“Ol’ Man River”...“Make Believe”...
“You Are Love”...“Bill”...
“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”...
Music by Jerome Kern
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber
This spectacular new production marshals the choral and orchestral forces of our world-renowned company to present Show Boat in all its glory!
Created in 1927, this seminal masterpiece gave American musical theater and opera a new voice — one with powerful subject matter, astonishing musical variety and an unmistakably American atmosphere.
Moving from 1890s Mississippi to Chicago to “Roaring 20s” Broadway, Show Boat follows the lives of a company of theater folk — deeply involving us in their triumphs and sorrows, while illuminating the racial and social changes that were shaping the country.
You’ll love every character: Julie, Joe, Queenie…and especially Magnolia and Ravenal. She’s an aspiring young actress; he’s an irresistible, gambling cad who leaves her when his luck runs out. But Magnolia moves on with her life — eventually becoming a major star.
Unforgettable songs, dazzling choreography, and an epic story that moves us with its humanity — Show Boat is both great entertainment and great art.
Nathan Gunn: People Magazine proclaimed this silver-toned baritone “one of the sexiest men alive.” So who better to portray the magnetic Ravenal than the artist “who commands the stage with his hunky physicality and virile voice.” The New York Times
Disney superstar soprano Ashley Brown: She's Broadway's reigning Mary Poppins. And she performs with big-time orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic!
As Julie, the beautiful but ill-fated actress, you’ll hear the ravishing Alyson Cambridge, who appears with major companies everywhere. “She’s vocally radiant, dramatically compelling, and artistically imaginative.” The Washington Post
Angela Renée Simpson “was brilliant and came close to stopping the show” (New York Post) when she performed with New York City Opera on “Live from Lincoln Center.” And she gets the same rave reactions from La Scala to L.A.
The Commendatore, Sarastro, Osmin...whatever role he tackles, Morris Robinson brings down the house with his “gorgeously rich and sepulchral bass.” The Washington Post
Generous sponsors for this new production are The Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. William C. Vance, the Mazza Foundation, Jim and Vicki Mills/Jon and Lois Mills, Roberta L. and Robert J. Washlow, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle
by Gerald Bordman, Oxford University Press, 2001 (3rd edition). For the serious musical-theater aficionado, this is a unique and invaluable reference book. It gives brief biographies of composers, lyricists, and performers; plus synopses, song titles, and background notes for literally every musical play to be seen in New York since the 1860s.
Broadway: The American Musical
by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, foreword by Julie Andrews, Applause Books, updated edition 2010. One of the finest of many lavishly produced coffee-table books on this subject—a companion to the PBS television series of the same title.
Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time
by Ken Bloom, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2008 (2nd edition). Show Boat is, of course, included! Another gorgeous coffee-table book, superbly illustrated.
The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II
edited by Amy Asch, Knopf, 2008. A magnificent collection, covering the entire output of Show Boat’s lyricist.
Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle
by Julie Gilbert, Applause Books, 2000. An insightful biography of one of the boldest American writers in the early decades of the 20th century. Written by Ferber’s grand-niece who had access to her aunt’s diaries and correspondence, while also drawing on the comments of Ferber’s friends.
Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II
by Hugh Fordin, Da Capo Press, 1999. Very knowledgeable and richly satisfying in its presentation of Hammerstein’s career and his immensely appealing personality.
by Edna Ferber, G. K. Hall & Co., 1981. The success of the Kern/Hammerstein musical has rather overshadowed Ferber’s marvelous novel (originally published in 1926). Traveling through the decades with Magnolia Hawks and the rest of these memorable characters is an engrossing, moving experience and highly recommended, whether before or after seeing the show onstage.
Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical
by Miles Krueger, Da Capo Press, 1990. An immensely authoritative and exceedingly helpful text by one of this country’s most eminent musical-theater scholars. This book gives a fabulously detailed glimpse into the evolution of the Kern/Hammerstein show, the premiere production on Broadway, and every important incarnation—whether onstage or onscreen—that had been produced up to the year of the book’s publication (1977). Lavishly illustrated with production photos.
Yale Broadway Masters Series: Jerome Kern
by Stephen Banfield, Yale University Press, 2006. A hugely valuable biography, truly covering the ground on Kern’s life and career. A model of its kind.
Books about great performers associated with Show Boat both onstage and on film:
Helen Morgan: Her Life and Legend
by Gilbert Maxwell, Hawthorn Books, 1974.
Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood
by Wes D. Gehring, The Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement
by Sheila Tully Boyle, University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
William Warfield: My Music & My Life
by William Warfield, Sagamore Publishing, 1991.
Frivolity abounded on Broadway in the mid-1920s, thanks to shows with titles such as Manhattan Mary, The Merry Malones, and Yes, Yes, Yvette. Then suddenly there came to the stage a magnificent score with such dramatic power that it singlehandedly took musical theater several giant steps forward. That show – eagerly anticipated at Lyric Opera this season – was composer Jerome Kern’s masterpiece, Show Boat, with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
A major scholar of American musicals, Miles Kreuger, writes that they can be “divided into two eras: everything before Show Boat, and everything after Show Boat.” He mentions specifically what set this piece apart when it premiered 84 years ago:
• controversial themes were dealt with, yet without sacrificing wonderful tunes;
• for the first time in musicals, a protagonist progressed from impressionable teen to strong, independent adult;
• also for the first time, a Broadway show was racially integrated – with a black chorus and a white chorus onstage singing together.
Show Boat covers nearly four decades (1890-1927) in the lives of Magnolia Hawks (soprano Ashley Brown, debut), her parents, and various key figures in the life of her father’s show boat, the Cotton Blossom. We see Magnolia as a stagestruck teenager, then as the wife of the handsome gambler Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Nathan Gunn). When he can’t deal with his mounting debts, he abandons Magnolia and their daughter Kim in Chicago, forcing Magnolia to support herself and her child. She becomes a great stage star, as does Kim years later.
Another memorable character is Magnolia’s friend Julie (soprano Alyson Cambridge), a singer/actress of mixed race on the show boat, illegally married to a white man. By cutting Julie’s hand and sucking her blood, her husband Steve (actor James Farruggio, debut) is considered legally mixed-race. They thus avoid arrest, but they leave the show boat nonetheless. Years later, when Julie overhears Magnolia auditioning at the Trocadero in Chicago, she gives up her position as the club’s singer so Magnolia can have her big chance.
Racial tensions are undeniably part of Show Boat and, from the start, the piece has provoked controversy. 1920s audiences were startled when the curtain rose on Act One. Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright write that “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 dockhands lifting bales of cotton and singing about the hardness of their lives.”
Kern and Hammerstein recognized that during the decades of this drama, African-Americans had a long way to go to achieve equality in all aspects of their lives. The creative team revealed their sensitivity in the stoic feeling inherent in the show’s most familiar song, “Ol’ Man River,” and in the black workers’ stirring lament, “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.” Despite the efforts of Kern and Hammerstein, Show Boat continues toarouse sharply differing views among audiences and critics even today.
The show’s characters originated in a novel created by Edna Ferber, one of America’s most celebrated writers. To composer Jerome Kern, Ferber’s Show Boat (1926) seemed a natural for musical theater. Kern got Ferber’s approval, brought Hammerstein on board, and found a producer in the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld. With a terrific cast in place, the stage was set for something fabulous.
But Show Boat’s performance history didn’t begin promisingly: at the premiere in Washington, D.C., it ran a whopping four hours and ten minutes. Significant cuts were made, but at opening night on Broadway (December 27, 1927), there was – unbelievably – virtually no applause after any of the musical numbers. Everyone was astonished when the reviews turned out to be raves. Show Boat was launched, and it’s been conquering audiences ever since.
What an irresistible piece this is, bursting with songs that are truly enriched by the warmth and expansiveness of operatic voices! With Kern’s gift for melody married to Hammerstein’s unerringly characterful lyrics, everything is a highlight, from bouncy specialty numbers to three memorable love duets. The creators provided wonderfully lively moments with two boisterous songs for Queenie (soprano Angela Renée Simpson, debut), the Cotton Blossom’s feisty cook. Her husband, the warm-hearted stevedore Joe (bass Morris Robinson, debut – see “Entrances & Encores,” p. 16), can steal the show singing “Ol’ Man River,” the jewel in Show Boat’s crown.
Hammerstein’s libretto was unique for its time, actually creating an impetus for characters to sing; musical numbers emerged naturally out of the dialogue. Integrating song and story was the single greatest step in the development of the American musical. It’s already evident early in Act One’s meeting of Magnolia and Ravenal, with dialogue that moves seamlessly into “Make Believe.”
The Kern-Hammerstein duo also revealed character in ways their predecessors couldn’t approach. Surprisingly, it’s the key supporting female role, Julie, rather than the lead, Magnolia, who gets the most illuminating songs: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” provide deep insight into a woman whose devotion to the man she loves is ultimately her destruction. There’s no figure more touching in American musical theater.
a genuine classic, remains extraordinarily fresh. Lyric is just one of the opera companies to have produced it – and yes, the opera house is absolutely where the Cotton Blossom and everyone on board can truly sail forth in triumph.
Francesca Zambello launches a sensational new Show Boat production
By Magda Krance
Imagine the excitement, 120 years ago, when a show boat steamed into town. Everybody could step right up for an evening’s entertainment by lavishly costumed dancers, singers, and actors. WHAT A SPECTACLE!
The curtain will rise on a richly detailed vision of that bygone era when Show Boat docks for the first time at Lyric. The sumptuous new production, staged by Francesca Zambello and conducted by John DeMain, promises to delight your eyes and ears. The sensational cast includes Broadway star Ashley Brown; Lyric favorite Nathan Gunn; three more operatic luminaries – Alyson Cambridge, Morris Robinson, and Angela Renée Simpson; and some of Chicago’s most gifted actors.
“I have always wanted to bring Show Boat to an opera house to get the full impact of the work musically,” says Zambello, who’s passionate about this groundbreaking masterpiece, which she’s directed in acclaimed semi-staged performances in London and New York. “What makes great theater and great opera is telling such an epic story through simple people’s lives. Show Boat is the beginning of American musical theater history, setting a benchmark for everything to come.”
The wonderful variety of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II songs will also be reflected in the dancing onstage. “This show enables us to span so many styles,” says the production’s choreographer, Michele Lynch (debut). “This was an important time in American dance,” encompassing vaudeville, the cakewalk, ragtime, and the shuffle.
Most of Act One takes place on the show boat, docked in Natchez, Mississippi. In Act Two, however, the action shifts northward to Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and an elegant suite at the Palmer House. After 11 years, settings change almost cinematically, including a Chicago boarding house, a convent school, and the city’s Trocadero Club. There’s a brief interlude back in Natchez, then a jump to Broadway before the story circles back to the Cotton Blossom, where strains of the Charleston are heard. Those aboard the show boat have traveled a long way in nearly 40 years, witnessing the dawn of electricity, cars, radios, moving pictures, and seismic changes in music and dance.
Flowing through the story, like the Mississippi River itself, is “Ol’ Man River.” The song, says Zambello, “represents life that is constantly moving. The river is something that people always go back to. ‘Ol’ Man River’ is the soul of the piece.”
For Zambello, musical theater is American opera. “With it we have forged something as popular as opera was in the 19
th century. Opera and musical theater can live harmoniously in our American theater and opera-house landscape. Show Boat gives us a rich study in opera, operetta, vaudeville, and musical comedy, but – equally important – a compelling American story of social and political importance. Edna Ferber’s story took a revolutionary, clear-eyed look at the sprawling, messy society of the post-Emancipation years, the Industrial Revolution, and the conflicts between the North and South – issues still with us today – and Jerome Kern wrapped it in joyous, heartbreaking songs that have become part of the fabric of our lives.”
The director notes that Lyric’s production will be substantially different from the versions previously presented on Broadway and in Chicago: “This is a very different scale and quality of singers, which allows us to explore it in a way that people haven’t seen it.”
DeMain conducted Show Boat’s Houston Grand Opera premiere and revival. For Lyric, “we’ve created a special ‘opera house’ version, restoring some numbers that often aren’t done. I think this will be the definitive Show Boat – more operatic, in the best sense of the word. It’s a work with profound values and heavy themes; it has all the ingredients of great opera.” He adds that “Jerome Kern has been called the American Schubert, because he is a creator of really beautiful song – the melodies of Show Boat are so gorgeous! There is great richness and beauty here, and we have the classically trained voices and a full orchestra to do it justice.”