Page to Stage: Edna Ferber’s “Show Boat”
When the musical version of Edna Ferber’s novel “Show Boat” opened in 1927, it was shepherding in a huge change in the American musical theater, and was actually quite radical for it’s time. Instead of vaudeville sketches and scenes, or opera/operetta, this was a brand new creature – a cohesive story told through songs and dialogue, with catchy songs and a serious plot. Not only did “Show Boat” revolutionize the genre, it also tackled some (for the day) heavy issues – including racism, a far cry from frothy shows such as “No, No, Nanette.”
Recently, I read Ferber’s original novel.
Yesterday, I attended the opening performance of the brand new (and pretty and shiny) Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Show Boat.”
There are some marked differences between the source material and the show that’s onstage at the Lyric Opera, and I’m always interested in things getting changed during the process of adaptation, so I thought I’d break down the differences.
First and foremost, in Ferber’s original novel Cap’n Andy drowns on the Mississippi around the halfway point of the action. Kind of a major plot point, one would think. After this, Parthy (his mean-tempered wife) takes over the Cotton Blossom and runs it spectacularly well. Years later, Magnolia (Cap’n Andy and Parthy’s daughter) has become a star after being ditched by her gambler husband, Ravenal. Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter Kim has grown into a successful and serious actress. When Magnolia learns of Parthy’s death, she returns home and finds herself inheriting a ton of money that Parthy made and saved. Then, Magnolia, realizing she belongs on the river and it’ll always be her home, takes over the Cotton Blossom and the novel ends on a high note where the reader knows Magnolia is exactly where she’s supposed to be and she’ll be fine – without Ravenal, the supposed love of her life. After all, it’s always been about the river for her, and she’s back where she belongs. Sister is doing it for herself, and it’s going to be just fine.
In the musical, Cap’n Andy and Parthy live happily together to a ripe old age, still chuggin’ along at the finale, and Magnolia (yep, a Broadway star) returns home for a visit. There, she meets Ravenal once again and the final beat of the musical leads one to think that there will likely be a reconciliation between husband and wife.
(I like the novel’s version better, personally. It’s profoundly more interesting.)
Regarding the leading lady of “Show Boat” – Magnolia, played at the Lyric Opera by the wonderful Ashley Brown, is described countless times in the novel as having dark hair. Yet, she’s blonde in this production, and pretty much every production ever. This has something to do with the “blonde soprano ingenue” thing that the world is obsessed with. “Show Boat” is really Magnolia’s story, and the musical remains true to that — even if they have her becoming a Broadway/Follies star after Ravenal leaves her, instead of supporting herself and eventually gaining fame by singing “negro spirituals” and playing a banjo.
(Hands down, Ashley Brown gave my favorite performance of the show. She’s a lively actress who believably ages from a silly teenager to a middle-aged woman, sings like a dream, and gets to wear all manner of wonderful costumes. She’s a smash. Not bad for a “Disney soprano,” as the press materials bill her.)
Acclaimed singer Nathan Gunn plays Gaylord Ravenal at the Lyric Opera, and in both the book and movie he’s a strangely underwritten character. All we know is that he’s a gambler who is weirdly upbeat about the fact that he’s not actually very good at gambling. Oh, and he killed someone a year before the events of the novel/show. Supposedly the killing was done in self-defense, but it’s still built up in the polot as a major game-changer. Then, in both the book and the show, when this grand revelation happens, it doesn’t actually change anything. Magnolia still marries him happily, and Parthy never liked him anyway Heck, Cap’n Andy admits that HE has even killed someone, as if ti’s no big deal and something you don’t tell your wives. (Aren’t you glad you don’t live in 1927? )
Also, the musical implies that Cap’n Andy tells Ravenal to ask Magnolia to marry him. In the musical, the lovebirds sneak off to be wed and it’s not discovered for ten days afterward — and when it is, there certainly isn’t a parade.
The one character’s arc that remains mostly the same is that of Julie, the leading lady of the Cotton Blossom who is forced to leave the show boat after it’s discovered that she has “negro blood” in her and is married to a white man – which was against the law back in the day. In the musical, Julie is seen again years later, drunk and singing in a nightclub. When Magnolia, needing a job, shows up to audition, Julie bails, thereby giving Magnolia the break she needs after Ravenal has headed off to wherever. In the original novel, Julie still comes to ruin, but she’s working in a whorehouse that Magnolia is forced to visit when she decides to pay back a loan Ravenal took from a Madam.
Unlike Julie, Elly’s role is completely different. Basically, Elly is likable in the musical. She’s a silly comedienne, and as played by Ericka Mac, delivers a breath of fresh lively air when the show gets too serious. Also, later on, when Magnolia is down on her luck it’s Elly and Frank that get her the audition that winds up being her big break. Whereas, in the novel, Elly is described as “something of a shrew,” ignorant, and maybe even a germophobe. (She spends hours boiling water to clean things.) After it’s revealed that – gasp – Julie is black, the novel’s Elly throws a big giant racist temper tantrum. A few seasons later, she dumps Schultzy and runs off with a gambler, leaving everyone in the lurch – which is how Magnolia gets her big break performing on the boat. At the end of the novel, when Magnolia returns for Parthy’s funeral, Elly is back working on the boat again – still playing ingenues, despite the fact that she’s much older and her looks have faded significantly.
(It should also be noted that the novel has Elly and Schultzy – known as Frank in the musical – as the juvenile leads and Julie and Steve as the character team, while in the musical it’s reversed.)
Whew. What else?
- Kim, the daughter of Magnolia and Ravenal, is a much more substantial character in the novel than in the musical, where she appears briefly.
- Queenie and Jo (spelled “Joe” in the musical’s libretto) aren’t nearly as big a part of the action in the novel – though they’re there, they kind of disappear in the end of the book, and no real characterization is ever given to either. (Though Jo does spend most of his time in the novel singing, so “Ol’ Man River” makes a lot of sense. FYI – The song is wonderfully delivered by bass Morris Robinson.)
- The novel has a character named Windy who is the pilot of the Cotton Blossom, but he’s nowhere to be found in the musical.
- The novel goes much deeper into the ups and downs of the Ravenal family once they go to Chicago — and how quickly they go from fancy hotels to shoddier quarters depending on how Ravenal’s gambling luck is doing.
- It’s Magnolia’s idea to put Kim in the convent, so the kid (used to staying in hotels one day and shacks the next) can have some stability. The musical implies that it was Ravenal’s idea, as he wanted Kim to have only the best.
Despite these changes (which are understandable, as turning an epic novel into a musical requires some cut and paste) both the novel of “Show Boat” and the Lyric Opera’s current production are both absolutely worth your time. Director Francesa Zambello has assembled a top-notch cast (of, I think, eighty people?) who clearly love the material they’re performing, and hired some of the best designers around to bring the show to life. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are divine, and Peter J. Davison’s set showcases perfectly why this show doesn’t get done often — it’s a marvelous, sizable, beast.
“Show Boat” makes me happy, plain and simple – whatever version it is.