Musical of the Month: Show Boat

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
July 8, 2014

In the following blog post, Professor Todd Decker examines four of the early typescripts of Show Boat  that can be studied at the Library for the Performing Arts.  He uses the Library's call numbers to identify the four copies.  There are two copies in box 5 of the Billie Burke/Florenz Ziegfeld papers, one of which was once separated from the papers under the classmark: RM7430.  One is in our collection of older musical theater libretti (NCOF+) and other remains separate under classmark (RM7787).  Digital images of all four copies, presented here with the kind permission of the rights holders, can be viewed at the end of the post.

The original production of Show Boat (White Studio) 

Image Id: 4057915

Show Boat in the hands of its makers

Todd Decker

Historians of the Broadway musical should be grateful for the typewriter. Most of the archival sources we look at are typescripts like the four scripts for Show Boat, the 1927 musical by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist and bookwriter Oscar Hammerstein II, featured on this post.

Typescripts can be beautiful and (thankfully) they’re easy to read. Ziegfeld/RM7430, the earliest complete draft to survive, was typed in two colors (black for dialogue; red for stage directions) probably by Hammerstein himself. Hammerstein’s hand shows up as well in numerous pencil edits, additions, and deletions. Notice how clear his handwriting is: tiny, even, perfectly-formed capital letters. He also had a less legible, scrawling cursive—perhaps indicative of more hurried work—that shows up every once in a while in the archives (see a sample at the top of page 2-28). In RM7430, Hammerstein does everything from finetuning the dialogue to anticipating places where more time might be needed for a set change. On page 1-37, the words “This is Sung.” were added in pencil by Jerome Kern and most of the terse notes about musical matters are in the composer’s handwriting. With notations by both lyricist/bookwriter and composer, RM7430 brings us very close to the creative process that produced this very famous show.

Show Boat was made slowly. Most shows in the 1920s were put together in a matter of weeks: Show Boat gestated for over a year. The four typescripts at the NYPL, together with others at the Library of Congress and at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, capture like a series of snapshots this very famous show on its path towards Broadway.

Robeson speaking with Kern and Hammerstein

Image Id: ps_the_cd89_1354

RM7430 likely dates to January 1927. (Show Boat would open that December.) The second page includes a cast list. Opposite typed character names, Hammerstein has added in pencil the names of a few actors. Prominent here is Paul Robeson as Joe. Show Boat was conceived to feature Robeson, a major African American dramatic and musical star active on New York City stages. Robeson was famous for singing Negro spirituals in concert and Show Boat’s most famous song, “Ol’ Man River,” was written specifically for him. Kern even traveled to Harlem, uptown Manhattan’s black neighborhood, by one report with his “hat in hand” to present Robeson with the song. When RM7430 was typed up, the understanding was that Robeson would be in Show Boat. Late in act two (see page 2-53), Hammerstein scripted a break in the action for Robeson to sing a short recital of spirituals as himself: in this version, Show Boat’s Joe is the father of Paul Robeson. The plan was for Robeson to play both parts. Obviously, inclusion of the recital was entirely dependent on Robeson saying yes to Show Boat. A script in the Library of Congress from August 1927 admits as much, with the typed indication “(If Robeson is not engaged, this recital comes out.)” In the end, Robeson declined the offer to be the first Broadway Joe and the recital was cut. And so, in addition to the hands of Kern and Hammerstein, the shaping influence of Robeson—a sort of performer’s invisible hand in the making of the show—can also be found in the Show Boat sources.

NCOF+ is something of a mess. This source dates to November 1927, when Show Boat was in rehearsal and playing out-of-town tryout stands in Washington D.C. and Cleveland. (By the time they played Philadelphia, the show was set.) NCOF+ is a working document and it’s exciting to look at for that reason. Some of Show Boat’s signature moments appear for the first time in this source in simple pencil annotations, among them the titles of two old songs famously interpolated into the score: “Bill” and “After the Ball.” When looking at the real item at the NYPL, you can tell by touch which pages of NCOF+ were inserted into the original complete typescript by noting the different kinds of paper: a tactile aspect of archival sources that digital images can’t capture. Here, the pencil notations are mostly practical: lines of dialogue and entire musical numbers crossed out to tighten up the very long show, the names of chorus members assigned single lines of dialogue. NCOF+ might have belonged to a stage manager or to Hammerstein, who was the de facto director of the show. Kern’s hand shows up here, too. Look on page 1-23 for his adjustments to the lyrics for “Ol’ Man River.” It’s hard to know if these changes were Kern’s idea or he just happened to be the person to mark them into this copy of the script. Like RM7430, NCOF+ was passed around among Show Boat’s makers. Its general disarray suggests the creative ferment of a Broadway show in the making.

RM7787 is a very different kind of source. Its colored wrapper reveals that the Rialto Service Bureau, a typing service located in Times Square, produced this copy of a finalized text for Show Boat. Indeed, this script captures Show Boat as it played on Broadway during its original run at the Ziegfeld Theatre, a huge then-new theater at Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street that was demolished in 1967. (The fourth script included with this post, titled “Ziegfeld Collection,” also contains the show as done on Broadway.) RM7787 was donated to the NYPL by Anna Hill Johnstone, a well-known costumer for Broadway and Hollywood. Johnstone was too young to work on Show Boat in 1927 but it makes sense that she acquired this source at some point, for RM7787 is filled with handwritten notes—in bright pink pen and dull green pencil—concerning costumes for the show. This is a technical document that enumerates costume needs for principal characters, small roles, and chorus members. (It seems to refer to the original production but might have been used in planning for the 1932 revival.)

In accounting for every body on the stage, the costume notations in RM7787 run up against the issue of race. Show Boat breaks a general rule of the Broadway musical: it presents an interracial portrait of America where blacks and whites share the stage (instead of the more common separation of musicals into all-black or all-white casts). In act one scene one, pink notations in RM7787 assign letters to each group of chorus members: A for “16 colored” men; B for the “Gals” (Hammerstein’s term for the women of the black chorus); C for “24 white girls” (called “Mincing Misses” in the script), and D for “16 White” men. Later in act one (see page 1-5-60), Show Boat’s black cook Queenie—originally played by a white woman in blackface—sings a song to entice the “colored” chorus to buy tickets for a show in the show boat. Queenie’s dialogue refers to “that crowd over on de levee.” In green pencil, the costumer marking up RM7787 wrote in “groups B & A?”—as if the contextual clues in the dialogue didn’t quite settle the question of who was in “that crowd.” As the costumer surely knew, black and white crowds alike could be expected to respond to the musical overtures of a rousing blackface showstopper. Because it puts black and white Americans in the same scene on the same stage, Show Boat inevitably raises these sorts of issues. And a costumer’s question mark in RM7787 reveals a bit of how the makers of Show Boat dealt with these questions which remain a part of American life today.

Todd Decker is associate professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical [Oxford] and the forthcoming Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”?: The Lives of an American Song [Oxford].

The sources:

[The following are provided with the kind permission of the rights holders FOR RESEARCH USE ONLY.  You may not use these historical scripts for any kind of performance.  If you are interested in staging a production of Show Boat, please contact the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.  Unlike most of the images in our Digital Collections which are taken by professional photographers with equipment specially selected for archival digitization, these images were taken by Doug Reside with a Canon T3 camera.]

Ziegfeld Script 1: Digital Copy | Catalog Record (Box 5)

Ziegfeld/RM7430: Digital Copy |  Catalog Record (Box 5)

RM7787: Digital Copy | Catalog Record

NCOF+ : Digital Copy | Catalog Record