Saturday, October 17, 2015

Show Boat (New York Philharmonic/PBS, October 5-8, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

PBS’s “Fall Arts Special” last night was Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat in a semi-staged performance by the New York Philharmonic with soloists and chorus — which means that the leading actors wore costumes (though the choristers didn’t) and enacted their roles, but the only set was a painted backdrop of a show boat (depicted accurately for a change — a “show boat” wasn’t a self-propelled steamer but a barge, moved down the Mississippi River by a motorized watercraft called a “tow boat” which, despite its name, was actually behind the show boat, pushing it along) projected on a screen behind the orchestra. The New York Philharmonic was seated on the stage between the singers and the screen, which as Charles pointed out throughout the show made the singers hard to hear — though the presenters made a big deal out of using Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations of the songs, they forgot that Bennett had intended them to be played by an orchestra in a pit under the stage, where they would give the singers less competition. Show Boat remains a remarkable musical, even more remarkable when you consider when it was originally produced (1927) and by whom: Florenz Ziegfeld, whose name was associated with plotless “revue” shows like the annual Ziegfeld Follies. When Ziegfeld did produce a show with an actual story, it was usually a simple-minded one whose only function was to set up and cue the songs and dances — until Oscar Hammerstein II somehow talked him into producing a musical he and Jerome Kern were working on based on Show Boat, a best-selling novel by Edna Ferber which addressed some of the grimmer parts of human existence. The first act centers around the Cotton Blossom, the show boat owned by Captain Andy Hawks (Fred Willard, whose past as a mock TV talk-show host kept getting in the way of my suspension of disbelief) and his Northern-born wife Parthenia (Jane Alexander), universally known around the boat as Parthy Ann. The stars of the show boat troupe, who present The Parson’s Bride (obviously written by Hammerstein, who did both book and lyrics, as a deliberately awful parody of the popular melodramas of the 1890’s) and then, mercifully for their audiences, do a concert of songs and dances afterwards, are Julie La Verne (Vanessa Williams) and her husband Steve Baker (Edward Watts).

Only Pete, a “river rat” with a slimy reputation, has the hots for Julie and, when she rejects him, steals her photo from the show boat’s sandwich-board ad and takes it to the sheriff to report that Julie’s real name is Julie Dozier and she was the product of a white father and a Black mother. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the show, Steve responds to the sheriff’s imminent arrival by cutting his wife’s finger and sucking a bit of her blood so that, when the sheriff does arrive, he asks him, “If I got one drop of nigger blood in me, does that make me a nigger?” (It was interesting that the New York Philharmonic used all the substitutes for the N-word Hammerstein authorized in later versions when the good guys were speaking or singing, but kept “nigger” when it was coming from a bad guy, or a good guy trying to make himself look bad.) Told yes, he says, “Everyone here can swear I got more than one drop of nigger blood in me right now!” So he’s able to keep himself and his wife out of jail, but they have to quit their jobs and leave the show boat immediately just before the boat is scheduled for a potentially lucrative four-night run at Fort Adams. What is Captain Andy to do? His daughter Magnolia (Lauren Worsham) pleads with him to be allowed to play the female lead herself, since Julie had been coaching her all this time, and though her mom is ferociously opposed to her going on the stage, she does so. As for a leading man, Magnolia has already met and been attracted to Gaylord Ravenal (Julian Ovenden), a professional gambler who has to leave Natchez in a hurry to escape the people to whom he’s just lost more money than he had. He pleads with Captain Andy for passage on the boat, and Andy says he doesn’t take passengers, but if he wants a job as an actor … The show goes on and it’s a hit, mainly because the audiences see that the stars are genuinely in love with each other, and at the end there’s a big wedding in Natchez in which Andy invites not only the crew of the show boat but all his patrons to watch his daughter and her hot leading man get married. The second act starts in 1904, eight years later, and Ravenal spends his money as fast as he makes (or wins) it, so when he hits a losing streak he has nothing left. He and Magnolia had a daughter, Kim, whom Ravenal placed in a boarding school run by nuns (when the actress playing the mother superior emerged in a full sleeveless evening dress — obviously she was not one of the performers required to dress in a dramatically suitable costume — Charles joked, “What kind of order is this?”), and with his luck having definitively run out Ravenal decides to leave town and give his last $200 to his wife so their daughter can finish her term at the convent school.

Broke and with no way to make a living, Magnolia reluctantly accepts an offer from the comic duo from the show boat, Frank and Ellie Schultz (Christopher Fitzgerald and Alli Mauzey), to set up an audition for her at the Trocadero, the nightclub they now work for. By coincidence (or authorial fiat), Captain Andy shows up at the Trocadero on opening night, where Julie (under yet another last name) is the star but is washing out her career with booze. She threatens to walk out on the show to go on a bender, and the nightclub’s manager says if she does it’ll be her last time — and Julie overhears Magnolia’s audition and drops out of the show, urging the manager to hire Magnolia as her replacement. Magnolia is given Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball” to sing in the show, and she’s so nervous she flubs it — until her dad calls out to her from the audience, her nerves calm down and she gives a great performance that makes her an instant star and sends her to a career on Broadway. The story flashes forward to 1927, where we’re back on the show boat (the fact that it’s still a going concern is a bit surprising) and Magnolia returns with her now-adult daughter Kim (who, in a gimmick that was also part of the original production, is also played by Lauren Worsham, though Erika Hennigsen played Kim as a child in an earlier scene) in tow. Kim is about to make her Broadway musical debut and showcases the song she’s going to make her debut with, and Magnolia accepts the continued love of her parents and the Black servant couple Joe (Norm Lewis) and Queenie (NaTasha Yvette Williams) who’ve worked for her parents all her life. She also gets back together with Gaylord Ravenal for a late-in-life reunion when he turns up at their daughter’s big opening. Show Boat is a story full of political, moral and emotional points far removed from the typical musical fare of its time, and though some historians of the Broadway musical have said that its history is divided into two periods, “Before Show Boat” and “After Show Boat,” it wasn’t until 16 years later, when Hammerstein teamed up with Richard Rodgers for Oklahoma!, that another musical dared show this much of the darker side of human existence. Edna Ferber’s novel, which I’ve read, is (not surprisingly) even darker than the musical — in her version, instead of becoming a nightclub star and blowing it on alcohol, Julie goes to Chicago and opens a whorehouse, and in her version Magnolia and Ravenal never get back together — but what remained even after Hammerstein’s book softened things is still impressively honest and intense.

The stinging attack on racial prejudice is one of the most astonishing things about Show Boat — Edna Ferber was anti-racist way before anti-racism was cool (and she sneaked another attack on racial prejudice into her novel Giant, though that time she was going after anti-Latino instead of anti-Black bigots) — and so is the whole depiction of a marriage breaking up because of the man’s gambling addiction and a woman coming to grief because of alcoholism. One wonders what the 1927 audiences made of it — were they really touched and moved by the story, or did they just sit through it to hear Jerome Kern’s glorious songs? And Kern’s songs are glorious — though the fact that the show’s biggest hit, “Ol’ Man River,” is sung by a Black character is itself trail-blazing. Song after song from this score has become a standard, including “Make Believe” (the first of what Oscar Hammerstein II called his “conditional love songs,” in which he solved the problem of how can two people who’ve just met sing a love duet by having them imagine themselves as the lovers the plot will make them later — he would do it again with “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! and “If I Loved You” from Carousel), “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” (heard in several guises and several tempi depending largely on whether Black or white characters are singing it), “You Are Love,” “Why Do I Love You?” and “Bill” — though the last wasn’t originally from Show Boat but was a song Kern had written 10 years earlier with P. G. Wodehouse as his lyricist (“before the Nazis kidnapped and tortured him and broadcast it on the air,” Charles joked). Since Show Boat was a Broadway musical, its contents were shaped by far more extra-musical pressures than were usually placed on opera composers — especially after the mid-19th century, when masters like Wagner and Verdi got the clout to insist that their works be presented as written instead of subjugated to the whims of primae donnae having diva-style hissy-fits. As early as the original 1927 rehearsals Show Boat lost one of its greatest songs, “It’s Getting Hotter in the North,” which was supposed to be the big final number showing Kim Ravenal’s successful Broadway debut — only Norma Terriss, who was starring as Magnolia and doubling as the adult Kim, didn’t like the song and refused to sing it. For the remaining 19 years of his life Jerome Kern looked for an artistically and commercially successful way to bring his masterpiece to a satisfying ending — when a Broadway revival was planned in 1946 he came up with a new song for Kim, “Nobody Else but Me,” which turned out to be the last song he ever wrote.

When Show Boat was first filmed in 1929 by Universal, songwriter, showman and entrepreneur Billy Rose convinced Universal’s executives that the original Kern-Hammerstein songs were so overexposed audiences wouldn’t want to hear them, so they should hire Rose and his collaborators to come up with a new score. Only when the film was previewed audiences complained that it didn’t contain the original songs, so Universal had quickly to concoct and shoot a 20-minute prologue that would contain them. The musical was revived in 1932 — with many people who’d either been in the original cast (like Helen Morgan as Julie) or had replaced them during the first run (like Paul Robeson as Joe — the role had actually been created for him but originally Jules Bledsoe, who had a similar reputation as a Black concert singer specializing in spirituals, took the part; he’s mentioned in Billie Holiday’s first record, “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law”: “You don’t have to sing like Bledsoe/You can tell the world I said so”) — and in 1936 Universal remade Show Boat in what became the definitive version, with James Whale (the genius behind the first two Frankenstein films) directing, Oscar Hammerstein II writing the script himself (thus ensuring that, within the limits imposed by film length and the Production Code, the content would be faithful to the original) and a stellar cast; Irene Dunne as Magnolia, Allan Jones as Ravenal, Helen Morgan as Julie, Paul Robeson as Joe, Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, Charles Winninger as Captain Andy and Helen Westley as Parthy Ann. For this film Kern and Hammerstein wrote three new songs to be inserted, one of which — “Ah Still Suits Me,” a duet for Robeson and McDaniel (who was a good enough singer to hold her own with him — before she got into movies she’d been a friend and colleague of Bessie Smith’s on the TOBA Black vaudeville circuit, whose initials officially stood for Theatre Owners’ Booking Association but whose performers joked really meant “Tough on Black Asses”) — was included in the New York Philharmonic’s presentation, as was (praise be!) “It’s Getting Hotter in the North.” I first heard “Hotter” where everyone else did — as part of John McGlinn’s epic three-CD boxed set of Show Boat from 1988, which set out to include every song Kern wrote for the show — and I was blown away by it. Alas, the liner notes of McGlinn’s album said that the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization, which controls the Show Boat copyrights, wouldn’t let modern-day producers include “Hotter” in Show Boat productions. So it was a real treat to hear it here, even though the New York Philharmonic’s conductor, Ted Sperling, took it slower than McGlinn did and the song lost some of its sprightly verve.

A third film of Show Boat was made by MGM in 1951 with a script by John Lee Mahin, who decided that the original had kept Magnolia and Ravenal apart too long — so instead of leaving her when their daughter is a child and returning when she’s an adult, Mahin had Ravenal walk out on his wife while she’s pregnant with Kim (though he doesn’t know that because when he leaves she hadn’t had the chance to tell him) and returns when Kim is a child. MGM’s producer, Arthur Freed, had wanted to cast Lena Horne as Julie, but the distribution people told him flat-out he was nuts: with an actual African-American in one of the leads Southern theatres would never show the film (most of Horne’s MGM movies were all-star musicals in which, instead of playing a part, she was trotted out for a number or two, totally disconnected from the story, so MGM’s Southern branches could merely snip out her songs from the films before they released them). So Julie ended up being played by Ava Gardner, miscast (and with her voice erased from the soundtrack at the last minute and replaced with jazz singer Annette Warren) but still with more star charisma than anyone else in the cast (Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia, Howard Keel as Ravenal and Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead surprisingly good as Captain Andy and Parthy Ann) with the possible exception of William Warfield, who faced with the unenviable task of following Paul Robeson as Joe did an excellent job even though Warfield, a classically trained Black bass-baritone who’d never sung a pop song before, made it a little too “classical,” too studied. A fourth audio-visual record of Show Boat exists, a previous PBS telecast from 1989, a fully staged production from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Connecticut (from their name you don’t need two guesses to figure out what their building formerly was!) that lasted two hours and pretty much followed what’s become the standard text of Show Boat, without either originally deleted songs or later additions. The long history of this show is the biggest problem with the New York Philharmonic production; anyone with more than a passing interest in this sort of entertainment has probably seen it before, either on stage or in the 1936 or 1951 films, and has certainly heard plenty of other people’s recordings of the songs (including Billie Holiday’s 1937 “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” in which she took out all the “torchy” leaps, groans and sobs Kern had wrote into the melody and thereby made a fine song even finer), and it’s hard to appreciate the current performers without flashing back to people who did the songs earlier and better. The biggest problem was the Joe, Norm Lewis, who sang well enough but is a baritone instead of bass and who just doesn’t have the authority Robeson (and, to a lesser extent, Warfield) brought to the song — indeed, in one of the ensemble numbers I spotted a Black man with dreadlocks who got a few notes to himself in one of the choruses, and I heard his deep bass voice and thought, “Why didn’t they cast him as Joe?”

One radical innovation of this Show Boat was that it finally realized Arthur Freed’s dream and cast a genuine Black person, Vanessa Williams, as Julie — though it turned out that may not have been such a good idea after all; with someone visibly Black in the role Julie being “outed” as mixed-race simply doesn’t carry the shock value it did with white performers like Morgan and Gardner in the role. Instead you think, “So you just figured out she’s Black? We’ve known it all along!” At least, once Williams starts belting out “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” she sings with an electric power that eludes most of the other performers. Julian Ovenden tries for Allan Jones’ mixture of sincerity and insouciance in the role of Ravenal but just doesn’t have quite enough voice to pull it off. Lauren Worsham starts out way too childlike to be credible as Magnolia, though as the story progresses and gets darker both her acting and her singing improve and she becomes more credible as a complex character. Jane Alexander as Parthy Ann is quite good — maybe not at Moorehead’s level, but better than anyone else (including Helen Westley in the 1936 film) — but Fred Willard as her husband has the weight of his TV characterization hanging over him and his performance is deprived of Andy’s big moment in the original show: when one of the show boat’s performances is disrupted by two gun-wielding rowdies and he has to continue the show by playing all the parts himself. Next to Vanessa Williams, the best performance is contributed by NaTasha Yvette Williams as Queenie; her singing in the ensembles on “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and partnering with Norm Lewis on “Ah Still Suits Me” is powerful and authoritative. Ted Sperling not only conducted but did the stage direction, and though some of the affectations of the “semi-staged” performance got silly (particularly when the Black choristers sang about the back-breaking work they’re doing unloading cotton and what they’re actually toting and lifting are … bamboo chairs), for the most part it was an entertaining presentation that did justice to one of the greatest musicals of all time, even though the ghosts of singers (and actors) who did more justice to this material in bygone ages hung heavily over the evening — the New York Philharmonic’s Web site discloses that the concert production took place over four days, October 5-8, but doesn’t offer any information as to when during that four-day run the performance they actually recorded and showed nationally took place.