Showboat - the Broadway Play that Captured America

    January 2011            
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Jewish Bravery Shows Up in "Showboat"

By Walter J. Klein

The heart and soul of "Showboat" was and always will be Jewish.

Edna Ferber wrote the timeless novel in 1926. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II created the huge, beloved score and Florenz Ziegfeld produced the Broadway musical in 1927. George Sidney II produced the third motion picture in 1951. Harold Prince produced the Broadway revival in 1994.

All were Jewish. And all made America a better place.

What makes "Showboat" a source of pride for the Jewish faith wasn't those great Jewish names of literature and entertainment. It was their Jewish ethics, human spirit, bravery and sense of social justice they imbedded in "Showboat."

It was unimaginable in the 1920s for Broadway to mount a musical strongly based on the dangerous concept of miscegenation. Who would invest in such suicidal controversy? Who would rent a theater to troublemakers? Who would buy tickets to witness two leader characters agonizing over their mixed-race love affair?

Well, just about everyone in America!

Once the initial shock was over, audiences fell in love with the depth of the characters, the delicious score, the epic plot development, the charming locations, the brilliant staging and the exquisite mix of heartbreak and humor. America took to its heart both the "only make-believe" romance of Magnolia and Gaylord and the brutal reality of Julie's lover sucking blood from her hand so he could tell the sheriff "black blood" flowed in his veins. The Jewish people of today would do well to thank God for those of their faith who risked their careers to deliver "Showboat" to the world uncensored.

Consider their risk. Ferber, Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld were already enormously successful in their professions before "Showboat." (Ferber had already won a Pulitzer and an Oscar.) Turning Ferber's profound story into a Broadway musical was a professional risk per se. Putting their reputations on the line by dramatizing the ethical confrontation of miscegenation could have brought threats of violence to all the Jews responsible.

Anti-semitism was rampant in America. Show business depended on its light, sprightly, fun-filled successes patterned on the past. Vaudeville and parlor banter sold the tickets. That was years before Gone with the Wind made it to the screen with the words, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" intact, long before the word pregnant could be uttered in a movie. Taking chances with social issues was dangerous business. And what kind of craziness was it to go to the heart of black-white sex relations on a musical Mississippi river boat?

"Showboat" was without precedent. It was much more than a toe-in-the-water experiment in the sticks. The Edna Ferber story was a powerful statement nobly published. Its unabashed adaptation to the stage and screen was asking for trouble and perhaps ruin for its creative team. Indeed, the first movie stumbled. The famous miscegenation sequence was stricken from the 1929 film because miscegenation was banned as a film subject. When the 1936 version was produced, special permission had to be granted from Hollywood's Hays Office. Otherwise the superb performance of Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne would have been eliminated. Irene Dunne's Magnolia Hawks character would have lost depth without her close mixed-race friend at her side. The racial undercurrent was much more than a sub-plot. The bond between Magnolia and Julie permeated "Showboat" from stem to stern.

Did those Jews have doubts? Certainly. Flo Ziegfeld was terrified that "Showboat" would die at the box office because of its complex and troubling storyline. But he stuck with his instincts and he stuck with Ferber, Hammerstein and Kern. An opening night eyewitness said the audience barely applauded. They liked the show immensely, but it shook and shocked them.

After Ziegfeld lost badly in the market crash, he staged a "Showboat" revival in 1932. It was the biggest ticket on Broadway. "Showboat" kept rolling along, like Old Man River, to become America's longest-running musical for decades..

Unfortunately, most Hollywood producers and investors today are more concerned with buying one of the newest Princess Yachts for sale instead of creating a film as culturally important as "Showboat" was in its day.


from the January 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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