Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…

The honor of releasing the first complete cast album belongs to the 1928 London cast of Show Boat, an American musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (yes, that Hammerstein).

When I first chose to listen to its recordings, my knowledge of Show Boat was limited to two things: 1) it contained “Ol’ Man River” and 2) it took place on a boat. I always dismissed “Ol’ Man River” as archaic and I don’t like water, so the show has never appealed to me before now. It turns out that Show Boat is a surprisingly progressive musical for the 1920s; racism is a central theme and it was the first musical production in which black and white performers appeared onstage together. So, judging it solely on my assumptions was stupid.

I should say now that at first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Show Boat cast albums in existence. I know this is only the first musical on my mission, but I am already adding a rule: I may ignore recordings made by studio casts. This brought the number of albums down to a manageable six: four albums by stage casts and two film soundtracks. With my goal in sight, I set off to listen to the cast album that started it all…

Show Boat premiered on Broadway on December 27, 1927, to rave reviews. Unfortunately, American musicals did not record cast albums at the time so there is no complete recording by the original Broadway cast. Lucky for us, the original London cast did record an album way back in 1928. That album is warbly and operatic at times and it is often hard to hear the lyrics, but it serves as a reminder of how far both musical theater and recording technology have come in 90 years. Still, Paul Robeson’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” is sensational even after all this time. (Note: Robeson’s contract did not allow him to appear on the original 1928 album, but his recording of “Ol’ Man River” was included on the version that I listened to.) I realized with this album that I actually knew a second song from Show Boat: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” It was my first aha moment of this experience.

The first film soundtrack to feature the music of Show Boat is from the 1936 Universal film. The cast featured many veterans of the stage production, including Robeson, Helen Morgan, Hattie McDaniel, and Irene Dunne. Dunne has a beautiful voice and Robeson once again delivers a perfect performance of his signature song. Aside from that and decipherable lyrics, this recording did not add much to my impression of Show Boat.

Then came the 1946 Broadway revival cast recording. The first thing that caught my ear was its version of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” performed by Collette Lyons. It was the most modern interpretation of a song from Show Boat that I had yet heard. Following Lyons’ recording, the album continued to hold a different energy than its predecessors. It was danceable, fun, and lighthearted. This new expectation made my listen of the 1951 MGM film soundtrack boring by comparison. It’s not that that soundtrack is a bad recording; in fact, it has many decent performances. But even the voice of the legendary Ava Gardner couldn’t excite me enough to get on board (pun may or may not be intended) and I wanted to give the 1946 album another spin.

I did not return permanently to 1946, and thank God because the 1966 Lincoln Center cast recording was next and it is fantastic!  It’s not a complete recording of the Show Boat score, but it has all the highlights. By this point, I knew the songs well enough to sing along at parts, which is an important part of liking a show. Yes, I was now all about Show Boat and it was the 1966 recording that pushed me overboard, so to speak.

But of course, I had not learned my lesson from the 1946/51 incident. I fired up the 1993 Toronto cast recording and excitedly waited for the overture to finish so I could listen to the most modern Show Boat cast album available.

I was disappointed.

As with many revival recordings of classic musicals, this production could not outshine its predecessors; namely, the 1966 Lincoln Center cast album. I will say that Lonette McKee delivers an incredible performance of “Bill”, singlehandedly bringing that song onto my list of Show Boat favorites. That is the greatest contribution that the Toronto cast brings to the Show Boat legacy, though I was glad to learn that most of that cast later transferred to Broadway.

Show Boat is an old show; some would say it is the oldest modern musical. But it has a lot more substance than we 21st century musical fans give it credit for. Not only does it have a social justice atmosphere, but the fact that it is a period piece with many a sing-a-long opportunity should be attractive to any showtune junkie. At its heart, Show Boat is everything a Broadway musical should be: a simple story with something to say and a catchy way of saying it. “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” are classics for good reason and even now I am humming along to “Why Do I Love You?”. Yes, I will definitely be playing the 1946 and 1966 cast albums again. And I can’t wait to watch the movies!

Musical: Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern

Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

First Production: December 27, 1927, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To:

1928 Original London Cast

1936 Film Soundtrack

1946 Broadway Revival Cast

1951 Film Soundtrack

1966 Lincoln Center Cast

1993 Toronto Cast

Songs You Might Know: “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”

Highlights: “Make Believe,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill,” “Why Do I Love You?”

Favorite Recording: 1966 Lincoln Center Production

Overall Impression: Surprisingly good and fairly relevant.

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