As Sheffield success Show Boat prepares to dock in London, its director Daniel Evans tells us why he revived it and why he’s looking forward to its run in the capital:
Show Boat is seminal. Everyone seems to know that. When you tell people you’re directing it, they usually say, “Isn’t that, like, the first ever musical?”, such is Show Boat’s fame. And yet, very few people seem to have actually seen it on stage. That’s probably because, traditionally, the musical was always considered to be a show of such enormous proportions – with a huge cast – that it was virtually impossible to produce.
However, around two years ago I was alerted to a new version by American director and adaptor Rob Ruggiero, created for the compact and jewel-like Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Rob, having remoulded the piece for a cast of 24 and a band of 11, has given it a new lease of life by retaining the libretto’s epic qualities while focusing on the intimate goings-on between the family members at the heart of the steam paddler, the Cotton Blossom.
The original libretto contains so many moments which appear in numerous musicals later in the 20th century: Magnolia’s understudy-to-star journey is a pre-echo of Peggy Sawyer’s trajectory in 42nd Street; Cap’n Andy’s plea for Magnolia to “Smile!” during an audition is the direct precursor to Mama Rose’s command to her daughter in Gypsy; and the Magnolia-Ravenal courtship explores the good-girl-falls-for-bad-boy dynamic decades before Julie Jordan ever met Billy Bigelow.
However, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s pioneering achievement goes deeper than mere events in their dramatic plot. After all, these were lifted directly from Edna Ferber’s atmospheric and detailed novel. Hammerstein and Kern broke the mould. They dared to do what no other contemporaneous authors would attempt at the time. They created a seamless story, interweaving dialogue and songs which explored serious and profound issues.
Remember, this was 1927. This was the first time that white and black actors were seen together on stage in a musical narrative that explored the politics that kept them apart off stage. It blows my mind to think that the original company would have been a unified ensemble inside the theatre, only to be forced to attend separate and racially segregated post-show haunts.
This was popular and populist theatre made political. Hammerstein, in particular, was a political animal. When Atlanta refused to receive Show Boat on its first national tour, demanding changes to dialogue and lyrics, Hammerstein simply struck the southern city off the itinerary – that is, until Atlanta did a U-turn with cap-in-hand.
I had heard these potent stories before rehearsals began, and yet it wasn’t until we experienced the piece in front of an audience at the Crucible last December that we fully realised the full wattage of Show Boat’s power. Show Boat still speaks directly to us. The relatively liberal life on the Mississippi offers us a beacon of how we might all live as one society, black or white, young or old, rich or poor. During one post-show talk in Sheffield, an American woman who grew up in the Deep South during the time of segregation said the piece made her weep over her childhood experiences of racism. Another told us that her daughter had turned to her during Act One, asking if that’s how things really were once upon a time.
Unfortunately, some things are slow to change. We still live with prejudice. At times, that prejudice is writ large. Just listen to one of the Republican presidential candidates’ campaign to build walls and breed fear. But on the whole, it’s more insidious, more casual or under-the-radar. Society’s unconscious biases remain powerfully present almost 90 years after Show Boat premiered. And that’s why I wanted to direct it. Through Kern and Hammerstein’s eyes, we can reassess our own times and take a good look at ourselves and our society.
More than anything, in coming to the West End I’m delighted that our production will reach a wider audience. We’re lucky that the New London Theatre can accommodate and replicate the dynamic thrust of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. In that sense, very few changes have needed to be made. Our show remains intact. Now we are ready to welcome West End audiences.