Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, by Todd Decker

July 23, 2014

DeckerShowBoatReviewShow Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, by Todd Decker 
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0199759378


In Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, Todd Decker thoroughly discusses the performance history of the musical through the lens of racial representation. In the introduction, he states that the story of Show Boat, originally a book by Edna Ferber, addresses larger issues of “race, music, and national identity” in America, where blacks and whites live side-by-side, yet have often been separated by color lines ranging from formal segregation to individual prejudice (3). Decker then describes how his book will use the musical and aesthetic details of the original version of Show Boat, as well as those of its many remakes, to demonstrate the changing status of racial relations in America during the twentieth century.

Decker’s book is organized in two parts, the first of which covers the creation of the musical, while the second section discusses its remaking. Decker lays the foundation for his study in the first chapter, where he describes the genesis of Ferber’s novel, a project which ventured beyond the popular author’s normal subject matter by including several black characters and addressing the issue of race. He also notes the importance of music in Ferber’s novel, especially African American spirituals, which would later serve as an important component of Show Boat the musical.

Decker next begins his discussion of the musical itself, carefully demonstrating how the cast and characters of Show Boat were built upon racial stereotypes generally accepted in American during the 1920s. He builds a large portion of his arguments on three separate agendas he believes guided Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern in their creation of the musical: Hammerstein’s “popular music plot,” the “Robeson plan,” and the “Morgan plan.” The latter two schemes demonstrate that Hammerstein and Kern had specific performers in mind when they created the leading roles in Show Boat, and that these performers in turn exerted considerable influence on the musical and aesthetic choices of several scenes and numbers. The “popular music plot,” however, refers to a more over-arching plan to show “the colored roots of America’s popular music” which Hammerstein “hardwired into the musical” and Kern promoted through his use of black music and dance (3). Decker continues to reference this “plot” throughout the book, connecting it to the jazz and African American numbers included in the musical. One example he provides is a scene which was later cut from the second act, in which a modern jazz number was set in a New York apartment, providing an opportunity to showcase black dancers and demonstrate the African American roots of popular music (94-95). In the second section of the book, discussing the many incarnations of the musical, Decker chronicles how later directors manipulated Hammerstein’s “plot” through casting and cuts. These remakes range from a 1951 MGM version which cut many of the black characters and numbers—and also much of Kern’s popular music—to a 1994 revival directed by Susan Stroman, which went to great lengths “to make a connection between the still-segregated dance for Kim and her white friends, and historic cultural shifts led by blacks” (239). With such arguments, Decker uses the “popular music plot” to demonstrate how closely race was bound up in the original show, as well as how much it influenced subsequent remakes of the musical.

The two other “plans” Decker describes in connection with the original show describe how two specific performers, Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan, greatly influenced the musical content, and even the storyline, of several scenes. First of all, Decker shows how Robeson, a tremendously successful African American actor and vocalist who strove “to show the full humanity of his race to the white public,” shaped the part of Joe (55). In 1927, when Hammerstein was writing Show Boat, Robeson was frequently performing solo spiritual recitals in New York, and Decker posits that Hammerstein and Kern drew inspiration from Robeson’s career and musical style, designing the character of Joe for him and incorporating African American spirituals into the score. They even went so far as to include a “Paul Robeson Recital” in the second act. This event was intended to allow Robeson to portray himself within the show, singing his customary spirituals in a concert setting. However, when Robeson refused to take the role during Show Boat’s initial run on Broadway, the recital was cut from the script (54). The next year, after Robeson accepted the part of Joe in a 1928 London production, he quickly became associated with the character of Joe and played the part for the next ten years. The song “Ol’ Man River,” especially, became a Robeson trademark which he added to his solo repertoire (44, 56). Decker argues that Robeson influenced the racial dynamics of the musical, with his dignified approach to the role, and that every actor who played Joe afterwards “has been—to some extent—impersonating Robeson, hopefully tapping into his peculiar effect on white audiences” (138). Robeson’s reputation and influence made Joe into a character that challenged racial boundaries on the musical stage and provided new opportunities for generations of Joes behind him.

When describing the “Morgan plan,” Decker makes similar connections between Helen Morgan, the original Julie, and the evolution of the role itself. Morgan, a popular nightclub owner and entertainer, developed a reputation as a “torch singer,” crooning mournful love songs seated atop a piano, which led to the inclusion of “Bill” as a signature song for her character, in Act 2. According to Decker, this was “all Morgan,” with no precedents in the novel or earlier drafts of the musical, and although it is not directly connected with race or black music, “Bill” demonstrates the popular music of the time, which was closely related to jazz and blues, and thus ties in with Hammerstein’s “popular music plot” (62-63).

Elsewhere in the section about the making of Show Boat, Decker describes the musical’s use of a black chorus, which provided many African American performers with employment and experience. He discusses how these black musicians were forced to negotiate between the decidedly racial slant of the musical and their need for a steady job (103-104). Decker uses this information to demonstrate how Show Boat negotiated racial questions in new ways. Despite the segregation between black and white performers, Show Boat’s inclusion of so many African Americans provided important opportunities for African Americans in show business.

The second section of the book delves more deeply into the racial representations found in Show Boat. Beginning with the original production on Broadway, in 1927, Decker shows how racial identity was portrayed and negotiated in the musical across the years. Here again Paul Robeson is a major factor, and Decker describes his role in a 1936 Universal version, in which the part of Joe was expanded and a close-up of Robeson’s face ushered in the song “Ol’ Man River” (150-53). Decker’s descriptions of Robeson and his performances offer insight into the evolving status of race relations in the United States throughout his career as Joe, which ended with a final show in 1940. Later Joes were consistently compared to Robeson, beginning with the Australian bass Malcolm McEachern, who sang the role in blackface in London in 1943, completely altering the character and effect of the part (166-67).

Decker continues to chronicle how different productions dealt with the racial issues present in Show Boat, which “forced a confrontation with issues of race and national memory like no other survivor of Broadway’s Jazz Age heyday” (195). He describes how some productions investigated these issues, including a 1946 Broadway version that prominently featured several black dance numbers. Other remakes tried to ignore the racial question, including a large-scale 1951 MGM movie that reduced most of the parts for African Americans to bit roles and played up a very white Ava Gardner as Julie (184-95). Decker then describes later versions of Show Boat, with specific details about each production and cast, offering insights into the racial aspects of each remaking. He uses his research to show the new dignity being granted African Americans in show business, many of whom refused to sing certain racially charged lyrics in the original script, as the twentieth century came to an end. In the epilogue, Decker summarizes the impact of Show Boat on the history of the American Musical, connecting it to later shows, and goes so as far as to call it “the most important musical ever made” that “necessitated” to be remade multiple times (249). Although this might be an overstatement, his arguments throughout the book about the multiple layers of meaning and representation in Show Boat lend credence to the statement. With his research, Decker has shown that Hammerstein and Kern’s production undoubtedly altered forever the conception of race in the American musical.

Decker demonstrates impeccable research, although sometimes the level of detail about each production makes it difficult to follow his arguments. Perhaps the reader would be better served by a little less detail and a little more focus on Decker’s overall narrative. In addition, Decker’s use of the term “popular music plot” throughout the book can be equally confusing, especially since the phrase was only partially defined when it was first mentioned in the introduction. Despite these minor sources of confusion, Decker has provided a readable, well-edited, and interesting account of the production history of Show Boat, which sheds new light on the history of race on America’s musical stage.

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