and beaux." It was an earthquake in musical theatre, and future writers snatched up the bricks of Hammerstein and Kern's brilliant rubble, making the art form of "the musical play" world-famous.
In a gala benefit like the Carnegie evening that stars Carolee Carmello as Julie, Nathan Gunn as Ravenal, Alvy Powell as Joe, Jonathan Hadary as Andy and Celena Shafer as Magnolia, how deep should Show Boat be?
For a splash of entertainment that slyly pays homage to the original 1927 show, there is a newly added scene set at the Ziegfeld Follies, with Magnolia singing a hit song; Flo Ziegfeld was the originating producer of Show Boat, installing it into the Ziegfeld Theatre.
Adaptor Wright told Playbill.com, "It's one of the few moments of pure invention we allowed ourselves. And I hope — from his front-row seat in the clouds — Mr. Hammerstein is nodding his approval."
|photo by Aubrey Reuben|
He explained, "As an adaptor, you endeavor to serve Hammerstein with the same ardor and respect he showed Edna Ferber's novel. You have an obligation to preserve its thematic content, its essential narrative and its overall tone. Yes, Act One still takes place largely on the show boat. Yes, Act Two happens mostly in Chicago around the time of the World's Fair. A gorgeous songstress named Julie still suffers because she is of mixed race in the American South in the 1890s, an ingénue named Magnolia Hawks still falls in love with an itinerant river gambler named Gaylord Ravenal, and a sage named Joe still sings one hell of a paean to the Mississippi River. I really haven't attempted to reinvent what is already a very sturdy, reliable wheel."
How did Wright get the adaptation gig?
"Director Francesca Zambello [his director on The Little Mermaid] asked me to tackle it," he said. "I adore working with her, so I said an immediate 'yes.' As someone comparatively new to the musical theatre world (I've only written two Broadway musicals to date), I knew it would be a profoundly instructive experience....to walk in Oscar Hammerstein's footsteps as he was composing the first great American libretto. What a thrilling opportunity to learn from a master!"
How familiar with Show Boat was Wright?
"I was familiar with its sumptuous, landmark score of course," Wright said. "As the lone bass in my eighth grade choir, I'd taken a few tragic stabs at 'Ol' Man River' myself. Thankfully, all recordings have been lost. I'd also seen both films; the 1936 version with the indelible Helen Morgan and the 1951 Technicolor extravaganza. But I must confess that I've never seen it onstage. Unfortunately, I missed the well-received 1994 Harold Prince revival."
What was the most surprising thing he learned about the show?
He said, "It's so prescient about the great social issues of our time. The show is most heralded, I think, because it was one of the first, great populist entertainments to tackle an incredibly serious issue like race. But it's also got a proto-feminist edge; it's the triumphant story of a woman who — faced with single motherhood — has to carve her own path in a very tumultuous world. Magnolia is a fearlessly pro-active female character who ultimately provides quite handsomely for herself and her child."
He added, "Show Boat, in addition to the melody-laden love story at its center, still teaches us about our own malevolent history. Set just a few short decades after the Civil War, it reminds us that the trauma inflicted by slavery persists, and that it haunts every generation in new and unexpected ways."
What can audiences at Carnegie Hall expect June 10?
"I think the word 'concert' implies that Jerome Kern's glorious melodies will be front and center, thanks to the estimable talent of Paul Gemignani [and the Orchestra of St. Luke's]," Wright said. "That said, it's probably less of a 'show.' It won't be fully designed or choreographed; [Tony Award-winning designer] Scott Pask gives us a few tantalizing glimpses of the visual world of the piece, and [choreographer] Robert Longbottom has sketched in some vibrant, inventive dance moments. Francesca Zambello has given it compelling shape, and the cast is first-rate. Still — with all those wonderful attributes — it's not a full production."
What research did Wright do?
He explained, "In addition to the 1946 version, I also studied the original 1927 script, the Lincoln Center text from 1966, Hal Prince's edit from 1994, and the Bern production from 2005. I watched both films repeatedly, and I strongly favor the 1936 version, which boasts a screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein himself. And naturally I read Edna Ferber's novel, which is as raucous and panoramic today as it was when it was first published.
"My mission in adapting the book was twofold: first and foremost, I needed to edit the script for this stripped-down presentation. I compressed a few minor characters, and eliminated references to props we won't be using. Occasionally I have to convey in language what might be indicated, say, by a set change in a fully mounted revival.
"Secondly, I had to grapple with the size and scope of the ambitious second act. To clarify the passage of time and unite various subplots, I found myself borrowing both from Ferber and the aforementioned 1936 screenplay. And in our version, we don't follow Magnolia's daughter Kim all the way into adulthood and a career of her own; we opt to end the story somewhat earlier. That said, we've faithfully preserved the show's enduring final image: the three Ravenals — mother, father and daughter — reunited on the Cotton Blossom as it surges down the river toward a new era, and — tragically perhaps — its own obsolescence."
Wright said the goal was to honor the material, not solve it somehow, or make it a 21st-century piece of writing.
"Since Show Boat's legendary premiere, the musical theatre has continued to evolve," Wright said. "Theatrical visionaries like Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb and Sondheim have built on Hammerstein's model, altering it, reinvigorating it and inventing it anew. If some of Show Boat seems dramaturgically outmoded — a song lead-in that modern tastes might label 'corny,' or an unwieldy book scene — it's because it was the first. It forged the mold. It's the Great Grandaddy of 'em all. And I'd rather honor the primacy of that, than work overtime in a misguided effort to 'fix' it.
"First and foremost, I want to respect Hammerstein's original vision. After all, Show Boat has done just fine without for me for over 80 years. And since I'm a writer myself, I'm loathe to play fast and loose with the work of a colleague....particularly one as renowned as this.
"It's important to remember that Kern, Ferber and Hammerstein are all protected by very active, very devoted estates. They largely determine the license which I'm allowed to take. And I hope when I'm gone, my heirs are every bit as vigilant!"
According to the Carnegie Hall Playbill, here's the running order of the scenes and musical numbers:
Overture / Orchestra
Scene 1: The magnificent Show Boat, docked in Natchez on the Mississippi, 1880s
"Cotton Blossom" / Ensemble
Parade and Ballyhoo / Cap'n Andy and Ensemble
"Where's the Mate for Me?" / Ravenal
"Make Believe" / Ravenal and Magnolia
"Ol' Man River" / Joe and Ensemble
Scene 2: The kitchen pantry on the Cotton Blossom
"Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" / Julie, Queenie, Magnolia, Joe, and Ensemble
Scene 3: The auditorium of the Cotton Blossom, next day
"Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'" / Queenie and Ensemble
Scene 4: Box office, on foredeck
"Life Upon the Wicked Stage" / Ellie, Frank, and Ensemble
"Queenie's Ballyhoo" / Queenie and Ensemble
Scene 5: The auditorium and stage of the Cotton Blossom
Scene 6: The deck of the Cotton Blossom, nighttime
"You Are Love" / Ravenal and Magnolia
Scene 7: The Cotton Blossom, decorated for a wedding party
Finale: Act I / Ensemble
Scene 1: The Midway Plaisance at the Chicago World's Fair, 1893
Entr'acte and Opening to Act II / Ensemble
Scene 2: Magnolia and Ravenal's suite at the Palmer House in Chicago
"Why Do I Love You?" / Ravenal and Magnolia
Scene 3: The Cotton Blossom, on the levee at Natchez
Scene 4: A room on Ontario Street, typical second-class boarding house of the day, 1904
Scene 5: The Trocadero Rehearsal Room, that evening
"Bill" (lyric by P. G. Wodehouse and Oscar Hammerstein II) / Julie
Scene 6: St. Agatha's Convent
Service and Scene Music / Ensemble
Reprise: "Make Believe" / Ravenal and Kim
Scene 7: Back at the Trocadero
Reprise: "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" / Magnolia
Scene 8: The lobby of the Palmer House Hotel
Scene 9: The Trocadero that very night
"Goodbye, My Lady Love" / Frank and Ellie
"After the Ball" (by Charles K. Harris) / Magnolia
Reprise: "Ol' Man River" / Joe
Scene 10: The Ziegfeld Follies
Reprise: "You Are Love" / Magnolia
Scene 11: On the Show Boat
Reprise: "You Are Love" / Ravenal
Finale / Ensemble
For more information, visit www.carnegiehall.org.