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  • Last week, a friend gave me something I've been wanting for quite a while: a recording, made from a broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, of a movie version of a very famous Broadway musical. The movie hasn't been released on DVD yet, but is scheduled to be sometime within the next year. He knew, however, I couldn't wait, and wanted to try to get it to me before Christmas. And it would be hard to ask for a better Christmas present than this deservedly revered film which, despite its many flaws, is one of the most important documents of one of the most important musicals of the 20th century: Show Boat.

    I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about the show, which opened 80 years ago tonight at the now-demolished Ziegfeld Theatre (then located at Sixth Avenue and 54th Street). I've seen multiple productions of the show that Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) and Jerome Kern (music) adapted from Edna Ferber's 1926 novel, about a family living, loving, and struggling to put on shows along the Mississippi for 40 years of volatile American history. I've seen the over-glammed 1951 MGM film, which strips the story of its vitality and its sense in favor of creating a glittering cinematic epic that's the very antithesis of what the show at its core is about. I've heard all the stories—about how producer Florenz Ziegfeld allowed the first Washington, D.C., preview to run four hours, with every single stitch of material getting an airing for one night only; how, at the conclusion of the opening night performance in New York, the audience sat in stunned silence, unable to applaud or react because of the power of what they witnessed; how Hammerstein, who directed the show, bestowed credit upon his stage manager Zeke Colvan just for holding the whole thing together.

    Yet when I watched the 1936 film, I was shocked to discover how much I truly still had to learn. There was a haunting grace about the performances of the original Broadway cast members who were recreating their roles on film: Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy Hawks, Sammy White as ham vaudevillian Frank Schultz, Francis X. Mahoney as Rubber Face, and especially Helen Morgan as Julie all reached through the last seven decades with the warmth, humor, and frail humanity that must have made them so electric onstage. Other performers, many of whom were themselves drawn from ranks of Show Boat productions across the country (Irene Dunne as Magnolia, Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, and the scintillating Paul Robeson as the stevedore Joe) were hardly less impressive.

    No amount of haphazard editing (which, I'm sorry to say, the film is flooded with), careless rewriting (the fragile ending all but shatters under the additional narrative weight forced upon it), or just the expected mustiness of films of that era could dampen the experience. Winninger's hilarious and harrowing one-man recreation of The Parson's Bride, Morgan's too-knowing renditions of the tender "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and "Bill" while just five years away from her own disintegration, and Robeson's soul-shaking performance of "Ol' Man River" all provided sterling reminders of why Show Boat long has been—and long will be—one of the very greatest American musicals.

    True, when one thinks of musical-theatre Americana, one's mind more readily goes to Oklahoma!, the classically entertaining and slyly subversive piece of pro-U.S. propaganda that Hammerstein wrote with Richard Rodgers, and which led the charge in revolutionizing integration in the musical. But if that show's reminders about how the farmer and the cowman should be friends were exactly what 1943 audiences needed when facing permanent annihilation from the Axis during World War II, Show Boat is every bit as serious, daring, and American. Its message, though, is about the crucial importance of black men and white men, to say nothing of men and women in general, to form a solid foundation for a forward-thinking, progressive society.

    One of the greatest shames of Show Boat's legacy is that too often today it's not seen that way—it's often looked on as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Harold Prince's Canadian revival in the early 1990s, which eventually went to Broadway with Elaine Stritch, Rebecca Luker, and Mark Jacoby in the cast, was even picketed by people who objected to the show's treatment of African-Americans, but who were unaware that the entire show is a sweeping, lyrical, and moving demand for just that kind of equality.

    Those whose historical perspectives don't extend much beyond the tips of their noses might object to the first line of the first scene as it was heard on December 27, 1927: "Niggers all work on de' Mississippi," sang a chorus of black stevedores as the Cotton Blossom floating theatre bobbed its way into Natchez. It apparently doesn't matter to some that the reference is not only historically correct for the year of 1887 in which the scene is set (and is as vital a fixture in Mark Twain's seminal The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was published in 1884), but was intended as anything but a shrugging acceptance of American intolerance. Black men referring to themselves in exactly the same way a full-out white bigot does just a few minutes later makes people uncomfortable.

    It's supposed to. Changing that first word, whether to the still-touchy "darkies" (as in the 1936 film), the wishy-washy "colored folk," or the utterly toothless "we all" is one of the most dangerous forms of whitewashing there is. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, so the story goes—ignoring where we've been doesn't make getting where we're going any easier. John McGlinn's must-have, three-disc recording of every stitch of Show Boat preserves this line with all its discomfiting glory intact—and was reportedly responsible for the entire African-American singing chorus he'd planned to use walking out, forcing him to use white singers instead and giving us all another great Show Boat legend—but we can only hope that a director helming an upcoming major revival will use the original line to start the tale where it really begins.

    But the rest of the show, and especially that original production, was just as daring. One can only imagine how the now-classic and still-harrowing miscegenation scene played then, with Julie's husband Steve stabbing her finger and sucking out some of her blood to survive a loophole in mixed-race marriage laws. Or how audience members reacted to Queenie being played by an Italian-American actress, Tess Gardella, under the stage name she used in her blackface act—Aunt Jemima. (This kind of racial line-crossing is deliciously unthinkable today.) Or whether any laughs were wrung from the sly sense of humor of the song "In Dahomey," which further propagated our confused notions of racial identity with a "tribe" of black savages who become remarkably civilized once the tourists leave and can't wait to return to their New York home. (This is one of the chief songs that modern productions exclude.) Or whether the threads—occasionally subtle, occasionally blatant—of the white appropriation of black music landed with a bang or a whimper—the white-looking Julie singing the black "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" eventually leads to a levee full of whites singing it at Magnolia and Ravenal's wedding, and the show's climax finds that couple's daughter, Kim, singing her parent's favored ballad ("Why Do I Love You?") in the hot jazz style that would never have happened without white meeting black in the music hall.

    The original number for that final scene is perhaps the saddest casualty of Show Boat's history. "It's Getting Hotter in the North" was heard but briefly in Washington, but is thankfully presented on McGlinn's recording—it's an astonishingly complex look at what whites learned from blacks and are then "passing on" as their own. The North gets better and more exciting the more it's impacted by the Southern Blacks who are giving the country a new rhythm—and the only solution is to dance right along with it. It's the culmination of the evening's entire message which is, at its most basic (and far more musical) level, the same as Rodney King's oft-quoted and oft-mocked plaint: "Can't we all just get along?"

    If we've come a long way since 1927, we still have a ways to go, though it's a cause the theatre no longer pursues with quite the same fervor as it once did. In terms of Big Broadway, one of the most famous recent looks on a very similar subject is Ragtime (1998), the Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty musical (based on the E.L. Doctorow novel) that watches as WASPs, blacks, and European immigrants collide over the tinkling tunes of the turn of the 20th century. But despite that show's sweeping score and expansive scope, it says too much and in essence says too little—all without the same understated, cunning craft that Show Boat did some 70 years earlier. Having the points spelled out so explicitly, with the point of view of the happenings so relentlessly modern, robbed the message of its potency and immediacy, and kept the show from ever catching fire the way its vapid, visually stunning competitor The Lion King did that same season.

    But if there has never been—and likely never will be—another Show Boat, there's no shortage of reasons to cherish the show we do have on today, its 80th birthday. Lots of recordings capture the majesty of the music with some of the musical theatre's most accomplished singers. There are still plenty of productions every year that give new generations a chance to experience both the romantic and Romantic leanings of a world in which love is the only overseer of note between races and between genders. And, there are the movies, the 1951 (if you must), the 1929 silent (if you're a miracle worker), and especially the 1936 (if, by some chance, you can) that bring the Cotton Blossom, its inhabitants, and all those who were touched by it directly to you. Supposedly, all three films will finally be released in a three-disc DVD set in 2008. If that's later than we Show Boat lovers might have hoped, it's still in time to ensure that this show will, like Ol' Man River, forever keep rolling along.

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