Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Synopsis

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musicaltells the full story of the making and remaking of the most important musical in Broadway history. Drawing on exhaustive archival research and including much new information from early draft scripts and scores, this book reveals how Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern created Show Boat in the crucible of the Jazz Age to fit the talents of the show's original 1927 cast. After showing how major figures such as Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan defined the content of the show, the book goes on to detail how Show Boat was altered by later directors, choreographers, and performers up to the end of the twentieth century. All the major New York productions are covered, as are five important London productions and four Hollywood versions.

Again and again, the story of Show Boat circles back to the power of performers to remake the show, winning appreciative audiences for over seven decades. Unlike most Broadway musicals,Show Boatput black and white performers side by side. This book is the first to take Show Boat's innovative interracial cast as the defining feature of the show. From its beginnings, Show Boat juxtaposed the talents of black and white performers and mixed the conventions of white-cast operetta and the black-cast musical. Bringing black and white onto the same stage--revealing the mixed-race roots of musical comedy--Show Boatstimulated creative artists and performers to renegotiate the color line as expressed in the American musical. This tremendous longevity allowed Show Boat to enter a creative dialogue with the full span of Broadway history.Show Boat's voyage through the twentieth century offers a vantage point on more than just the Broadway musical. It tells a complex tale of interracial encounter performed in popular music and dance on the national stage during a century of profound transformations.

Excerpt

Although it added the word “perhaps” in the event of an undisclosed rival to the throne, the 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music proclaimed Show Boat to be “the most successful and influential Broadway musical play ever written.” A little earlier, to mark the golden anniversary of the show’s 1927 premiere, Miles Kreuger, the author of what is probably the first booklength study of a Broadway musical, Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical (Oxford, 1977), considered this epic work’s significance to go “far beyond fleeting artistic and social fashions.” Twenty years later in Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from “Show Boat” to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber (Oxford, 1997; 2nd ed., 2009), the author of this Foreword lauded Show Boat’s “convincing use of American vernacular appropriate to the changing world (including the African-Americanization of culture) from the late 1880s to 1927” and, for its day, its “sensitive portrayal of race relations that range from the plight of the black underclass to miscegenation” and concluded that this work “has long since earned its coveted historical position as the foundation of the modern American musical.” Nearly thirty years after the 1980 Grove and Kreuger canonization, Thomas Hischak boldly introduced his entry on Show Boat in The Oxford Companion to the American Musical by calling it “the first masterpiece and arguably still the finest musical play.”

In this thoughtful and passionate book, Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical (2012), Todd Decker, assistant professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz (2011), like his predecessors, considers the treatment of race and the performance of race as central to both the original and continuing importance of this 1927 musical by Oscar Hammerstein (book and lyrics) and Jerome Kern (music), but he goes further in his emphasis that Show Boat deserves recognition as “the first in a line of shows to use music and dance to explore what it has meant to be black and white in the United States.” For Decker, it is the “long-lived resonance” of this racial component and the evolving performances of race, more than its considerable artistic merits, that “makes Show Boat the most important musical ever made and also made its remaking a necessity again and again.” The profound importance of race in Edna Ferber’s original novel, in which the central female character, who is white, makes her way in the entertainment world by adopting the musical voice of a black . . .

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