We can view musical theatre through a modern lens and see it as a “serious” art form now, but it was not very long ago that this was not the case. Musical theatre came from the world of opera, light opera and vaudeville and held onto many of the traditions of those art forms through the 1920s and 30s. In fact the words “Musical” and “theatre” were very separate for a long time. Mostly the shows were called “Musical Comedies” Historian Gerald Bordman wrote: “The characters and situations were, within the limitations of musical comedy license, believable and the humor came from the situations or the nature of the characters. Kern's exquisitely flowing melodies were employed to further the action or develop characterization. …”
And here is where I think we should start: Our musical theatre journey should always be marked and followed by knowing who was creating it. So let’s play the game of follow the writers!
In the 1910s, the team of P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, really started to understand that story was key, was the linch pin to make the genre be something more then it’s roots of Opera, and vaudeville, and to make the art form truly “American” and on a side note, most of the composers and writers of that time in New York were all either recent immigrants to the country, or their parents were.
So that brings us to Show Boat, the show that changed it all… Here from Wikipedia explains it well:
Show Boat is a musical in two acts, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on Edna Ferber's best-selling novel of the same name. The musical follows the lives of the performers, stagehands and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, over 40 years from 1887 to 1927. Its themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love. The musical contributed such classic songs as "Ol' Man River", "Make Believe", and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man".
The musical was first produced in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfeld. The premiere of Show Boat on Broadway was an important event in the history of American musical theatre. It "was a radical departure in musical storytelling, marrying spectacle with seriousness", compared with the trivial and unrealistic operettas, light musical comedies and "Follies"-type musical revues that defined Broadway in the 1890s and early 20th century. According to The Complete Book of Light Opera:
Here we come to a completely new genre – the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy. Now … the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. Now … came complete integration of song, humor and production numbers into a single and inextricable artistic entity.
There have been many revivals and productions of this show, including one right here in Vancouver, and Toronto. A certain Director we all know might have helped direct with Hal Prince on this show.
Here are the details: NOTE, the Book and Lyrics writer…Seen that name before? Remember to follow the writers…
Music Jerome Kern
Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II, P.G. Wodehouse
Book Oscar Hammerstein II
Basis Edna Ferber's 1926 novel Show Boat
Premiere December 27, 1927: Ziegfeld Theatre
New York City Productions
1928 West End
1932 Broadway revival
1946 Broadway revival
1966 Lincoln Center revival
1971 West End revival
1983 Broadway revival
1994 Broadway revival
1998 West End revival
2016 West End revival
Awards Tony Award for Best Revival, Olivier Award for Best Revival
Have a listen here: