Exploring Show Boat

Show Boat redefined American musical theater back in 1927.

Part opera. Part romantic musical. Part topical drama.

The current revival, staged at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is in a space big enough for a showboat to dock (albeit just the prow), yet also has acoustics that allow the vocals to carry clear and strong, up to the rafters.

Which is where I found myself planted, high above, taking it all in, and connecting with history.

Literature and history first drew me to Show Boat, via an arcane path through the works of P.G. Wodehouse. During Wodehouse’s early twentieth-century Broadway lyric writing, he penned the Show Boat song “Bill” with Jerome Kern for a different musical (Oh Lady! Lady!!) years earlier, but then cut it. Musical migration gave “Bill” a new home in Show Boat, even though there’s no character named Bill in that story. Still, a good song is a good song.

Interest in the backtale of “Bill” (with Wodehouse still separately credited in the current theater program), though, quickly gives way to threads on the larger background history of Show Boat itself. Fortunately, opera lends itself to such explorations.

Unlike most television series, books, movies, and plays, advance research before attending an opera performance not only helps, it can be key to sorting through the grand sweep of the staging, the chorus, the literary underpinnings, and the showcase vocals. There’s no fear of “spoilers.” You go in wanting to know what to expect.

There is plenty to absorb about Show Boat.

Start with the usual Internet search destinations and the Lyric Opera’s own website.

In addition, these specific audio, video, and text links will take you to:

Morris Robinson from the Lyric’s production, being interviewed and performing on the radio series program Chicago Live! (recorded before a live audience). Singing, of course, “Old Man River.”

Back to the 1936 film version for Paul Robeson taking the “Old Man River” lead

More obscure, the fictionalized 1946 bio-pic of Jerome Kern, Till The Clouds Roll By, opened with its own original staging of a handful of songs from Show Boat, including Lena Horne as Julie. That film ended rather fancifully with Frank Sinatra, dressed in white, also singing “Old Man River,” accompanied by a heavenly chours.

San Francisco Opera is a Show Boat co-producer and has offered comments about this show’s rightful place on the opera stage.

Houston Grand Opera (another of the co-producers) has already scheduled its presentation for next year (January 18 to February 9, 2013).

Switch to the Broadway world for further comments on the details of staging, set, and lyric choices.

Show Boat runs in Chicago through March 17. Even if you choose the least expensive upper balcony seats, you can still see the full stage.

Bring a good set of binoculars and from there you just might be able to read the details of the promo playbill tacked on the town set wall displaying photos of leads Julie and Steve. Along comes an angry man who tears her photo from the poster, and so the story begins.

Copyright ©2012 Walter J. Podrazik

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One Response to Exploring Show Boat

  1. Lana Weiss Brown says:

    Terrific blog. Thoughtful, informative, and just the right amount of everything—- content, context, color, space, words, graphics, and photos. Well conceived and delivered by a media pro.

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