Show Business Show Boat

12 10 2010

Most folks think show business takes place primarily in Los Angeles or New York City, but that’s just not true. Though much of our country’s entertainment comes from out West or up North in one of these two cities, so much of the inspiration for the stories and songs comes from right in our own South.

One of my favorite such examples is Show Boat. I remember first watching this movie as a young girl, and there’s just nothing like those gorgeous show tunes and score. The plot centers around the Mississippi River, and the lives of those working on the showboat Cotton Blossom, following the life and love of Magnolia Hawks, the Captain’s daughter as she rises in ranks from a showboat singer to an international star.

Show Boat was originally a novel written by Edna Ferber, who also wrote the Oscar-award winning Cimarron. She spent weeks riding on and living amoung the quickly dying showboat culture in North Carolina. Her novel was soon adapted for a Broadway musical with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and then into three versions of film in 1929, 1936, and 1951. It was one of the first Broadway musicals to take a plot seriously, and has therefore long been touted as revolutionary. Show Boat was also the first time black and white actors appeared on stage together.* It opened in Zeigfeld Theater in 1927 and ran for a year and a half before being revived several times and enjoyed a national tour, with Irene Dunne playing the role of Magnolia. The 1995 revival won the Tony Award.

I love how theater critics Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright sum up this Southern epic:

“Instead of a line of chorus girls showing their legs in the opening number singing that they were happy, happy, happy, the curtain rose on black dock-hands lifting bales of cotton, and singing about the hardness of their lives. Here was a musical that showed poverty, suffering, bitterness, racial prejudice, a sexual relationship between black and white, a love story which ended unhappily–and of course show business. In “Ol’ Man River” the black race was given an anthem to honor its misery that had the authority of an authentic spiritual.”

Most of us are most familiar with the legendary song “Ol’ Man River.” It doesn’t get any better than Paul Robeson singing this poignant classic.


*For those of you interested in exploring more of the cultural and historical impact of race issues on Broadway, take a look at a couple fantastic articles, exploring the many sides of the issues further. As usual, though our country has some shameful moments in our past regarding how we’ve treated people, simply remarking on, learning about, or exploring more of history does not mean we should condone all actions during those times. We can take the beauty of an experience for what it’s worth, and learn from the areas where relationships were less than shining examples of where we would want to be today.

Facing the Music from Tuscon Weekly, an article written upon the revival in 2000

Making Americans, book review by Alan Gomberg




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