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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

There's no boating like show boating

By Norman Lebrecht / May 31, 2006

There are many theories about the birth of the Broadway musical but the one that eludes most American scholars is the simple truth that their country’s most momentous contribution to the world stage sprang out of the freshly-dug grave of Italian opera. There are almost as many theories about the death of the musical, and they are just as closely intertwined with the state of opera.

Consider, firstly, the chronology. Giacomo Puccini’s death in November 1924 brought his high-end genre to a dead end, a finality confirmed in the May 1926 premiere of Turandot, an absurd plot creaking beneath emotional and vocal overload, leaving the art with nowhere to go.

That summer, two New York stage writers read a newly published novel by the Pulitzer-winning Edna Ferber and convinced the impresario Flo Ziegfeld to let them turn Show Boat into a live show. But what the Follies boss received from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II was a vision far beyond his chorus-line routine. ‘Show Boat was really a step for him that was terrifying,’ his daughter told a TV documentary. ‘He said we cannot do this musical with all this sadness.’

He did, though. Show Boat, four hours long, opened on Broadway in December 1927 and ran for two years until the Wall Street crash. The Gershwin brothers had done some song and dance revues that were loosely known as ‘musicals’, but Show Boat was the foundation stone of a genre, a work so far ahead of its time that 16 years would pass before the next opus of equivalent impact - Oklahoma in 1943.

Seen in this context, Show Boat marks the passing of a baton from the verismo tail-end of Italian opera to a disturbingly realistic and distinctively American art form with a contemporary social conscience and an enduring capacity for controversy, niot to mention an ever-present element of ethnic tension.

When Francesca Zambello’s eye-catching production opens this month at the Royal Albert Hall, you can bet your hairshirt to a croquet hoop that some self-appointed custodians of political correctness will complain that Ol Man River and Can’t Help Loving Dat Man are racially offensive. Seven years ago, the splendidly enlightened authorities of Middlesborough and Teesside banned Show Boat from council premises on the grounds that it would be ‘distasteful and upsetting’ to ethnic minorities.

Over the years, the text has been through various revisions as social usages changed, from ‘niggers’, to ‘darkies’, to ‘coloured folk’, to ‘here we all work’, but the heart of Show Boat is and always was a passionate assertion of racial pride and equality. This was the first racially integrated show ever to appear on an American stage, and the first to treat a mixed-race love story, set on the banks of the Mississippi. To present such a topic in 1927, or even half a century later, was brave beyond the normal remit of New York theatre and for many disenfranchised black people this musical, with its quasi-spiritual show-stopper Ol’ Man River, amounted to a rallying call.

George Gershwin entered similar territory seven years later with an all-black cast in Porgy and Bess, but Porgy was an opera that confused audiences, offending the moneyed classes who did not want to be disturbed by cries of the oppressed. Social issues were not the stuff of operatic dreams. It took half a century for Porgy to reach the Met, during which time the musical had a monopoly on lyrical realism.

The origins of Show Boat belong to the upmarket end of Tin Pan Alley where writers and composers mingled interchangeably. Jerome Kern was doodling tunes for skits by P G Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, while Oscar Hammerstein II, grandson of a powerful opera impresario, wrote lyrics for sugared schmaltz – Rudolf Friml’s Rose Marie, Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song and other hangovers of Viennese operetta. [The lines between partnerships were so easily blurred that Kern was able to slip one of his Wodehouse numbers (‘Bill’) into Show Boat and to lift 12-bar blues form straight out of Gershwin style.

Despite the immediate financial success of Show Boat and the world fame it earned for Paul Robeson when he appeared in the 1928 London transfer, Kern and Hammerstein never struck another hit, though they worked together twice more on Three Sisters (1934) and Very Warm for May (1939). The musical, as realism rather than Cole Porter light entertainment, went into hibernation until Hammerstein, in September 1941, got together for lunch with Richard Rodgers, who confessed to having outgrown his regular partner, Lorenz Hart.

Oklahoma, their evocation of fading prairie simplicities, was followed by Carousel, South Pacific (known as ‘World War Two: The Musical), The King and I and a 1950s slump before The Sound of Music achieved a perfectionist apotheosis. At the grittier edge of the genre, Marc Blitzstein in The Cradle Will Rock, Kurt Weill in the anti-apartheid Lost in the Stars, Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story, seized the social and political agenda.

In the evolution of the art, the Hammerstein way of bending a line was passed across a dinner table to Stephen Sondheim, whom Oscar took into his family as a surrogate son. Richard Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel, is Broadway’s current blue-eyed boy with local hits in Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza. His work, though, has yet to find an international audience and that is symptomatic of much that has gone wrong with the musical over the past decade.

There is no denying a crisis in the genre. Two recent hits, Miss Saigon and Rent, were little more than updates on Madam Butterfly and Boheme, and Sondheim himself reverted to Puccinian arias and recitatives in the lacklustre Passion of 1994. Backwards is no way for an art to go.

The death of the musical was pronounced last week in a cover article in the New York Times and most practitioners acknowledge that whatever energies are left in the form are coming off the London stage in such vitalities as Billy Elliott and Jerry Springer: The Opera. Sondheim himself describes the first 45 minutes of Billy Elliott as the best staging he has ever seen, which says pretty much goodbye to Broadway.

All of which makes the return of Show Boat not just timely but essential – a chance to drink from the source and assert core principles before it is too late. Opera houses, floundering for audiences, are taking over old musicals one by one, from On the Town at ENO to Lloyd Webber at La Scala. Show Boat itself has been well staged by Houston Grand Opera in 1982 and Opera North in 1989. But Show Boat is not an opera any more than Carmen is a Broadway babe. Both opera and the musical need to rediscover their true form to survive.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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