Entertainment & Arts

Why musical Show Boat stays afloat

Show Boat Image copyright JOHAN PERSSON
Image caption The character Joe sings the famous song Ol' Man River and the part was played by the legendary actor and singer Paul Robeson in 1928

Musical Show Boat's first London revival in nearly 20 years could not, it would seem, be more timely, coming as it does at a time of heightened debate and and controversy over diversity at the Oscars and in the arts in general.

The musical was one of the first to marry big show tunes and lavish presentations with serious themes - particularly racial segregation in the American South. And, one of its most famous songs, Ol' Man River, was performed in its 1928 West End production by the legendary civil rights campaigner, actor and singer Paul Robeson playing Joe.

On the face of it, the musical's inspiration - Edna Ferber's book about three generations of performers on a floating theatre on the banks of the Mississippi - was unlikely source material for a Broadway musical. But in 1927, when 200 to 300 performances would have been considered a hit on Broadway, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat ran for 572 performances.

A 2016 revival returns to London's West End on 9 April, via a brief spell at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, for the first time since a 1998 production by Hal Prince.

Its director Daniel Evans calls the show "the mother of all musicals". Jack Viertel, author of The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Classic Broadway Shows Are Built, agrees, saying: "It was a show which did a lot to shape the definition of what we were going to do in musical theatre."

Professor Larry Stempel, author of Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theatre, pinpoints three reasons for Show Boat's success.

Image copyright JOHAN PERSSON
Image caption 'This show is the first time black and white actors were performing on stage together,' says the revival production's star Emmanuel Kojo

"It has an engaging backstage story of a family of performers. Its sheer ambition: using a European-style operetta to tell an American saga covering three generations. And the score is consistently tuneful, memorable and often brilliant with musical evergreens such as Make Believe, Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, and Ol' Man River," highlights Stempel.

Ol' Man River, which contrasts the steady flow of the Mississippi River with the constant travails of the African-American working man (and woman), was written for black actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson. He actually made his debut as Joe in the 1928 London production - and subsequently the 1936 film - having been unavailable for the original Broadway staging,

Emmanuel Kojo, Joe in the show's revival, is convinced the way racial resonances in the musical relate to an audience in the era of a heightened diversity debate in the arts are "vital, vital, vital".

"This show is the first time black and white actors were performing on stage together," he says.

Kojo is convinced that black actors "are not getting the recognition that they deserve".

"The Oscars snubs were just ridiculous. I do always feel as a black actor you have to work four times as hard as your white counterpart to be as successful as they are."

The pressure of interpreting a song associated with Robeson is something he feels keenly.

"I always look back and think if I didn't have the courage to ask to sing it that day, I would not be doing the role right now.

Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption 'The show ends with the world changing and the ways people adapt to the world changing - that's powerful,' says theatre historian Jack Viertel

"It has been a dream of mine to do. So there was no doubt about taking on the role and creating my own stamp and our version of Joe. There is definitely a pressure that comes with it, as people come with an expectation of a song everyone knows. But I think we have created our own version of it which we are all very proud of."

Kojo was originally seen for a role in the chorus. "In the audition I politely said to them that I realise I am way too young, but asked if I could sing Ol' Man River. They asked me to sing my audition song first and then that. It all just went from there," he says.

The potency of the song, memorably recorded on film by Robeson, is not lost on Kojo, who learnt it at 17.

"The song sometimes can become just a beautiful song and not the message behind it, which tells of suffering, pain and hope of a better life. I think also understanding what the black people in that time had to experience and go through just drives the song itself so it doesn't become lethargic and wistful," he says.

"So it was hard to get out of me because of how I have always known the song to be sang but with a lot of help and work we were able to do it."

Image copyright johan persson
Image caption Show Boat's story takes place over a 40-year period

Show Boat's arrival at the New London Theatre, the recent home of huge hits War Horse and Cats, also features in its cast Gina Beck as Magnolia Hawks.

Beck has played celebrated musical theatre roles such as Cosette in Les Miserables, Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Glinda in Wicked.

"Playing Magnolia is wonderful as it's a role that spans 40 years and there's so much to play as she grows older," she says.

She agrees with Kojo and Evans about the musical's contemporary qualities.

"Audiences are surprised by how current it feels," she says. "The storyline of racial prejudice and love and heartbreak between four different couples stands the test of time."

Viertel attests to its contemporary power. "The show ends with the world changing and the ways people adapt to the world changing. That's powerful. The question of how people are going to live together is something we are still trying to figure out."

Director Evans adds: "What's astounding is that the piece is still able to blow audiences away. In Sheffield, there were standing ovations at most shows."

And Evans has another reason why audiences will have a good night out. "While the piece spans 40 years, we manage to tell an epic story and be in the bar by 10.15pm."

Viertel puts things more simply: "I think you just can't resist it."

Show Boat opens at the New London Theatre on 9 April.

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