One of my first outings while recovering from a little stroke has been to the New London Theatre in Drury Lane to see the splendid revival of Show Boat, the 1927 musical of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Show Boat not only contains some of Kern’s finest songs (‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’, for example), but is remarkable as the first American musical to combine light entertainment with a dramatic story and to deal with serious themes — gambling, alcoholism and racism.
It was based on a novel about life on one of the floating theatres (‘show boats’) that travelled along the Mississippi in the late 19th century and put on variety shows for townspeople on its banks. The boat would be home both for the cast, who were always white, and for the crew, who would be black. Show Boat’s plot turned on the law against mixed-race marriages, then enforced in many Southern states (and that remained on some statutes until as late as 1967 when it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), and a ban on black people as stage performers. Everything in the story flows from the violation of the two leading players of both these laws. It also highlighted the continuing suffering and discrimination endured by blacks after the abolition of slavery imposed on the South with the North’s victory in the Civil War.
Much praise has deservedly been bestowed on the production by Daniel Evans brought to London from the Sheffield Crucible Theatre. It is thrilling, with a specially memorable rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’ by Emmanuel Kojo as Joe, the dock worker. In an interview in the theatre programme, Evans is asked what makes Show Boat seem relevant nearly 90 years after its first performance.