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Why does “Ol’ Man River” still stop Show Boat?

By Todd Decker

Show Boat is back on the boards, visiting four major opera companies in a new production of yet another new version. Originally debuted on Broadway in 1927, apparently Show Boat will never stop being remade. The new production, directed by Francesca Zambello, had its premiere at the Chicago Lyric Opera a year ago, an appropriate starting place as much of the second act takes place in the Windy City. A run at Houston Grand Opera is wrapping up this week. Washington National Opera follows in May, with a final stop at the San Francisco Opera in June.

The Houston Grand Opera’s Show Boat. (c) Houston Grand Opera. houstongrandopera.org

I saw the production in Chicago and by casual reckoning—I don’t have a copy of the script—upwards of thirty percent of the dialogue is new. Several tried-and-true Show Boat laugh lines are gone: some new attempts at humor are in. Parthy’s repeated complaints about going to Chicago for New Year’s Eve (i.e. in the middle of winter) got a laugh in Chicago but might fall flat elsewhere. In general, this version isn’t as funny as some others, but opera house Show Boats—the first dates back to 1954—have typically emphasized singing over comedy.

Some things didn’t change in Chicago, in particular, the audience reaction to “Ol’ Man River.” At the performance I saw, applause stepped on the long held note that ends the song and resounded long and loud in the Lyric’s golden-walled theater. Morris Robinson in the role of Joe and the men of the black chorus held their final pose and soaked up the ovation for “Ol’ Man River” while the remainder of the cast waited for the show to resume. This moment—predictably—stopped Show Boat cold, and it’s been working that way since 1927. Why? Given that February is Black History Month, a look into the past might help explain why “Ol’ Man River” still stops Show Boat.

In September 1926, Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat was published to great fanfare. By December it was among the best-selling books of the year. Broadway songwriter Jerome Kern read Show Boat and immediately recognized it as a compelling basis for a musical show with the capacity to feature a black star of the moment singing music the white audiences of midtown, Jazz Age Manhattan were already cheering. Kern brought lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II onto the project. Among the first songs the pair wrote was “Ol’ Man River,” which Kern remembered was inspired not by Ferber’s book but rather by the sound of Paul Robeson’s voice.

Robeson—a black dramatic actor who had recently begun singing recitals of Negro spirituals—was at the height of his 1920s fame and it made sense to Kern, Hammerstein, and their producer Florenz Ziegfeld to feature Robeson as much as possible in Show Boat. Initially, they wanted Robeson to not only play Joe and sing “Ol’ Man River” but to also perform a set of Negro spirituals as himself in act two, accompanied by his regular pianist, the accomplished African American musician Lawrence Brown. Robeson and Brown’s all-spirituals concerts—the first was in April 1925 in Greenwich Village—were hugely successful with New York audiences. Crowds—predominantly white—reportedly lined up in the snow to buy tickets. Audiences cheered and wept, demanding encore after encore. Critics hailed the duo and regularly described what they offered as more than just a concert but an experience. Robeson was praised for expressing “all the plaintiveness of the colored race” with “a haunting tenderness, a wistful longing, an indescribable seeking for something just beyond, to be found in the voice of the Negro, and in no other voice.” Part of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, the Robeson-Brown recital experience captured contemporary white fascination with black music and performers in a tremendously attractive package.

Kern, Hammerstein, and Ziegfeld wanted to make the Robeson-Brown experience part of Show Boat. While Robeson resisted their plan and refused to play Joe in the original Broadway production, Kern and Hammerstein succeeded in bringing a black male voice before the white Broadway audience simply by way of “Ol’ Man River.” This spiritual-like Broadway song—with its soaring tune that echoes folk melodies and lyrics expressing the predicament of black Americans in ways the white audience could accept without feeling threatened—quickly became Show Boat‘s signature moment. Ferber remembered the reaction to Robeson as Joe in 1932—the first time he played the part on Broadway—this way: “I witnessed a New York first-night audience, after Paul Robeson’s singing of Ol’ Man River, shout and cheer and behave generally as I’ve never seen an audience behave in any theatre in all my years of playgoing.” Robeson sang Joe for the first time in London in 1928, where one reviewer noted “his performance is worth all the money you will pay for admission.” More than one review in the show’s long performance history echoes this astonishing claim that a single song sung by a character with no role in the plot was sufficient reason to sit through the entire show.

Is this reaction of a white audience to a black male singer still happening when contemporary audiences applaud “Ol’ Man River”? Morris Robinson, the Chicago Lyric Opera’s Joe, answered the question with some self-aware humor in a live interview posted online by the Chicago Tribune.

Watch the full interview and hear Robinson sing “Ol’ Man River”.

Robinson told the audience, ““Just in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a six-foot-three black guy, so “Ol’ Man River” is what they’re wanting to hear at the end of my concerts. And I make them wait.” Earlier in the interview, Robinson—like Robeson, an all-American college football player—described an encounter at the start of his singing career with the black bass Todd Duncan. (The original Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Duncan played Joe onstage in 1944.) Duncan vocalized Robinson a bit, then played a few notes from “Ol’ Man River” and told the young singer—who didn’t recognize the tune—that he’d be singing it many, many times. Robinson’s anecdote suggests the extent to which race is still destiny for African American singers on the musical and concert stage. For all the progress made in race relations in the more than eighty years since Show Boat first played to packed houses, white audiences still respond to a powerful black bass singing “Ol’ Man River,” making this famous song one reason Show Boat itself keeps sailing on.

Todd Decker is Assistant Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical and Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, winner of the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies

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