Is the First American Musical to Emphasize Plot Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Show Boat was the first major musical theater production to make use of a strong, plotted story line.

Summary of Event

By 1927, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Florenz Ziegfeld already had made significant contributions to the world of musical theater. Ziegfeld was known primarily as an impresario whose yearly editions of the Ziegfeld Follies Ziegfeld Follies introduced New York City audiences to such performing talents as Fanny Brice and Bert Williams and such writing talents as Irving Berlin and the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The Ziegfeld Follies were revues that featured skits, stand-up comedy, specialty acts, individual songs, and many beautiful women. Ziegfeld had made the decision to branch out into the more conventional musical comedy. He also had decided, in 1927, to open a new theater that bore his name; it was built on Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Third Street. He promised Kern and Hammerstein that their new musical would be the first production in the new theater. [kw]Show Boat Is the First American Musical to Emphasize Plot (Dec. 27, 1927) [kw]First American Musical to Emphasize Plot, Show Boat Is the (Dec. 27, 1927) [kw]American Musical to Emphasize Plot, Show Boat Is the First (Dec. 27, 1927) [kw]Musical to Emphasize Plot, Show Boat Is the First American (Dec. 27, 1927) [kw]Plot, Show Boat Is the First American Musical to Emphasize (Dec. 27, 1927) Show Boat (Kern and Hammerstein) Theater;musical Musical theater [g]United States;Dec. 27, 1927: Show Boat Is the First American Musical to Emphasize Plot[06940] [c]Theater;Dec. 27, 1927: Show Boat Is the First American Musical to Emphasize Plot[06940] [c]Music;Dec. 27, 1927: Show Boat Is the First American Musical to Emphasize Plot[06940] [c]Entertainment;Dec. 27, 1927: Show Boat Is the First American Musical to Emphasize Plot[06940] Kern, Jerome Hammerstein, Oscar, II Ziegfeld, Florenz Ferber, Edna

Hammerstein and Kern, along with Otto Harbach, had written an earlier musical for Ziegfeld. Sunny, produced in 1925, featured Marilyn Miller. Hammerstein came from a theatrical family. His grandfather was an opera impresario, his father ran a vaudeville house, and his uncle produced shows on Broadway. Hammerstein had studied law at Columbia University but was soon drawn into theater. With Harbach, he teamed on the book and lyrics (the libretto) for several musicals with a variety of composers. Kern was impressed with Hammerstein’s work on Sunny and approached him to create the libretto for Show Boat.

Turning Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel Show Boat into a musical was Kern’s idea. This was not the first time Kern was involved in groundbreaking musical theater. In 1915, Kern, along with librettist Guy Bolton, wrote a musical called Nobody Home. This was the first of a series of musicals that have become known as the Princess Theater shows. Princess Theater shows The name comes from the theater where the shows were first performed. In an era of operetta with the libretto serving as a showcase for songs and set pieces by featured comics, usually in the setting of a lush European fantasy, the Princess Theater shows were marked by smaller productions (usually two sets), smaller casts (eight chorus members or fewer), and smaller orchestras (ten instruments or fewer).

Although the physical production of the Princess Theater shows might have been smaller, the ambitions and talents involved were quite large. The Princess Theater shows used American situations, and the songs and comedy grew out of these situations. Other musicals in the series included Very Good Eddie (1915), Oh, Boy! (1917), and Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918). The last two had the added feature of the British wit of P. G. Wodehouse.

Work on Show Boat began during the intermission of another Kern musical, Criss Cross (1926). Kern had read the Ferber novel and was determined to meet with the author to discuss its musical possibilities. He approached his friend Alexander Woollcott to ask for an introduction. Conveniently, Ferber was Woollcott’s guest that evening at the theater. In the lobby, during intermission, Kern broached his idea to the novelist. Ferber was no stranger to the theater. She had written a play with George S. Kaufman. In fact, it was a casual comment from Kaufman that sparked the idea for the novel Show Boat. When the novel was published, it quickly became a best seller. This only added to Ferber’s fame, as she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1924 novel So Big.

The idea of turning Show Boat into a musical at first did not appeal to Ferber. Her experience with musicals had been shows such as Criss Cross that featured comic routines, tap dancing, and lines of chorus girls. Kern had a different vision and was able to convince the novelist that Show Boat would not be a conventional musical comedy but rather a musical play.

Having won her consent, Kern approached Hammerstein to write the libretto and Ziegfeld to produce the show. Kern and Hammerstein went to work, secure with the promise from Ziegfeld that Show Boat would open the new Ziegfeld Theater. What they did not know was that Ziegfeld had made the same commitment to Guy Bolton and Harry Tierney, who were writing Rio Rita. On February 2, 1927, the theater was ready and so was Rio Rita. Ziegfeld was a man of business and opened his theater with a likely hit. With Rio Rita opening the Ziegfeld Theater, any sense of time pressure on Kern and Hammerstein to finish Show Boat was removed, allowing them to fine-tune their work and to introduce innovations.

Show Boat tried out in Washington, D.C., in November of 1927. The show was too long, but the audience responded well. Kern and Hammerstein continued to refine their work. The production then moved to Philadelphia, where refinements continued. On December 27, 1927, Show Boat opened at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. Although the show was still long, the response from the critics and the audience was very positive. Show Boat ran for two years in New York, went on a national tour, returned to New York for another run, opened a production in London, generated three film versions, and became the first Broadway musical to be part of the repertory of the New York City Opera.


When Show Boat opened in 1927, musical theater fare was divided among revues such as Ziegfeld’s Follies and George White’s Scandals, European operettas, and American musical comedies such as the Princess Theater shows. Although these musical comedies represented a distinct departure in style and subject matter from the operetta, the music and comedy were the focus. This often meant that character-driven plots were sacrificed for comic situations and catchy tunes.

It would be misleading to suggest that one show, even Show Boat, could change all that. Such is not the nature of art. Show Boat did, however, point the way for such artists as Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. This happened because of the promise Jerome Kern made to Edna Ferber. Instead of using the outline of Ferber’s novel as a skeleton for songs and comic routines, Kern and Hammerstein were concerned with telling the story.

This was an ambitious task. Show Boat tells the story of Magnolia Hawkes, the daughter of Cap’n Andy, proprietor of the Cotton Blossom, a showboat. Magnolia meets and falls in love with Gaylord Ravenal, a suave riverboat gambler. They marry and have a daughter named Kim. Ravenal leaves his wife and child. Another performer with the Cotton Blossom company, Julie, is found to be a mulatto, and, because she is married to a Caucasian, she is charged with miscegenation and forced to leave the boat. She later turns up as an alcoholic saloon singer in Chicago. Magnolia and Kim also are in Chicago during the World’s Fair, and they have a brief reunion with Ravenal. Show Boat is a sprawling tale that covers several decades and locales. Alcoholism, racism, and broken families are some of the issues that drive the plot. This was not the usual material for musical comedy.

Show Boat demonstrated that, if handled with skill and taste, such issues could be material for musical theater. Carousel (1945), by Rodgers and Hammerstein, deals with spousal abuse and dysfunctional families. South Pacific (1949), by the same team, uses interracial marriage as a key element. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe told the story of King Arthur in Camelot (1960); several adulterous affairs are central to that story. Kern and Hammerstein first demonstrated that the American musical could deal with serious issues, breaking the ground for these later shows.

Serious issues alone did not make Show Boat great, however. The source material, although successful as a novel, did not guarantee a successful musical. Kern and Hammerstein had to combine their experience, their talents, and their ideas for innovation to create Show Boat. Many of the songs they wrote have become standards. The score includes “Only Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine,” and “Why Do I Love You?” Each of these shows Kern’s considerable melodic gifts. They also demonstrate Hammerstein’s unique lyrical turn with love songs. Instead of writing the commonplace “I love you,” Hammerstein suggested that the characters “make believe” they love each other.

There is a love song in Show Boat with lyrics not written by Hammerstein. The song “Bill,” sung by Julie, was written by Kern and P. G. Wodehouse. It was intended for Oh, Lady! Lady!! but had been cut. When Helen Morgan was cast as Julie, Kern thought that the song “Bill” would lend itself perfectly to Morgan’s trademark of sitting on a piano to sing a torch song. Hammerstein was given credit so often for this song that he took pains to include a program note giving due praise to Wodehouse.

Another song, “Ol’ Man River,” also had a lasting effect on the musical theater. With such a sprawling story to tell, Hammerstein thought it necessary to use a song to tie the work together. Using a slowed down, inverted version of the Cotton Blossom theme, Hammerstein fashioned a ballad of pain, despair, and some hope based on the unceasing flow of the Mississippi River that binds all these lives together. Oddly enough, this song, which is the theme of the show, is sung by Joe, a relatively minor character.

The idea of a concept or theme tying a musical together has been used in some of the most enduring productions. In Fiddler on the Roof (1964), the idea of tradition, both in the family and in society, is the theme that ties the plot together. Stephen Sondheim, a protégé of Hammerstein, wrote a musical, Company (1970), that all but dispenses with plot and relies heavily on the themes of marriage and New York City to unite the production. Company has often been called the first “concept” musical. Summer theaters and opera companies make sure that Show Boat itself, in so many ways a pioneering show, endures. Show Boat (Kern and Hammerstein) Theater;musical Musical theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engel, Lehman. The American Musical Theater. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Evaluation of trends in musical theater history by an experienced conductor and theorist. Excellent source for any serious study of the musical theater. Chapter titled “Breakaway” includes discussion of Show Boat. Contains several useful appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ewen, David. The World of Jerome Kern. New York: Henry Holt, 1960. Highly readable biography aimed at general readers. Kern is clearly the hero, so scholars should be wary of a lack of objectivity. Presents anecdotes and direct quotes from Kern on Show Boat, but only sketchy information on his work with Hammerstein. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Stanley. The World of Musical Comedy. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1962. One of the first major histories of the musical takes the form of a cross between chronology and studies of the writers. Includes a very good section on Kern, with valuable notes on getting Show Boat to the stage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Rev. ed. New York: Applause Books, 1995. Textbook for a general course in musical theater includes a brief but thorough history and a study of the various crafts and artists in the musical theater. Features a chapter on Kern and goes into some depth on Ziegfeld and the Princess Theater. Includes excellent photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. History of the genre focuses on how themes in American musical theater productions relate to how Americans view themselves. Chapter 8 addresses Show Boat within the context of a discussion of race and ethnicity. Includes useful appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Cecil, and Glenn Litton. Musical Comedy in America. 1981. Reprint. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1991. Excellent overall history of the musical theater provides photographs and thorough and literate text. Goes beyond the expected chronology and discusses technique. Particularly skillful at creating a sense of what the musical theater was like in the early twentieth century.

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