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…

Tags: , , , , , ,

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical [Review by Alan Gomberg]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-03-28 21:35Z by Steven

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical [Review by Alan Gomberg]

Talkin’ Broadway

Alan Gomberg

Much 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…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , ,

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2013-03-28 21:18Z by Steven

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Oxford University Press
October 2012
328 pages
ISBN13: 9780199759378; ISBN10: 0199759375

Todd Decker, Assistant Professor, Musicology
Washington University in St. Louis

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical tells the full story of the making and remaking of the most important musical in Broadway history. Drawing on exhaustive archival research and including much new information from early draft scripts and scores, this book reveals how Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern created Show Boat in the crucible of the Jazz Age to fit the talents of the show’s original 1927 cast. After showing how major figures such as Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan defined the content of the show, the book goes on to detail how Show Boat was altered by later directors, choreographers, and performers up to the end of the twentieth century. All the major New York productions are covered, as are five important London productions and four Hollywood versions.

Again and again, the story of Show Boat circles back to the power of performers to remake the show, winning appreciative audiences for over seven decades. Unlike most Broadway musicals, Show Boat put black and white performers side by side. This book is the first to take Show Boat’s innovative interracial cast as the defining feature of the show. From its beginnings, Show Boat juxtaposed the talents of black and white performers and mixed the conventions of white-cast operetta and the black-cast musical. Bringing black and white onto the same stage—revealing the mixed-race roots of musical comedy—Show Boat stimulated creative artists and performers to renegotiate the color line as expressed in the American musical. This tremendous longevity allowed Show Boat to enter a creative dialogue with the full span of Broadway history. Show Boat’s voyage through the twentieth century offers a vantage point on more than just the Broadway musical. It tells a complex tale of interracial encounter performed in popular music and dance on the national stage during a century of profound transformations.


  • First book to look at the complete history of this landmark work of the Broadway stage through the prism of race.
  • Uses exhaustive archival research conducted in Hollywood, New York, London, and elsewhere
  • Draws on previously unknown sources, including scripts and scores from the earliest productions, rejected draft scripts for all three Show Boat films, and a musical source for Jerome Kern’s famous melody for “Ol’ Man River.”
  • Moves important historical figures such as Paul Robeson to the center of the story of how Show Boat was made.
  • Based on over twenty stage productions of Show Boat—including those in London’s West End—and four Hollywood film versions
Tags: ,