Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Showboat! – a vehicle for confluence..

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I have been very fortunate in the last two years to be able to lecture at Stanford in Washington, giving context and synopsis ahead of the operas they see.

The closing lecture was ahead of attending Showboat, at the Kennedy Center.

..I have to admit to this particular lecture being one of the most complex and uneasy to cover comprehensively.. But there is significance to this piece of musical theatre..

I wanted to share what I came to appreciate; this is the text of the lecture.

_______________

Nothing that provokes a national consciousness to ‘inch a step forward’ happens out of nowhere; or ignites without some combustible agent.

Or ..condition.

The Revolutionary War did not just happen; it was an ongoing rub of taxation, and foreign rule.

The Civil War did not just erupt, between Tuesday and Wednesday; it gathered, incrementally, dangerous political tensions, and deepening economic discontents, that pressed our country into the corners of its geography –weighting things more, North and South.

The Civil Rights movement did not just leap out of a corner, because someone couldn’t sit where they pleased on a bus, or go to a better school than the one they were relegated to. The institutional injustices and diminishment of humanity for America’s blacks, spanned a trough of generations, and was a national calamity out of slavery, politics, and privilege.

…change, after many years of “enduring” does not come quietly; but often, it comes upon us.

1927 was a year that would provide the combustible agent for a revolutionary leap in the arts – and, in due course, provide the ‘pivot’ on which a ‘mainstream’ national consciousness would come to grips with the diversity of its musical heritage and its gilded notions of the past.

And all this.. happened on Broadway.

Before this particular watershed season, Noel Coward had hit the American theatre scene with a brilliance and panache that scintillated – unleashing a song palette that was witty and urbane. His 1925 hit, Hay fever, gained him wide recognition; and he sailed across the stage lights of Broadway, into the popular field of musical revue. He was so overtaxed –creating, writing and staring in his shows- that he collapsed onstage, in 1926, in his play, The Constant Nymph.

American composers, with any aspiration to Broadway, were used to the workload required of ‘jobbing’ musicians; many had begun their careers in Tin Pan Alley – the street where a collection of music publishing houses and song shops were situated, and where the deep stables of ‘song smiths’ churned out melodies to fit reams of lyrics that would catch the ear.

One of the greatest ‘songsmiths’ of the period was Irving Berlin. He knew the distinction between the ‘highbrow’ of a Noel Coward, and the ‘easy to reach’ “lowbrow”, which he considered to generate content that was “warped and subnormal”. “My Public,” he would say, “is the real people.”

Irving Berlin was associated with the most successful singers of the day; Al Jolson being the top of the list.

..but there were three other composers who would break the mold in 1927: George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, and Jerome Kern.

___________________

Though Broadway had its specific theatres for straight drama or comedy at this time, the greatest form for pleasure was the “Revue” – a show which sewed together song and dance numbers, interspersed with comedic moments of the broadest slapstick and humor; this kind of high energy entertainment was the first generation of musical theatre, past the traveling dusty suitcase offerings of Vaudeville, where Entertainers rustled through town on their way along the ‘circuit’.

Revues, and the Vaudeville component, were good fodder for Irving Berlin, where you needed only a songstress’ ballad to “make” a show.

But the times were high in America, and tastes were looking for entertainment of more lavish indolence.

Moving beyond the standard “Revue” emerged the Follies, personified by the immense acumen of Florenz Ziegfeld –not to mention his Ziegfeld Girls.

Ziegfeld had found a way to put class into voyeurism, draping his ‘Girls’ in outfits more opulent and more revealing than the one that preceded it. Music was the method that made the evening something for society; and when a Ziegfeld Follies debuted, all society came.

Broadway accommodated music halls as well, which were stuffed with patrons who laughed and enjoyed entertainments of the previous century; shtick, mesmerism, and the mummer strumming of ‘blackface’ entertainment.

It is in the realm of musical revue that blackface was an integral component.

Musical Revue premieres, of 1927 were:

Africana (a musical revue)

Creoles (a minstrel drama, set in New Orleans)

Off Col’uh (billed as a night at the Cotton Wood Club, in Harlem; and was a dancing & minstrel entertainment)

There also happened to be a revival of the play The Jazz Singer – which would soon be the first “talkie” of Al Jolson; in blackface.

Follies, Vaudeville, musical revue.

…what pulsed as confluence, under the beat, in each of these styles of entertainment, was a growing rhythm, a disconcerting and hypnotic undulation ..a stealth, of sass, and sway ..and rag -which was no longer a faint touch in the percussion, or a deeper dip in the dance..

Uptown of Broadway, influences pumped the heart hot; any given night, after the suave suggestiveness of Ziegfeld, society, theatre crowds, composers and lyricists, raced up into the dark beat of Harlem, and savored the Renaissance with the wild jive and jazz of Duke Ellington, and others of the Cotton Club.

Since the beginning of the 1920’s Harlem had been stepping out, not just in the area of music, but in literature; black authors were finding platform, in periodicals, in broadsheet magazines, and in publishing houses which, historically, been the province of only white authors.

The literary voice of Jean Toomer, whose novel Cain, published in 1923, spoke of a disconnected black American, and utilized a vernacular, not the stereotypical ‘southern’ lazy language of Negroes, but a colloquialism and language based on a cultural short hand; the book moved in a sequence of vignettes, utilizing prose, poetry and narrative; it was a force of nature.

Toomer is just one name out of scores who made their mark in the 1920’s in a zeitgeist movement loosely coined as the “Negro Literary Renaissance”. But the ongoing cross-pollination of writers, musicians, thinkers, artists, teachers, and citizens, coalesced into a consciousness of understanding of a deeper affliction, of bigotry and disenfranchisement.

However, that was over time. In 1927, this ‘consciousness’ was merely several years into its beginning and it touched people in different ways.

George Gershwin took in all the accents and jazz beats of Harlem and black music of the day; his lessons may not have been overly evident in his 1927 musical Funny Face –

but it was there for anyone to hear; it was explicit in his classical works, Rhapsody in Blue (1924), and the Concerto in F for piano (1925).

Richard Rogers was not unaware of the dusky perfume that was drifting down to Broadway; and though his 1927 hit, A Connecticut Yankee kept to the careful innocence of swing –

the themes he would scale, in his future works, would produce a deep throated call for investigating intolerance and discrimination.

In 1924, Edna Ferber, novelist and playwright, dismayed by the preview performances of her latest play, heard a soothing sentiment, out of the mouth of her producer at the time, which spawned one of her most significant hits.

As the story goes, the producer, Winthrop Ames, needing to cheer his cast of Mummers, told them that, next time, he wouldn’t bother with out-of-town try outs but would simply rent a showboat, and drift down the Mississippi playing the towns as they appeared. The statement was a nostalgic notion, stirring up a reminiscence of a lifestyle in the deep-south, where ‘theatricals’ were mounted on flat bottom, paddle boats, and sailed down the river, stopping in at every dock along the way. Typically the ‘theatricals’ were revues, with singers, broad skits, dancers, colorful costumes, and the musical entertainment of high stepping mummers, in blackface, who would march into the streets off the dock, regaling all and sundry with the broadest mimicry of ‘happy darkies’, celebrating the inconsequential details of their days, leaving all white folks who witnessed them entertained out of the deeper details of a defeated south, and a lost way of life..

Like any good writer worth their salt, the bare bones of this reverie sped Edna on to consider the larger opportunities for drama, in that past era of the late 1800’s, and the changes caused in a once secure way of life, through Reconstruction and the dawn of a new century.

Using the showboat as a place to establish her characters, Edna created a heartrending glimpse of the ravages of civil war, the bestiality of man, faithless love, and a heart’s desire ruined by the codes of Jim Crow, and the laws that kept the races separate in the south. For good measure, she added alcoholism, and religious zealotry and sexual predation.

Serialized, Women’s Home Companion was the launching point for Showboat.

Needless to say, it was a sensation!

 Jerome Kern had already been in the business of writing musicals, above and beyond his facility for writing ‘stand alone’ songs, since 1912. He connected with Ziegfeld in 1920, when he wrote the hit show Sally, which Ziegfeld produced.

A few more hits, and a flop (The Bunch and Judy, in which he was writing for Fred Astaire), and in 1925 came the big hit musical, Sunny, which was the first collaboration between Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein as lyricist. With this, Ziegfeld guaranteed to finance another show, one to be of Kern’s choosing.

..the tide of confluence was touching Kern; though not a denizen of Harlem, he had been to hear the ‘classical’ concerts of Roland Hayes, and Paul Robeson. He itched to reach the depths of connection that these great, singular black singers, offered their segregated audience.

Hammerstein had shown the composer that lyrics could do more than just shadow a show; they could give meat to character, and if the character had the right guts, then the music could fly in a whole new way.

The opportunity in front of him, Jerome Kern didn’t want another routine theatrical to drape; he wanted something unique, something original, something lavish, colorful, emotional, human, wrenching, and, ultimately, joyous. He understood that to satisfy his creative needs, he would have to stretch the stage, beyond the limits of the current propriety. He felt that Edna Ferber’s book would give him the right break.

Kern knew the risk; Broadway was about money –sure, “entertainment”- but in its purely profitable sense. No Broadway producer, not even the great Ziegfeld, worshipped any other rule than ‘bums in seats’, and the blackface of print, plain as day in the morning’s Variety reviews.

Kern also knew that his success couldn’t be fashioned without Hammerstein, who, in 1926, was enjoying a great success as the lyricist of Sigmund Romberg’s musical, The Desert Song.

Kern persuaded Hammerstein to adapt the book, and be the lyricist, and, further, committed Ziegfeld to keep his word, and be producer.

In November of 1926, Edna Ferber signed a contract giving Kern and Hammerstein the rights create the musical, Showboat.

Knocking the book into shape, Kern and Hammerstein were constantly dogged by an anxious Ziegfeld; composer and lyricist wanted to infuse the show with moments of depth that unsettled Ziegfeld, who was more than excited by the pure entertainment spectacle of the Showboat mummers, the dancing, and the love songs.

It was Ziegfeld who kept the pressure on to rid the show of too much ‘emotion’; he disliked Ol Man River, and, even more, the black spiritualism of M’isry’s comin. He urged that these be dropped; they were not.

The show went into try-outs in November 1927; one of the stops was at the National Theatre, here in Washington. It opened on Broadway on December 27th, 1927; Paul Robeson was initially engaged to play the character of Joe, which had been expanded from the book by Kern and Hammerstein, especially for the great baritone; but because of encroaching scheduling difficulties, Robeson was replaced by Jules Bledsoe.

The first production was staged by Hammerstein; the evening’s final curtain didn’t fall until 12:40 AM.

Though the battle seasoned Ziegfeld was terrified by the length of the piece, and the moments of silence that engulfed the audience as they digested the savagery of characters caught in circumstances none there had ever endured, or, perhaps, comprehended, he was able to grin in triumph as the next day’s press were utterly enthusiastic with the show.

It was a hit.

________________

It’s hard, at this distance of time and political correctness, to fully grasp the shock –real, genuine, shock- of that first night audience.

There was ‘blackface’, which was a familiar device for performers – but there were also, on the same stage, black performers representing themselves; a jarring visual for suburban audiences who had no notions of seeing things that would have them experiencing the challenge of sympathy, and, for some, empathy..

Then there was witnessing the effect of a charge of miscegenation –where Julie, passing as a white woman, in the showboat troupe, is denounced as being of mixed race; audiences were brought face to face with this legacy of Jim Crow, still applicable in 1927, that made it against the law for the races to mix in marriage.

Confronted by this turn of plot, the audience was further led into the undertow of culture clash with the faithfulness of Julie’s white husband, who fulfills an earlier vow, should threat ever come, that he would cut her finger and mix her blood with his own, sealing their fate jointly as, in the south of Reconstruction, just one drop of Negro blood in a person, made them black.

Hard as that was to endure, watching it played out in front of you on stage, the audience then had to bear witness to the decline of Julie, and how each subsequent circumstance of her life, unraveled her, derailed her, demonized her.. forced her husband to abandon her, ultimately leaving her prey to alcohol…

Tough stuff. And Hammerstein guided the view into Julie’s abyss, with lyrics that were both rich, and succinct; allowing Julie to ply the path between the two worlds of her existence: white, and ‘colored’.

There had never been, even the hint of a character like this, much less on Broadway.

The insular environment of the Showboat itself was so far removed from what a Northern audience knew about the south; the black people, who seemed to be denizens of the docks, and work hands of the boat, were etched with an exactness of the novel; we may see them now as cardboard and thinly plotted, but with their presence Kern found the mood and nostalgia of a lost south, of blossoms and burden; of bondage, and etiquette.

In its original state, Showboat is an unflinching look at unjustified circumstances; it is a lyrical observation on the depth of the human soul, in unending adversity. Musically, it points the way to music drama – a step beyond what had been musical theatre of the period; the collaboration between Kern and Hammerstein brought out the best in both artists, and stamped Showboat with genius. That original genius did not evade using blackface, or racial epithets, or presenting the degrading double standards for women, or shy away from giving the musical texture a depth of characterization that matched the weight of the person.

This was not about an evening’s light entertainment; it was about struggle, and confluence, and speaking of things, culturally, unsaid.

Though over time a political correctness has obscured the brutality in the language of the script, the music remains undimmed in its ability to imbue an audience with a comprehension of a past whose reach lingers in our own time, in remaining challenges of bigotry and heartlessness.

Jerome Kern reached a pinnacle of success with this work, and though he continued to write musicals, and film scores, into the 1940’s, he never quite touched the heights of Showboat again.

Edna Ferber went on to carve her career in novels that utilized the component of presenting a grand swath of time, where characters could prove, through generations, the lessons of life, and love. Though known for Showboat, she is even better known for her novel Giant, written in 1952, and made into a film with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in 1956.

Richard Rogers, whose music in 1927 yearned for a story to compose with sweep and romantic depth, found in Oscar Hammerstein the perfect collaborator. From the grand plains of song in Oklahoma, to etching the brutal character of Nazism and the human spirit, in The Sound of Music, theirs was a partnership of mutual artistry and character.

To my mind, it is George Gershwin who most benefitted with the premiere of Showboat, and its breaking of Broadway totems; he took away the belief that real life had a place, being seen onstage. He also wanted to move a further step away from caricature, and another premiere of 1927 gave him the route to do so.

It was the play, Porgy, written by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, performed at the Guild Theatre.

Embracing the play’s subject of life in a black community in Charleston, South Carolina, Gershwin forged a piece of music drama, that premiered in 1935 as Porgy and Bess, a work that established him as a genius of theatre, and human drama, as well as a composer who had absorbed the language of Harlem, and married its rhythms with a classicism that cast jazz into a symphonic mainstream.

Showboat, with the initial artistic reach of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, unquestionably paved the way for these future opportunities.

..just listening to the overture, which has never been performed entirely as Kern composed it, you can hear the wide styles of music he utilizes to forge the drama; 20’s rag; swing; mummer’s high steppin’ strut; the musical cadence of black spirituals; and the poignant notes of loss and love, situated in the realm of Puccini.

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One Response

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  1. Tom your writing is beautiful and melodious. Lucky students who were able to hear your fascinating lecture. It was rich.

    Freya Grand

    June 7, 2013 at 9:35 AM


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