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Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical (Broadway Legacies) Hardcover – November 2, 2012
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"A fascinating look at how Show Boat helped shape the American musical form and the significant role it continues to play in our conversation about race. Todd Decker has compiled an exhaustive, engaging, and immensely readable cultural history that resonates with the same vibrant emotional impact of the musical itself." --Susan Stroman, Director & Choreographer
"Traveling through seemingly familiar territory, one makes startling new discoveries on every page about American music, theater, identity, and racial history. Decker demonstrates forcefully and conclusively why Show Boat was and remains the 'most important [American] musical ever made.'" --Thomas L. Riis, Director, American Music Research Center, University of Colorado at Boulder
"Todd Decker opens a wide window on the extraordinary cultural reach of Show Boat, with special focus on its racial complexities. For Decker, Show Boat is not a fixed text but rather a fascinating and fluid performance object that shifts with the social codes and commercial demands of its many eras." --Carol J. Oja, Professor, Harvard University, and author of Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s
"A well written, thoroughly researched and cogently presented new study on one of the most studied and, for that matter, most deserving of study musicals of the twentieth century." --Brad Hathaway - Theater Shelf
"An excellent overview of all aspects of the show...Decker demonstrates a fine command of sources, furnishes good documentation, and includes some photos, illustrations, and
musical examples...Recommended." --Choice
"Decker offers a persuasive argument for the continued relevance of this classic musical, [demonstrating] the productive potential for historiographies of American musical theatre written across rather than 'along divided racial lines.'" --Theatre Journal
"[A] fascinating read about one of the true classics of the American stage." --Studies in Musical Theatre
"...There is a great deal to ponder in it." --JAMS
"Show Boat's voyage through the twentieth century offers a vantage point on more than just the Broadway musical. It tells a complex tale of interracial encounter performed in popular music and dance on the national stage during a century of profound transformations."--Broadway World
"Decker has woven many excellent historical threads together to form a unified narrative concerning race, both within and surrounding Show Boat. The importance of Robeson to the show and the importance of the character (Joe) and his music to Robeson's life are deftly considered here. As Decker explains, there is no question that race was far more important to the musical than it was to the book, and that the performance of the show has reflected that emphasis more and more throughout the decades. Another important contribution
is to show where, exactly, performative elements (such as Andy's fiddle playing)
come from. There are too few performance-based histories out there, especially
for musical theater, and Decker's represents an excellent model for this type of
approach." -- Journal of the Society for American Music
About the Author
Todd Decker is Associate Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'?: The Lives of an American Song and Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, winner of the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
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Decker presents his analysis in two parts: “Making,” which focuses on the 1927 debut of "Show Boat"; and “Remaking,” which examines the versions created from 1928 to 1998. Each section employs extensive archival research in its account of how race has been staged in key productions. Chapter 1 centers on the major themes established by the musical’s source material, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel. This chapter, along with chapter 2, situates "Show Boat"’s central focus on race and music within 1920s popular culture. The analysis in this chapter follows the pattern in Show Boat theatre scholarship of faulting Ferber for failing to approach the narrative’s themes in the same manner that Hammerstein would later employ for the musical. Decker criticizes Ferber’s cursory attention to the issues of music and race, and, in the following chapters, demonstrates Hammerstein’s efforts to foreground these themes by making "Show Boat" “an object lesson in the power of black music and a celebration of a moment in popular culture history when black music and musicians were breaking into mainstream white culture with undeniable force” (p. 52).
Chapters 2 and 3 address the influence of Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan on Hammerstein’s interpretive vision and provide detailed context concerning their careers. Chapter 2 details Kern and Hammerstein’s initial plan to cast Robeson as Joe in order to highlight the themes of race and music in the initial script, as well as the complications that resulted when Robeson decided not to join the original Broadway cast. Chapter 3 considers Morgan’s influence on the creation of "Show Boat", as Hammer-stein adapted act 2 to showcase her talents as a torch singer and exploit her reputation for dissipation. Hammerstein’s efforts and Morgan’s performance worked to establish Julie as a tragic figure, expressing herself through Morgan’s “thoroughly white” (p. 65) singing style.
In chapter 4, Decker argues that the musical choices for the characters of Ravenal and Magnolia “whitened” "Show Boat"’s central couple by making Ravenal an operatic tenor, a style associated with white singers, and aligning Magnolia’s voice with white culture through her performance of “After the Ball,” a Victorian parlor waltz. "Show Boat" was one of the first Broadway musicals to use both black and white performers in large numbers, and chapter 5 explores the musical’s use of both a black and a white chorus. Along with chapter 2, this section adds a much-needed look at contemporary responses to "Show Boat" in the black press.
Part 2 investigates the reworking of racial representations in productions of "Show Boat" that followed its premiere. Chapter 6 looks at several “re-makings” between 1928 and 1940 that featured Robeson, who eventually accepted and became associated with the role of Joe in several landmark productions. Decker discusses how Robeson’s powerful performances and offstage persona enhanced Joe’s role, which Hammerstein expanded for the 1936 film in order to capitalize on Robeson’s talents and appeal. As in his examination of the 1927 production, Decker analyzes several deleted scenes in order to illustrate Hammerstein’s continued, yet unrealized plan to use "Show Boat" as a history lesson of black influence on popular music. Chapter 7 centers on several productions during and shortly after World War II, including the 1946 Broadway revival and the 1951 film starring Ava Gardner as Julie. Decker’s analysis of the impact that African American dancers, including Pearl Primus and LaVerne French, had on shaping the 1946 revival is particularly insightful in its unique focus on dance as a means of representing race. In chapter 8, Decker explains "Show Boat"’s position in the classical canon, arguing that the 1980s Houston Grand Opera productions positioned it as an American classic associated with classical singing and high culture. Chapter 9 provides detailed and nuanced analyses of the 1994 revival directed by Harold Prince and the 1989 Paper Mill Playhouse (Millburn, New Jersey) production directed by Robert Johanson. Decker meticulously examines these versions, which, he argues, demonstrate the continuing relevance of Show Boat and its ability to serve as an indictment of racism. He also argues that, due to the importance of directors in current production practice, Prince’s version was able to realize Hammerstein’s original goal of placing evolving music styles at the center of the plot. Decker concludes his analysis with an epilogue discussing twenty-first-century revivals and "Show Boat"’s influence on modern musicals that explicitly address race and music in American popular culture, specifically "Ragtime" (1998), "Hairspray" (2002), and "Memphis" (2009).
Situating "Show Boat" within the broader context of American racial history and popular entertainment, Decker shows how individual practitioners have negotiated vexed intersections of racism and opportunity to shape and reshape representations of race throughout the history of the musical’s performance. By addressing this dimension of "Show Boat"’s history, Decker offers a persuasive argument for the continued relevance of this classic musical. "Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical" convincingly demonstrates the productive potential for historiographies of American musical theater written across rather than “along divided racial lines” (p. 5).