Nice, big, fat shout-out to Paper Mill Playhouse Saturday night during the Channel 13 screening of the 1951 version of “Show Boat” as part of its weekly Reel 13 classic movie feature.
At the end of “Show Boat” Prof. Richard Peña, currently the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, talked about all the changes made to musical over the years including downplaying the African-American characters, changing offensive lyrics, eliminating songs.
He noted that a live performance by the Paper Mill Playhouse was videotaped for television and shown on Great Performances on PBS contains more of the songs (and fewer cuts) than any of the film versions. It also restored not only the original book of the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein but other songs and dance numbers thrown away over the years, he said.
Robert Johanson directed the Paper Mill production that included the choral number “Let’s Start the New Year,” which was dropped from the show before its Broadway opening, and “Ah Still Suits Me,” a song written by Kern and Hammerstein for the 1936 film version of the show.
Some consider “Show Boat” the first American musical. It’s based on Edna Ferber‘s best-selling novel of the same name and the story goes she was shocked anybody would want to turn it into a stage show.
The story focuses on the performers, stagehands and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, from 1887 to 1927. Its themes include racial prejudice, an inter-racial marriage with the wife passing as white, and a tragic love affair.
The Broadway premiere of “Show Boat’ — which lasted nearly five hours — was a watershed moment in the history of American musicals. Before “Show Boat” Broadway featured musical reviews, light musical comedies, and silly operettas, light musical comedies.
“Show Boat” was a radical departure as it tackled social issues, was serious, the songs advanced and enhanced the storytelling on a spectacular set. It was also the first time the cast featured both white and black actors on stage together.
NOTE TO READERS: Cannot find a link to the 1989 Paper Mill/Great Performance recording of “Show Boat.” (Please share link if you have one!) But I can hook you up with Live From Lincoln Center concert version of “Show Boat” featuring Vanessa Williams, Julian Ovendon, Tony Award nominees Lauren Worsham, Norm Lewis and Fred Willard. It highlights the lush musical journey at the center of this show. Also includes clips about the show’s racial aspects.