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

Posted in Articles, Arts, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2013-10-17 02:06Z by Steven

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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‘Show Boat’ Steams On, Eternally American

Posted in Articles, Arts, Audio, Media Archive, United States on 2013-05-08 23:00Z by Steven

‘Show Boat’ Steams On, Eternally American

All Things Considered
National Public Radio


Nina Totenberg, Legal Affairs Correspondent

It’s been more than eight decades since Show Boat — the seminal masterpiece of the American musical theater — premiered on a stage in Washington, D.C. Now the sprawling classic is back, in a lush production put on by the Washington National Opera.

Based on Edna Ferber’s epic best-selling novel, Show Boat was nothing like the frothy musicals and scantily clad Broadway revues of its time. Sure, the story is about a traveling showboat that plays to audiences along the Mississippi River, but the plot focuses on serious subjects: racial injustice, alcoholism, abandonment.

Panoramic in scale, the show spans 40 years, from 1885 in the South — not long after the Civil War — to the Roaring ’20s in Chicago. And displayed in all their glory are some of the most beautiful love songs of the 20th century: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe,” “Bill.”

Show Boat made musical-theater history, pioneering the merging of music and plot, integrating them for the first time to provide a seamless transition from scene to song. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, just 31 years old, worked closely with composer Jerome Kern to replicate Ferber’s sweeping narrative. In a 1958 interview released on vinyl by MGM Records, he explained how he used the Mississippi itself as the thread that would hold all the plot elements together.

“I thought that we lacked something to make it cohesive,” Hammerstein told interviewer Arnold Michaelis. “I wanted to keep the spirit of Edna’s book, and the one focal influence I could find was the river, because she had quite consciously brought the river into every important turn in the story. The Mississippi. So I decided to write a theme — a river theme.”

That theme, of course, became “Ol’ Man River,” one of the most primal American melodies ever sung.

‘Misery’ Restored, And Threaded Throughout The Show

Director Francesca Zambello, who pushed and prodded to get the current revival staged at the Kennedy Center, says she was drawn to the show because of the timeless issues it dramatizes — not least that key underlying theme of race, embodied in the show by Julie, the showboat’s star performer.

“Julie is the fulcrum of the show, because she brings the dramatic issue that changes everything,” Zambello says.

Secretly biracial, but “passing” — living publicly as a white woman — Julie has married a white man. That makes their relationship a crime in Mississippi, and in much of the rest of the country besides.

No surprise, then, that even before Julie is found out and forced to leave the showboat, the company’s mother figure, who’s in on her secret, senses trouble. “Misery’s comin’ around,” sings Queenie, the showboat’s cook, in a gorgeously melancholy melody that was cut from the original production for time.

“The theme of ‘Misery’ you hear not only with Queenie and all the women working, but it also weaves its way underneath the dialogue every time Julie speaks after that,” Zambello points out. “It becomes her sadness, and her secret.”

There are no U.S. laws against interracial marriage anymore; they were struck down in 1967 by the Supreme Court’s . But as Show Boat plays at the Kennedy Center this month, the court — just a couple of miles away — is considering questions of same-sex marriage, affirmative action and voting rights, while Congress focuses on how we as a nation treat immigrants.

“To do this kind of work that has such deep social underpinnings to it, and really speaks about social change, is I think rare in music theater,” Zambello says. “If you wrote this musical today, I’m not sure that it would get on.”…

Read the entire article here.  Listen to the story here.  Download the audio here.

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Mixed Race Hollywood (review) [Emily D. Edwards]

Posted in Articles, Arts, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2010-01-26 03:51Z by Steven

Mixed Race Hollywood (review) [Emily D. Edwards]

Journal of Film and Video
Volume 61, Number 4 (Winter 2009)
E-ISSN: 1934-6018
Print ISSN: 0742-4671
DOI: 10.1353/jfv.0.0051

Emily D. Edwards, Professor of Broadcasting and Cinema
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Mixed Race Hollywood is a collection of essays that could not be timelier. As popular media, journalists, and citizen bloggers actively dispute the impact of President Barack Obama’s election on attitudes toward race, editors Mary Beltrán and Camilla Fojas have compiled a series of essays that explore ways popular media and celebrity have presented miscegenation and racial identity for Americans. These historical and critical essays analyze specific films, television programs, Internet sites, and the appearance of celebrity image to help explain the ways popular media presentations of race correspond with the development of social behaviors and attitudes. Though some might credit “liberal Hollywood” for ushering America into the “mulatto millennium,” it is obvious from the collection of essays in this book that Hollywood is not always the leader of public opinion but often takes the more conservative approach, lagging behind fairly widespread social attitudes.

The editors divide the book into four sections: themes of mixed race representation, miscegenation and romance, genre and mixed race characters, and finally, a section that examines the shift in media presentation of mixed race characters from tragic to heroic. The introduction by Beltrán and Fojas helps set the background and the overall argument that media presentations reveal a cultural shift in American attitudes toward mixed race characters. The introduction also provides some useful notes on terminology.

The essays begin, appropriately, with J. E. Smyth’s chapter, “Classical Hollywood and the Filmic Writing of Interracial History, 1931–1939.” This chapter examines films such as Cimarron (1931), Ramona (1936), Show Boat (1936), Jezebel (1938)…

Read the entire review here.

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