‘Showboat’ was initially a novel written by Edna Ferber in 1926. She took inspiration for it during the several weeks she spent on the ‘James Adams Floating Palace Theatre’ in Bath. The novel was then brought to the stage by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein ll, who together, wrote both the libretto and music for the show which opened on 27th December 1927 in the Ziegfield Theatre. That night after the show, the audience filed out in silence, leading the producer, Florenze Ziegfield to believe he’d gone too far by putting such a show on the stage.

However, to his relief, he was met the following morning with ecstatic reviews about the play. ‘Showboat’ then went on to be performed on Broadway and the West end, being filmed and produced twice, firstly being released in black and white and later in Technicolor. Although in saying this; Ziegfield had good reason to be anxious about the response ‘Showboat’ would receive, as it was the first musical to deal with serious issues such as racism, marital strife and alcoholism.

Up until this point, audiences were used only to light hearted entertainment such as operettas, pantomimes, burlesques and shows of a vaudeville nature; and although these forms of entertainment often contained music and performing, they lacked the integration of music into the play as the Broadway musicals would come to have. All previous forms of entertainment served their purpose as being enjoyable and light-hearted which is why ‘Showboat’ received the response it did, as never before, had an audience been asked to think about and question serious, social issues.

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The opening piece of music in ‘Showboat’ is called ‘Niggers All Work’ which highlights the theme of racial discrimination immediately. The lyrics assist the theme of prejudice and inequality as the workers sing, ‘Niggers all work while de white men play’. The workers’ incessant monotonous torture is displayed via the rhythm of the piece which constitutes the piece as a work song, representing the monotonous labour the black people were forced to carry out. The melody of the piece consists of detached, staccato notes accompanied by hollow chords in the bass.

This combination makes the piece seem empty and lacking in warmth. In addition, the use of off-beat accents gives it an aggressive tone. This is then contrasted against the more lyrical and legato sound from the white mixed chorus which features full chords and the use of traditional harmonies. The juxtaposition of the two movements in the piece represents the completely separate social standings of the two races. ‘Ol’ Man River’ is an extremely poignant piece in ‘Showboat’.

The leitmotif used by Kern throughout the piece accurately represents the protagonist of the play; the Mississippi River, in the form of a perfect fourth. The song is in ‘AABA’ form with section A being the main melody of the piece. The slow, smooth, legato quality reflects that of the river. In addition to this, the shape of the melody represents the roll or gentle lilt of the Mississippi River. This is known as ‘word painting’. Section A is repeated for emphasis but with some contrast to keep it interesting.

Section B is the completely juxtaposed with detached notes and a different melody. This section also features aspects of music found in Spirituals, such as the lyrics, ‘Gettin’ no rest til de judgement day’. Again, the lyrics in this piece highlight the theme of racial inequality, ‘You an’ me we sweat an’ strain’ while also making evident the effect it has on the workers, ‘Ah’m sick of livin’ an’ skeered of dyin’’. The gentle syncopation along with the gentle timbre of Joe’s voice shows his gentle and harmless personality.

However, it is in section B when the piece becomes more serious and starts to lose its flow and becomes repetitive. This is symbolic of the strain of the work on Joe. In contrast to ‘Niggers all work’ and ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ is a love song sung by Julie, a woman with mixed heritage who has been hiding her true race during her time on the boat. This piece is significant to the story as it brings forth the theme of miscegenation; the act of two people of different races engaging in an intimate relationship.

However, Julie’s true heritage becomes apparent through her style of singing. While singing, Julie uses a very relaxed and flexible tone. The bending notes and vocal glissando gives the piece its African- American flavour. This is added to via the accompaniment of jazz style chords with added syncopation. Although, in spite of this, the gentle leitmotif of the river; the perfect fourth, is present in the melody of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ reminding us subtly of the presence of the protagonist throughout. After the Ball’ contributes to the popularity of the show as it was already a popular song at the time. It is the only piece in ‘Showboat’ that Kern didn’t write on, rather he ‘borrowed’ it from Charles K Harris. This piece is known as a ‘Prop Song’, meaning that it is sung when a character finds themslef in a situation that demands or facilitates singing. In this instance, it is sung by Magnolia as she performing on the boat. The lyrics however reflect the hopelessness she feels in her current situation, ‘Many a heart is aching after the ball’.

Despite of it its many relevant and appealing music features, I believe ‘Showboat’ became such a success as it addressed real, pressing issues of the time. Unlike the shows that had come before, ‘Showboat’ didn’t have the happy, comedic fairy tale ending audiences of the time had become accustom to. The music wasn’t solely for entertainment purposes, but for the first time integrated into the storyline, progressing the plot and revealing characters. It was because of this, ‘Showboat’ continued to influence many other playwrights and paved the way for a new era of entertainment; the Broadway Musical.


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