Perhaps the most influential musical of the twentieth century, Show Boat combined the talents of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, both of whom had felt for some time that Broadway musical theatre was suffering from a lack of depth and needed to steer away from the fluffy musical comedies and melodramatic operetta that it was accustomed to. After choosing for their subject Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of life on the Mississippi, Kern and Hammerstein set out to deal with issues such as unhappy marriages and racial prejudice.
The story, which spans almost fifty years, deals primarily with the fortunes of an impressionable young woman named Magnolia Hawks, her father who owns a show boat named the Cotton Blossom, and a troubled riverboat gambler/actor named Gaylord Ravenal. Magnolia and Gaylord fall in love while acting on the showboat and eventually marry and move to Chicago. They separate, however, after Gaylord loses all of their money gambling. The subplot involves Magnolia's mulatto friend, the tragic Julie La Verne.
Show Boat opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27, 1927 and ran for 572 performances. It has been revived numerous times--most successfully by Hal Prince in 1994--and spawned several film versions including the 1936 film with Irene Dunne and the 1951 version with Ava Gardner and Howard Keel. The original cast included Charles Winninger, Norma Terris, Howard Marsh and Helen Morgan.