Miles Kreuger, founder of the Institute of the American Musical Inc., is the foremost theater historian of "Show Boat." Among his many Broadway chronicles, Kreuger, 63, wrote "Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical" (Oxford University Press, 1977) about the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II collaboration.
The Los Angeles-based institute, which celebrates its 25th anniversary Monday, houses a more extensive theater archive than the Library of Congress. Kreuger notes, "It's also the world's largest collection dedicated to musical theater and musical film," ranging from every recording of every musical to virtually every published vocal-piano score.
Hammerstein's personal copy of the "Show Boat" script, given to Kreuger by the writer-lyricist, is among the institute's most prized possessions. Theater historians once believed no complete script existed for the original 1927 production. This justified later interpretations, which, Kreuger says, "were just plain wrong."
To honor the institute's birthday--and because Harold Prince's reconception of "Show Boat" arrives Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa--The Times recently interviewed Kreuger about the Kern-Hammerstein musical.
Question: How did "Show Boat" get to Broadway in the first place?
Answer: Edna Ferber's novel "Show Boat" came out in August 1926. It had been serialized earlier in Woman's Home Companion. Jerome Kern read the novel and was smitten. He decided at once it must become a musical. He knew that his friend Alexander Woollcott, who was then the theater critic for the New York Times, knew her. Woollcott went to the Globe Theater, now the Lunt-Fontanne, to see a show called "Criss Cross," with music by Kern. At the opening, Kern walked up to Woollcott and said, "I want to meet Edna Ferber." Being a wag, Woollcott took him by the hand, led him across the lobby and introduced them to each other: "Kern, Ferber. Ferber, Kern." That is how the die was cast. It was the fall of 1926. Kern brought in Hammerstein. They had worked together on "Sunny" in 1925.
Q. Why didn't Ferber believe her novel could be made into a musical?
A. First, it had so many characters and spanned so many years--three generations from the 1880s to the 1920s. That was not the kind of thing that could conveniently be the subject of a musical. The novel is rather picaresque. It rambles all over the place.
Second, musicals in the 1920s tended to be frivolous. The most common subjects were showgirls trying to become stars, or the local college student trying to win the football game so he could capture the heart of his girlfriend. Ferber's novel, by contrast, had some rather serious themes.
Q. Why is "Show Boat" regarded as "the great American musical"?
A. It was historic in terms of theatrical innovation. It was the first time that the protagonist of a musical grew and changed. There was no character development in musicals until then, because there was no occasion for it.
Magnolia evolves from a sheltered, naive, trusting teenager whose values of right and wrong come entirely from the melodramas that she has seen on the Cotton Blossom, which is the showboat her parents operate up and down the Mississippi. She's always in a cloistered environment. She's never in any one town long enough to be touched by it.
The moment she sees Gaylord Ravenal, of course, it's love at first sight, because in melodrama it's always love at first sight. Later, Magnolia becomes a woman who has to face the fact she is a mother alone, in cold, heartless Chicago, where she's been abandoned by her husband, and has to raise her 10-year-old daughter. So Magnolia falls back on the one thing she knows how to do--which is to sing, because she sang on the showboat.
Q. What about the serious themes?
A. You have the problem of miscegenation, which was simply unheard of in musicals. Well, almost unheard of. It was unheard of to be taken seriously. Miscegenation usually was some sort of a joke. When it was treated at all, it was used lightly as a comedy device."
Q. The musical also deals with alcoholism.
A. Yes. Alcoholism wasn't treated in the usual way as buffoonery--ordinarily, a vaudeville comedian with a red nose would do a funny dance--but as a tragic situation.
Q. Theatrical lore has it that Florenz Ziegfeld, who produced the original 1927 "Show Boat," had to be prodded into it. True?
A. The myth is absolutely untrue. It's nonsense. That story got started with Norma Terris, who created the role of Magnolia. I have her on tape repeating what she always said: "Show Boat" kicked around for three or four years and nobody would touch it until her husband, who was Ziegfeld's doctor, convinced him to do it while the two of them were out in a rowboat on some lake in the country.
Q. How do you know she was wrong?
A. For one thing, Kern and Hammerstein signed a contract with Ferber on Nov. 17, 1926, giving them the "dramatico-musical rights" to her novel. The document authorized them, and I quote, "to enter into a contract with Mr. Florenz Ziegfeld, or any other responsible theatrical producer." Kern and Hammerstein then spent about a week writing almost the whole first act together. They wrote almost every song that we know today from Act 1 of "Show Boat." It's so phenomenal that it seems impossible: "Make-Believe," "Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Life on the Wicked Stage," "You Are Love."
With that body of music, they went to Ziegfeld on Friday, Nov. 26, and performed most of what they had. Ziegfeld was instantly smitten. The next day he promptly wrote to a dashingly handsome young man who had been his romantic lead in an earlier show, "Louis XIV," and in a couple of the "Follies." He offered him the role of Ravenal.
Q. Have you seen the letter?
A. Yes. I have a photocopy. This is what Ziegfeld wrote: ". . . last night I heard the first act of the Show Boat, and Jerome Kern's music. This is the best musical comedy I have ever been fortunate to get hold of; it looks wonderful and there are two of the greatest parts that have ever been written."
Q. How would you describe the creative collaboration between Kern and Hammerstein?
A. It was Kern who really gave Hammerstein his start. Kern was 42. Hammerstein was 10 years younger. Kern sensed that he was ready to graduate from what he'd been doing with Harbach. "Show Boat" was basically Hammerstein's first show as book writer and lyricist.
If you look at the drafts of the script in sequence, you see him raising the level of his artistry to meet the level of the material he wants to deal with. He honed his talent against the difficulty of the challenge and evolved as an artist. If he had set out to do the typical boy-meets-girl musical, we may never have heard of Oscar Hammerstein.
I never got to ask Jerome Kern about their collaboration. He died when I was 11. But I talked with Hammerstein a great deal, and he answered my questions.
Q. Let's talk about the score.
A. For Kern it was an expansion of things he had been exploring in earlier shows. He was not a composer who liked pat solutions to aesthetic problems. He was always experimenting with different song forms, lengthening them and combining them, turning sections of songs into larger pieces, which meant that a musical number might encompass three or four songs and then be linked by recitative. "Show Boat" gave him the canvas on which to do it.
Q. Which came first, the music or the lyrics?
A. Kern wrote the music first, which is amazing because the emphasis in "Show Boat" is upon economic storytelling. It reveals to me that Kern was as much a dramatist in the medium of music as Hammerstein was in a medium of words.
Q. "Show Boat" has been revived many times. Did each revival reflect its particular time and place?
A. They usually reflected what were the accepted values of the period. The first "Show Boat" I saw was the 1946 Broadway revival with Carol Bruce as Julie. I was 11 years old and completely mesmerized, though I realize now how flawed on the whole that revival was. They totally changed the orchestration. They took out all the banjos, which strongly suggested the sound of the South. And because the 1940s was the era of Agnes de Mille, they cut out a lot of songs to emphasize dancing. There's very little dancing in the original.
Q. What about the language?
A. Of course they changed the lyric in "Ol' Man River." The progression of euphemistic alterations is almost ludicrous. They changed "Niggers all work on the Mississippi." In the 1936 film it became "Darkies all work on the Mississippi." In the 1946 Broadway revival, it's "Colored folks work on the Mississippi." Later it became "Here we all work on the Mississippi." By 1966 at Lincoln Center nobody worked on the Mississippi, because they cut out the Negro chorus altogether. The solution to the problem was to avoid it.
[The Hal Prince revival coming to the Orange County reverts to the 1946 version.]
Q. What would you do if you were producing the show?
A. I think it's time to put the original lyric back in. You lose something essential by changing it.
Q. What is the best revival you've seen?
A. The one at New York City Center in 1961. It had Joe E. Brown as Cap'n Andy. He was not funny in the 1951 film version because of the way the material had been rewritten. But he was devastatingly funny in the City Center production. Brown probably was as close to the quality of Charles Winninger's original Cap'n Andy as anyone who ever played the role.
Q. Who directed the original production?
A. That's a funny story. I said to Hammerstein, "Here we have the most influential musical of the 1920s directed by a man whose name is totally unknown to me. Who on earth was Zeke Colvan?" He laughed. He said, "Now that Zeke is gone, maybe you can tell the truth about that."
Colvan didn't really direct the show, despite what the program said. Hammerstein himself did. Colvan was the stage manager. Because "Show Boat" was such a complicated production with two separate choruses--one black, one white--many costumes and big sets in the days before automation, Hammerstein decided to give Zeke Colvan the directing credit as a gift for all his hard work.
Q. What do you think of today's musicals?
A. Not much. I almost never go to the theater. And I almost never see films either. I'm humiliated every waking moment by the 1990s. I find it a vulgar, crass, vacuous age. Virtually the only new movie I've seen in the last 15 years that I liked was "Babe"--and I haven't eaten a ham sandwich since.
Q. Any last thoughts?
A. People who put on musical revivals seem to think that they know more than the creators who originated the material. Every theatrical work is so delicate and so vulnerable to the whims and egos of the people who mount them that if it's not mounted with the respect it deserves, then the work is transmuted. It no longer reflects the intentions of the creators, but rather the intentions of the latter-day second-guessers whose opinions are rarely as significant or profound.
"Show Boat" more than any other musical has been the hapless victim of rethinking and reconception and, despite all of that, it is substantially so strong that it can withstand much of it. But I wish people would stop tampering with it. Whatever its flaws, "Show Boat" is a magnificent work of 1927. It ought to be preserved for what it is or isn't, not for what it could be.
* "Show Boat" opens Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Ends Sept. 27. $32.50-$67.50. (714) 556-2787.
* The Institute of the American Musical may be reached at P.O. Box 480144, Los Angeles, CA 90048. (213) 934-1221.