“The scene is a glorious summer day on the levee at Natchez on the Mississippi River. The year is 1887. Gliding on the still water … gleaming in the sunlight, the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theater sails into view.”
Show Boat, Edna Ferber
From this bucolic opening in her sweeping novel, Show Boat, the Pulitzer prize-winning author Edna Ferber went on to tell a richly romantic story of youthful hope and human disappointment set against serious themes of racism, failed marriage and addiction.
Placed in the American South in the early days of the 20th century, Ferber’s epic novel inspired the ground-breaking Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein Broadway musical of the same name in 1927. With his stage interpretation of Show Boat, Jerome Kern elevated American musical theater which had been dominated by frothy musical comedy “revues” and melodramatic operettas.
In Show Boat, Kern dealt with realistic themes of human life. Kern’s Show Boat broke theatrical conventions in several ways. It was among the first Broadway productions to fully integrate the story line with the musical numbers. And in a radical move, Jerome Kern presented the first cast that freely integrated black and white players on stage.
One of the great vocal artists of his time, William Warfield played the dockhand ‘Joe’ in the 1951 MGM movie adaptation of Show Boat. Warfield’s bass baritone became so deeply associated with “Ol’Man River,” that it is immediately recognizable as his theme song as well as the signature composition of the Kern musical. In a 1995 interview in San Antonio, Mr. Warfield talked about his recording of “Ol’ Man River” for the 1951 film, remarkable because it was captured on the first take.
The music in Jerome Kern’s score of Show Boat has been much loved by jazz artists from Artie Shaw and Bud Freeman to Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Petersen.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, William Warfield is heard in an Encore Presentation joining The Jim Cullum Jazz Band as narrator in a 1995 production of Show Boat, combining The Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s original jazz transcription of the Kern score with a script based on the Ferber novel.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page:
Stage and screen legend William Warfield as ‘Joe’ in MGM’s 1951 movie adaptation of Show Boat. Photo courtesy William Carter
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script ©2011 by Margaret Moos Pick