The musical theater in the 1920s was comparable to Vaudeville with comedic routines and sideshow attractions.

Edna Ferber, author of Showboat
Edna Ferber, author of Showboat

However, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II had an idea for a revolutionary new approach.

Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein II

Now the daunting task of choosing their work.  They decided on Edna Ferber’s novel, Showboat.  This was a most unconventional topic and she was skeptical of their plans.  Eventually Kern was able to talk her into allowing them to translate her novel into a musical.

The musical was groundbreaking in other ways because in 1927, society did not discuss issues such as racism, gambling, alcoholism, and abandonment.  However, this is a story that dealt with these issues head-on.

The duo understood by taking on a serious literary work for adaptation, they were essentially raising the bar on musical theater.  Both men were eager to create a musical in which each element was important in moving the plot forward.

The vaudeville and revue elements popular to the day were incorporated into the story of the show {dealing with show business} and expressed in the performance of the characters on stage.

Kern set out to compose music that allowed the character to expose themselves and reveal their character and intentions.  Hammerstein provided lyrics that expressed these struggles and ideas.

Ol’ Man River became the theme of the musical.  The song represents the changes in the lives of the characters, as well as the struggles and highs that represent life.  This was the first time a musical theme ran through an entire show.

The plot focuses on Magnolia, the daughter of a showboat captain, as she marries a gambler and follows him to Chicago.  He deserts her and their young daughter as the gambling debts mount.  Eventually, Magnolia and her daughter reunited with her family on the showboat.  In the end, Gaylord Ravenal, her husband returns.

Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern

This approach was the first true combination of plot, lyrics, music and characters in musical theater.  This blend of elements paved the way for future theater pieces {including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!}

Hammerstein explained in a 1958 interview that he and Kern used the Mississippi River to “hold the plot elements together.”  In longing to “keep the spirit of Edna’s book…I decided to write a theme…a river theme.”

Showboat established the template for the first book musical.

When Kern and Hammerstein approached Florenz Ziegfield about producing the musical, Ziegfield was immediately impressed.  He wrote “This is the best musical comedy I have ever been fortunate to get a hold of; I am thrilled to produce it, this show is the opportunity of my life…”

The original production ran a little over three hours.  When the curtain closed on the first performance the audience were left to consider and contemplate all they had seen.  Those first audiences are reported to have sat in stunned silence for one to two minutes before breaking out in applause when the final curtain came down.  This first production, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, was an immediate success.

Initial reviews were very favorable and included comments such as “intelligently made”, “unimpeachable skill and taste”, “a revelation”, “remarkably effective”, and “extraordinarily persuasive and convincing”.  Showboat originally ran for 572 performances.

Showboat on the Broadway stage
Showboat on the Broadway stage

While the musical revolutionized musical theater by introducing the book musical, it would not be until fifteen years later with Oklahoma! the musical theater community embraced and committed to the book musical as the standard mode operandus.

The musical has been revived numerous times on Broadway.  The 1994 Revival garnered six Tony Awards.

The musical has been adapted seven times for live radio.

Three movie versions have been released, in 1929, 1936 and 1951.   The 1929 version is a partially silent film.  The 1936 version features Irene Dunn as the character Magnolia.  The 1951 production stars Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson and is the version most often seen.

The film is also featured in the 1946 Till the Clouds Roll By, which is the biopic of Jerome Kern’s.  A 1989 live performance was recorded and shown for PBS Live Performances.

While the basic plot remained the same, over the years revisions have been made for numerous reasons.

One interesting side note is that all of the movie versions vary in their ending.  When teaching this class, I have my students watch the last 10-15 minutes of each version.  {Often we also read the last page of the novel because it also varies}.  I then ask for their feedback and opinion on the endings and which is their favorite.  There are no right or wrong answers, but the discussions are always interesting.