I was taken aback when San Francisco Opera decided to include Showboat in their current season. That old showbiz clunker an opera? Really? I’m still not 100% convinced it belongs on the bill with Puccini and Verdi, but we were enthralled with the production we saw last night, and I’m very glad for the opportunity to see such a seldom-produced show. (I suspect that the huge size of the cast and the difficulty of finding a bass that can sing the role of Joe contribute to that rarity.) Let’s start with the program notes.
My ignorance is vast, of course, and I didn’t know that the show was produced so early in the development of the musical–1927–and that it probably qualifies as the first full-story musical, based as it was on the Edna Ferber novel with Ferber in full partnership on the project with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Musicals of the day tended to be more like reviews–a collection of musical numbers sometimes strung together with an excuse of a story. There are a couple of numbers that expose that tendency here, too. Songs that do nothing either to develop character or move the action. But give the artists credit–Showboat treats very serious racial/social issues and even staged an integrated chorus–revolutionary for the time. And give Oscar H II credit as well. He tackled some heavy duty controversies in his day. Recall “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific. Joe of “Old Man River” is not just some poor darky dock hand lamenting his fate. He and his wife Queenie have some substance to their characters, their relationship, and their commentary on the action that surrounds them. In fact, I found that whole subplot and sub-chorus more interesting and moving than the principals.
But lest we wax too serious here. The thing audiences take away from this show are the same things they take away from any hit musical–the songs. “Only Make Believe,” “Ol’ Man River,” “After the Ball is Over,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man.” And then there’s the tear-jerking ending–superbly staged I admit–of what Paul Simon called “The Mother and Child Reunion,” except in this case it’s the father.