Book Reviews

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical
by Todd Decker

Book Review by Alan Gomberg

Show BoatMuch of Todd Decker's Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical should prove fascinating to readers who have a deep interest in the creation and performance history of this classic, much-revived and -revised musical. Many of those Show Boat devotees probably already have Miles Kreuger's superb 1977 book, Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical, but Decker goes into more detail on many matters (while going into less detail on some others) so his book is far from being a rehash of Kreuger's.

Also, the performance history of Show Boat since 1977 has been (to put it mildly) extensive and complex, giving Decker much new history to relate. Still, the most rewarding parts of the book are those that cover earlier productions and the 1936 film version. There is much information here on the major productions from 1927 through the late 1940s that is likely to be new even to those who already know a good deal about Show Boat.

One thing that separates Decker's book from Kreuger's is his focus on a sociological theme, as suggested by the book's subtitle: Performing Race in an American Musical. He writes in his introduction, "My emphasis on race rests equally on definitions of whiteness and blackness. Magnolia and Ravenal perform their whiteness every bit as much as Joe performs his blackness and any actress playing Julie must perform that character's mixed-race identity, whatever that has meant in particular times and places." Part of the way in which Decker examines these matters is by discussing in detail the unique contributions of some of the performers in each major production. This extends beyond those who played the characters mentioned above.

Decker's frequent focus on performers does not mean that he neglects to examine Hammerstein and Kern's writing. He devotes much attention to what he calls Hammerstein's "popular music plot," which he describes as "Hammerstein's effort to bring black and white into a story that traces larger social changes by means of music and dance." He provides extensive information about the development of the script from the early drafts to what was performed on opening night in New York. Edna Ferber's source novel also receives a good deal of attention.

If you think that the "performing race" theme sounds pretentious and heavy-handed, there are times (though not that many) when that might be a fair assessment. If the quotation from Decker's introduction has you wondering if he makes a lot of potentially controversial statements, he really doesn't, although some readers may be put off or even offended when he uses a phrase like "performing blackness."

At times perhaps Decker unnecessarily spells out certain points relating to race when he has already presented facts that have made his points quite clear, but this doesn't happen too often. At other times there's so much information that doesn't particularly seem to relate to the "performing race" theme that you may wonder to what degree Decker intends the book to focus on the "performing race" theme. I think that Decker basically wants to provide a thorough history of the show's creation and its major revivals and film versions, viewing that history through the perspective of themes related to race, which certainly are important in Show Boat. He writes little about Show Boat's other themes, such as parent-child relationships and marriage. It's strange that he barely mentions the two songs that Kern and Hammerstein added to later stage productions—"Dance Away the Night" and "Nobody Else But Me"—especially since they might give him stuff to chew on in regard to the "performing race" theme.

Despite Decker's neglect of certain topics, there is a vast amount here on many subjects. Apart from providing fascinating information on early drafts of the show and biographical information on the performers, Decker has some smart things to say by way of commentary. For example, he notes how little sense it makes for Magnolia to perform "After the Ball" as her opening number at the Trocadero, given that she was hired only after performing an uptempo "ragged" version of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."

Decker makes some important points that help clarify what was so different about Show Boat back in 1927. For example, he effectively demonstrates how the black chorus was employed in much more dramatically integral ways than the white chorus.

He has found some wonderfully specific descriptions of choreography and staging in the original production. He is also good at exploring the question of whether Show Boat is more of an operetta or a musical comedy.

When dealing with the creation of the original production, Decker makes you aware that many of the decisions made in 1927 were influenced by the preferences, strengths, limitations and personalities of the performers. Some of the qualities and skills that individual actors brought to their roles were fortuitous, such as the ability of Charles Winninger, the original Cap'n Andy, to play the violin, which would surely be a help to him if he were around today. Perhaps less fortuitous was the aggressiveness of the original Ellie, Eva Puck. She kept nagging Kern and Hammerstein to provide all the numbers that they had promised to write for her and the original Frank, Sammy White (Puck's husband), which Hammerstein and Kern were being negligent about producing. Kern was amused enough by her behavior to scribble out, on a rejected musical sketch, a comic lyric (addressed to Hammerstein) about the situation. If Puck had been less insistent, Ellie and Frank might have been smaller roles.

Then there are the people who didn't end up in the show. Marilyn Miller and Gertrude Lawrence were both mentioned in the press as likely to play Magnolia. How different would Show Boat have been with Miller or Lawrence?

And if Paul Robeson had created the role of Joe—as Hammerstein, Kern, and producer Florenz Ziegfeld had hoped—the authors planned for him to also play Joe's son. In that role, which was eliminated when Robeson did not sign on to the show, he was to have given a recital of spirituals (just as Robeson was famous for doing). Strange as that idea may sound, the recital was in a draft that included this note: "If Robeson is not engaged, this recital comes out."

Generally fascinating are the many excerpts from the black press's coverage of both the original production and the 1946 revival. If you've ever wondered whether the presence of word nigger caused controversy in 1927, you'll find out here. I suspect that Tess Gardella fans will be both pleased and amused to read noted black poet Alice Dunbar Nelson, in a piece for the Philadelphia Tribune, waxing rhapsodic about the "very good actress, with a mellow, rich contralto" who played Queenie and who was identified in the playbill as "Aunt Jemima." Judging from the excerpt in the book, it rather sounds like Nelson didn't realize that Gardella (aka Aunt Jemima) was white.

A private photo of Florenz Ziegfeld with the original principals, taken on Christmas Eve of 1928. Of special notice: Third from left, we see Tess Gardella, out of the blackface makeup she wore as Queenie, while on the right side we see Edna May Oliver with one arm over Charles Winninger's shoulder and the other linked through Jules Bledsoe's right arm, a pose they could not have repeated in a photo intended for public consumption.
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

Also of exceptional interest are Decker's descriptions of choreographer Helen Tamiris's two big numbers for the black dance ensemble of the 1946 revival and its post-Broadway tour, which he suggests probably gave that group more prominence and critical recognition than any earlier all-black dance ensemble in a mixed-cast production. Pearl Primus and Talley Beatty (who both went on to be important choreographers as well as dancers) were among those given major solo opportunities in the 1946 production.

Although the book is generally quite serious in tone and content, it's fun to learn of Helen Morgan's business activities during the original run as the owner of nightclubs where alcohol was served, which led to her being put on trial during the run. Morgan missed no performances during the trial. Ziegfeld's press agent would later say that the publicity from Morgan's legal battles and court appearances helped the box office.

I was also glad to learn a bit about several people about whom I knew little or nothing, such as singers Roland Hayes, Florence Cole Talbert and Malcolm McEachern, and choreographer Aaron Gates.

With all this excellent content in the book, I wish that I could give it a complete rave rather than a slightly qualified one, but I must report that there are trouble spots.

Decker occasionally makes statements that require explication that he doesn't provide. You may notice this first when he writes in the introduction that the claim that Show Boat was "the first musical play to successfully integrate music, dance, and dramatic story [is] now on the way out." In a book on Show Boat, no matter what theme may be its primary focus, a statement like that demands some kind of support, but all Decker supplies is an endnote citing an article of his own that appeared in the magazine Contemporary Theatre Review.

Along somewhat similar lines, Decker sometimes makes reference to previously unmentioned facts or ideas as if they had already been mentioned and the reader needs no background information or explanation.

Two "short lists" of "shows that put blacks and whites into the same cast" (one list in the main text, the other in an endnote) include few older shows. While Decker doesn't claim that either "short list" is comprehensive, the lists may give some readers the impression that there were hardly any shows from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that could have been cited.

He gets some things clearly wrong, as when he states that the only time the Metropolitan Opera has staged Porgy and Bess was in 1985. The work has been performed there not only in 1985, but also in 1986, 1989 and 1990. In another example, he writes that the 1976 Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess was the first time the work had been seen onstage in a major production in almost 25 years. I wonder if he is unaware that Porgy and Bess was performed at New York City Opera for several seasons in the 1960s, at the Vienna Volksoper in 1965, at East Berlin's Komische Oper in 1970, at the Maly in Leningrad in 1973, and in productions in several other important cities. A fair number of other questionable or clearly inaccurate statements can be found. While most are on minor matters, their presence must be noted.

It's surprising that Decker writes little about the 1966 Music Theater of Lincoln Center production of Show Boat. The 2005 Cape Town Opera production, which toured to several countries, is not mentioned at all. This production deserved a mention if only because Hammerstein's original opening line, "Niggers all work on the Mississippi," was performed intact (at least when the production played in Paris). Also unmentioned is that Dorothy Dandridge played Julie in at least three U.S. regional productions in the mid-1960s, which surely should have been noted in a book with this one's focus.

I was intrigued by Decker's statement that choreographer Helen Tamiris was responsible for changing the word niggers to darkies in the lyrics for the 1946 revival, but I wish he'd provided a source for this information.

There are other slight oddities here and there. He seems to think that one of Susan Stroman's montage sequences in the Harold Prince production can be accurately described as a dream ballet. And I can't imagine why he feels that Cap'n Andy's line "I think the show boat's made a damn fine girl out of my daughter" is a "cryptic" response to Parthy's line "Well, Hawks, you see what the show boat has done to your daughter." I think the point of the line has always been quite clear to audiences.

In the brief epilogue, he turns to such shows as Ragtime, Dreamgirls, Memphis and Hairspray, without having much of interest to say about them.

Having noted the book's imperfections, I must emphasize that nonetheless it is a very rewarding read. It may not be the ideal introduction to Show Boat's history. For that, I recommend Kreuger's book (if you can find a copy). Those who've already read Kreuger and are looking for more or who simply take their musicals very seriously should find that Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical provides much worthwhile additional information along with some unexpected insights and perspectives.

Show BoatShow Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical
Todd Decker
Hardcover. 328 pages
Oxford University Press
Publishing date: November 2, 2012
List Price: $35.00
ISBN: 978-0199759378
Available at Amazon: Hardcover Book and Kindle Edition