Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II had collaborated on Sunny in 1925 and had become close friends. They discussed turning Edna Ferber’s novel, Show Boat, into a musical; after getting Edna Ferber’s agreement, they went to work outlining the character and intent of the show. Both felt a keen interest in preserving the themes highlighted by Ferber in the novel, so they took their time in the planning process.
As we will see with Hammerstein throughout his career, especially later when working with Richard Rodgers, he found himself at odds with the practice of de facto “slavery” (as practiced in the “Jim Crow” south); however, Hammerstein was a storyteller, not a politician; therefore, he felt he needed to write dialogue that would portray injustice without engaging in explicit demagoguery. In short, Hammerstein needed to find someone in the cast who could tell the story in such a way that the story would not inflame the audience but would, rather, quietly obtain their philosophical agreement.
Hammerstein chose Jo (his name in the novel), the husband of the cook on the “Cotton Blossom.” The “Cotton Blossom” was the name of a boat, going up and down the Mississippi River, stopping at key points along the river to put on an “entertainment” for the local citizens. In short, the boat was a traveling theatre and, as such, was the novel’s main setting. Hammerstein renamed Jo and thus created Joe, the philosopher, to be the voice of conscience within the libretto. Kern wrote a leitmotif, a musical theme entitled “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’ ’’ which would suggest suffering and foreshadow tragedy. While the number was struck from the script after one performance in Washington, DC by the producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, Kern reinserted the music into the Overture and as brief moments of underscoring in Act One.
The main body of vocal music is divided into three categories: operetta-like songs for the two lovers (Gaylord and Magnolia); blues-like songs (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill,” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” and “Goodbye, My Lady Love”); and a unique song that had never been heard before: “Ol’ Man River.”
While all analysis is subjective, it is our belief that, without “Ol’ Man River,” Show Boat (1927.67) would have been just another excellent show that mixed some uptempo jazz with operetta tunes. There is evidence that both Kern and Hammerstein were enamored with Negro Spirituals then being revived in Greenwich Village by Paul Robeson and intended to incorporate such a song into Show Boat. The point here is that the birth of this song was not accidental but intentional.
Entire books have been written about “Ol’ Man River,” but for now we merely want to summarize the impact of this one song. It is made up of words and music that are inseparable; it is part hymn, part lament, part philosophical comment. It is filled with significance but unclear in meaning. It is probably one of the most powerful songs ever written for the stage. Regardless of the person who entered the theatre, that person came out of the theatre forever changed, no longer sure of what they “absolutely” knew before the curtain went up.
After Show Boat, everything changed and yet nothing changed; Show Boat had moved the mountain, but on the other hand, every major composer, including Kern, continued to write just as they had written in 1926. Kern’s scores for Sweet Adeline (1929.31), Music in the Air (1932.23), Roberta (1933.26) and Very Warm for May (1939.28) contained beautiful songs but no new, pivotal moment of Truth. The task of advancing the American Musical Theatre to new heights would fall to another composer.