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

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

Theatre Journal
Volume 65, Number 3, October 2013
pages 447-448
DOI: 10.1353/tj.2013.0077

Bethany Wood

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical. By Todd Decker. Broadway Legacy series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 238.

Todd Decker’s Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical examines representations of race in the creation and evolution of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s iconic musical by tracing the impact of particular performers on numerous stage, sound, and film productions. Using the “dynamic of the color line” as his “vantage point” (4), Decker places the original musical in conversation with subsequent interpretations in order to analyze the enduring influence of Show Boat on representations of race in American musical theatre. Through his systematic examination, Decker addresses the broader issue of “the performed distinction between black and white [that serves] as an essential and constructive element of the American musical in its totality” and argues for interracial histories of musical theatre, a field “largely written along divided racial lines” (5).

He presents his analysis in two parts: “Making,” which focuses on Show Boat’s 1927 debut; and “Remaking,” which examines the versions created from 1928 to 1998. Each section employs extensive archival research in its account of how race has been staged in key productions. Chapter 1 centers on the major themes established by the musical’s source material, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel. This chapter, along with chapter 2, situates Show Boat’s central focus on race and music within 1920s popular culture. The analysis in this chapter follows the pattern in Show Boat theatre scholarship of faulting Ferber for failing to approach the narrative’s themes in the same manner that Hammerstein would later employ for the musical. Decker criticizes Ferber’s cursory attention to the issues of music and race, and, in the following chapters, demonstrates Hammerstein’s efforts to foreground these themes by making Show Boat “an object lesson in the power of black music and a celebration of a moment in popular culture history when black music and musicians were breaking into mainstream white culture with undeniable force” (52).

Chapters 2 and 3 address the influence of Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan on Hammerstein’s interpretive vision and provide detailed context concerning their careers. Chapter 2 details Kern and Hammerstein’s initial plan to cast Robeson as Joe in order to highlight the themes of race and music in the initial script, as well as the complications that resulted when Robeson decided not to join the original Broadway cast. Chapter 3 considers Morgan’s influence on the creation of Show Boat , as Hammer-stein adapted act 2 to showcase her talents as a torch singer and exploit her reputation for dissipation. Hammerstein’s efforts and Morgan’s performance worked to establish Julie as a tragic figure, expressing herself through Morgan’s “thoroughly white” (65) singing style.

In chapter 4, Decker argues that the musical choices for the characters of Ravenal and Magnolia “whitened” Show Boat’s central couple by making Ravenal an operatic tenor, a style associated with white singers, and aligning Magnolia’s voice with white culture through her performance of “After the Ball,” a Victorian parlor waltz. Show Boat was one of the first Broadway musicals to use both black and white performers in large numbers, and chapter 5 explores the musical’s use of both a black and a white chorus. Along with chapter 2, this section adds a much-needed look at contemporary responses to Show Boat in the black press.

Part 2 investigates the reworking of racial representations in productions of Show Boat that followed its premiere. Chapter 6 looks at several “remakings” between 1928 and 1940 that featured Robeson, who eventually accepted and became associated with the role of Joe in several landmark productions. Decker discusses how Robeson’s powerful performances and offstage persona enhanced Joe’s role, which Hammerstein expanded for the 1936 film in order to capitalize on Robeson’s talents and appeal. As in his examination of the 1927 production, Decker analyzes several deleted scenes in order to illustrate Hammerstein’s continued, yet unrealized plan to use Show Boat as a history lesson of black influence on popular music. Chapter 7 centers on several productions during and shortly after World War II, including the 1946 Broadway revival and the 1951 film starring Ava Gardner as Julie. Decker’s analysis of the impact that…

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