Of all the songs that Hammerstein and Kern created for Showboat it’s safe to say that the best known is “Ol’ Man River”. It serves as leitmotiv throughout the show – and if Kern’s music captures the relentless flow of the Mississippi, Hammerstein’s lyrics reflect the human condition of the people who are drawn to live, work, laugh, suffer and love on it. An oft repeated legend says that when Oscar Hammerstein’s wife Dorothy heard Eva Kern refer to her husband writing “Ole Man River”, Mrs Hammerstein tartly corrected: No, your husband wrote lalalala, my husband wrote “ole man river”. And in that little anecdote rests a truth.
In his autobiography Robert Russell Bennett, the great musical arranger, recounted his reaction when Jerome Kern handed him the music to orchestrate.
It was thirty-two not wholly convincing measures that sounded to me like they wanted to be wanted. In the first place it starts with two harmonically powerful and self-reliant bars and then comes to a mud puddle and doesn’t know where to put its feet for the next two. Perhaps that isn’t important, but to a musical snob it is.
Anyhow the Muse of Music never spat at either Jerry or me for not finding the chords that should have been there. I found some rather nice fills for the ends and phrases and didn’t worry about it until a few days later when I looked at it with Oscar Hammerstein’s words written in. I didn’t worry about it then either–just said to Jerry, “Gee, that’s a great song!”
Kern said, “You didn’t say that when I gave it to you.” He knew as well as I did that it wasn’t a song at all until Oscar came in with the words
The Broadway Sound:
The Autobiography and Selected Essays of
Robert Russell Bennett
University Rochester Press – 1999
Paul Robeson had been original contracted to play the role of Queenie’s shiftless stevedore Joe and Hammerstein and Kern expanded the role from the book and tailored it to him. However the lengthy delay in opening the New York production meant that Robeson was no longer available and Jules Bledsoe premiered the part. However Robeson played Joe in the 1928 London production, the 1932 Broadway revival, the 1936 film version and a 1940 stage revival in Los Angeles. As mentioned previously contractual conflicts meant his London performance wasn’t captured in the recording studio. However I’m sure in the eight years between that and the film his interpretation and voice only became deeper and richer.
I’ve always thought the Julie La Verne subplot was more interesting than the Magnolia-Gaylord romance perhaps because so much is left unsaid. Julie Dozier (Hammerstein gives her the stage name of La Verne) had an African-American mother and a white father. Under the laws of the time her marriage to Steve Baker, a white man, was considered miscegenatic and punishable as a felony. Childless she loves and cares for Magnolia if though she were her own.
Pete, an engineer on the Cotton Bloosom, makes unwanted advances toward Julie. When Steve knocks him flat in a fistfight he threatens revenge. Pete knows that Julie is mixed race and goes to the local sheriff to expose the couple. In a scene that no doubt shocked many in the audience, Steve takes out a pocket knife in front of the troupe, makes a cut on Julie’s hand, and sucks some of her blood: he can truthfully claim that he has mixed blood in him. The couple is forced to leave the show boat because it’s also against the law for African-Americans to act on the stage with whites. At that point Julie disappears from the story and we take up with the Magnolia/Gaylord courtship.
Julie reappears in the second act but without Steve. In the 1951 film it’s suggested that he up and deserted her but neither Ferber nor Hammerstein give any explanation. In the novel on a chance meeting a mortified Julie reveals to Magnolia that she works in a brothel; Hammerstein has her appearing in a Chicago nightclub as a featured singer who has taken to drink. She sacrifices her spot in the New Year’s show at the Trocadaro to give Magnolia her big chance. They never actually meet so Magnolia never knows what her old friend has done. Whatever her story in both the novel and musical she disappears and we never know her fate. The 1951 movie alters the storyline so that as well as giving Magnolia her big break Julie is instrumental, secretly, in reuniting her and Gaylord. But once again we are left wondering what became of us as the Cotton Blossom churls its way down the Mississippi .
Helen Morgan laid claim to the role of Julie in the United States, appearing in the original, the 1932 and 1940 revivals as well as the 1936 movie version. When MGM did a remake in 1951 there had been talk of casting Lena Horne in the role, however concerns over an African-American/Caucasian love interest led to Ava Gardner being cast as Julie. Gardner had a good singing voice and recorded the songs but for some reason the front office at MGM decided to dub her two songs. Frankly I prefer Miss Gardner’s version!
Recently someone mentioned on FaceBook that in 90 years Showboat has gone through more changes, additions, deletions and reworking than any show they could think of. And there may be a truth to that. Some have been the choice of producers and directors adapting to modern mores, others based on castings – Elaine Stritch as Pathy Ann being given “Why Do I Love You” to sing to a baby Kim in 1994 springs to mind. In some cases Kern and Hammerstein added numbers particularly for the first film version where, though four original songs were jettisoned, three new songs were introduced.
One of those songs was “I Still Suits Me”, a “comic” song for Joe (Robeson) and Queenie (Hattie McDaniel). Though the film version is available I thought I’d use a recording that Robeson made in London May of 1936 with Elizabeth Welch, who I featured two weeks ago. The song had been schedule for the session but someone had forgot to book a female vocalist to sing Queenie’s part. Miss Welch agreed to rush to the studio but had no time for a rehearsal and had to sight read it “cold”.
“Nobody Else But Me” was the last song Kern composed for the 1946 Broadway revival. He was in New York to hold auditions for the revival and begin writing the score of Annie Get Your Gun. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while walking on Park Avenue and died several days with Oscar Hammerstein at his side.
On this day in 1938: The Lions Gate Bridge, connecting Vancouver to the North Shore region, opens to traffic.