Music by Jerome Kern
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
The musical “Showboat,” first performed in 1927, is based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same title. One of the great things about the American Musical Theater is that difficult or controversial issues are not ignored or censored, but become the primary themes of the the work. This marvelous tradition started with the first production of “Showboat.” In the case of “Showboat” there are two issues. One is prejudice against a mulatto attempting to cross the color line by marrying a white person (miscegenation). The second is marital fidelity and desertion (Steve will not leave Julie, and Gaylord Ravenal deserts Magnolia).
Initially the work was controversial due to the use of the “N” word in the original lyrics and the dialect used for the black characters. Most productions have excluded the “N” word and it was never used in the movie versions. Critics believe that Hammerstein was using the word ironically especially when its negative connotations are compared to the depth of the portrayal of the black characters. The black characters are not stereotypical typical of that time. Also, “Showboat” was the first racially integrated musical. The black chorus of the musical gives enlightening commentary on the action. The white chorus is not near as perceptive.
The great classic “Old Man River” is a moving protest song ~ ~ “There’s an old man called the Mississippi, That’s an old man that I want to be. What does he care if the world has troubles? What does he care if the land ain’t free?” ~~ not even in 1887 when the action of the musical takes place.