Classic American musical “Show Boat” gets first class production on PBS

Show Boat as a staged concert with the New York Philharmonic and Vanessa Williams
by Larry Murray

On Friday, October 16, 2015 the classic Show Boat which revolutionized musical theatre’s way of telling stories will debut on PBS via the Live from Lincoln Center series.

For a short period after the original airing you will be able to see it via streaming [here] or via the PBS app which I access all the time using the versatile Roku set-top device.

Both a cultural and artistic watershed, this groundbreaking musical redefined entertainment and changed the face of American theater. Spanning from 1880 to 1927, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrical masterpiece – based on the Edna Thurber novel – concerns the lives, loves and heartbreaks of three generations of show folk on the Mississippi, in Chicago and on Broadway. Its themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love. Its impact remains unparalleled, having addressing serious subjects like racial prejudice, introducing a bi-racial cast to Broadway, and pointing the way toward a new synthesis between music and spectacle.

With an all-star cast led by Vanessa Williams, Downton Abbey’s Julian Ovendon, Tony Award nominees Lauren Worsham and Norm Lewis, and Fred Willard, this New York Philharmonic (NYP) production highlights the lush musical journey at the center of this epic show. It was first performed in 1927.

The Philharmonic and conductor Ted Sperling undertook this monumental two act musical with the intention of preserving the music in its original form.

The Philharmonic offers a major Broadway musical each fall, and once again has chosen well. Last year it was Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which was a sensation, but Show Boat is also a major historic musical – all too rarely seen these days – and the very essence of the great American Song Book. It offers one song hit after another, a total of no less than seven standards all sung in full throated renditions by its cast of 40. The orchestra, meanwhile, has been significantly tripled from the original of about 32 pieces to close to a hundred. Right from the beginning of the overture, this Show Boat musically soars; and the effect is nearly rapturous when Julian Ovenden and Lauren Worsham sing those golden ballads “Make Believe” and “You Are Love.”

Show Boat is one of those musicals that was constantly revised and reconfigured by the authors. Conductor/director Sperling (The Light in the Piazza) — who specializes in vintage musicals — has chosen to concentrate on the original 1927; he also retains the 1927 Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, flavored with banjo and tuba. (Bennett reorchestrated the show for Broadway revivals in 1946 and 1966, but these are less vibrant.) This means that we get — in addition to the usual Show Boat songs — items like “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round” and “It’s Getting Hotter in the North” (both of which were cut on the road in 1927); the rarely-used “Till Good Luck Comes My Way,” “I Might Fall Back on You,” “Queenie’s Ballyhoo” and the Midway Barker Sequence and “Ah Still Suits Me,” which was written for the 1936 film. The added songs necessarily come at the expense of book scenes, especially in what here seems like a highly sketchy second act, but no matter. The Miscegenation Scene and the Convent Scene are retained, demonstrating the rapt effectiveness of Hammerstein’s libretto.

It’s surely a Fall TV program that all us Berkshire on Stage fans will enjoy.

This informative clip includes footage of the great Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” and composer Stephen Sondheim explaining how and why Show Boat changed the course of American theatre.


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