In “Make Believe,” one of the classic songs from Show Boat, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II celebrate the power of imagination, as the show’s heroine professes, “Our dreams are more romantic than the world we see.” The world that audiences will see in Signature Theatre’s new version of the legendary 1927 musical will most likely be a startling one. Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has stripped Show Boat of generations of gingerbread and ballyhoo to find a more realistic world at its heart, and in doing so hopes to make its characters and its theatricality more vibrant than ever.
The most startling fact may be that Signature is tackling Show Boat at all. Yet Signature and Schaeffer welcomed the challenge for more reasons than one. “It’s our 100th production and so we wanted to do something that was iconic,” said the director during a break in a recent rehearsal.
“It was also a show that we really felt was ready to be rediscovered.”
In an era of featherweight plots, Show Boat was the first musical making racial inequality one of its themes, and the show’s unflinching look at relations between whites and African Americans still “has a lot of important things to say.” The last major revival was directed by Hal Prince in 1993, so “it just felt like it was time” to see Show Boat on stage again, asserts Schaeffer.
Not only is the show laden with history (“It was ground-breaking in its form. It actually invented
the musical theatre.”), but it calls for a large orchestra and cast and elaborate sets. As fashioned for the 276-seat MAX Theatre, this Show Boat sails with 15 musicians and a new overture and orchestrations by longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick. Twenty-four actors inhabit James Kronzer’s evocative, multi-level unit set of blue-gray washed wood flanked by prop-laden wings. It’s a lovely visual metaphor for the interplay of theatrical “make believe” and often-grim reality that echoes through the lives of several generations of show folk.
Unlike most musicals, Show Boat has gone through a significant number of revisions since its premiere, and part of the problem is simply choosing which version to present. Working with the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization, Schaeffer solved that dilemma by creating a new adaptation, using the 1946 Broadway revival as the starting point and drawing material from both the 1927 original
and a version done by the Bern Opera in 2005.
“It’s like we’re doing a brand-new musical,” says Schaeffer. One major restoration is the song “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Round,” cut after the very first tryout performance. He also found a clue in the book that provided the basis for Kern and Hammerstein’s musical: “When you look at the Edna Ferber novel, it’s Magnolia’s story.” So the woman who grows from sheltered girl to wife of a gambler to Broadway star is the center of Signature’s production.
Schaeffer also addresses a lack of balance he finds in the existing versions of Show Boat in that its African American characters virtually disappear after the first act. He’s restored scenes for Joe and his wife, Queenie, the showboat’s cook. His direction, too, finds ways to keep a focus on the social journey of African Americans during the more than 40 years that the show spans.
The concept of change, as relentless as the Mississippi, is one of the Show Boat themes that Schaeffer emphasizes for both whites and African Americans. “I think how the show’s interpreted is really going to be new to people who have seen the old, grand productions that feel more like pageants. I think the show’s a lot more haunting than what people may think of Show Boat.”
Schaeffer knew from the start that his staging would not feature a grandly ornate Cotton
Blossom drifting in from the wings. (“It’s ‘No-Boat’,” he jokes.) “I just want people to be moved,” by this smaller-scaled, emotion-driven Show Boat, declares Schaeffer. In this production the interior of the floating theatre is suggested by a small footlit stage and a faded painted curtain. “I wanted it to be on a boat that’s breaking down,” he explains. “It’s much more interesting, because people are fighting for survival.”
Characters are also fighting prejudice. A racial epithet appears in the show’s dialogue, and the word still has the power to sting. In an early rehearsal, Schaeffer encouraged his cast to discuss
their feelings about the show’s language and racial attitudes, “and it was fantastic,” he says. “They were really passionate—and that’s exactly why I want to do this show,” since the conflicts in Show Boat are still with us.
“Yes, it’s going to offend some people,” he acknowledges. “Some people are going to get uncomfortable, but you’ve got to get people talking about it.”
“I just want people to be moved,” by this smaller-scaled, emotion-driven Show Boat, declares Schaeffer. Signature’s production has another goal: to reinvigorate one of the richest, if sometimes problematic, shows in American musical theatre. “The hope is that it will bring renewed life to the show. What’s so great about stripping it down is that you realize how important it is. You think, ‘I can’t believe this was written 82 years ago.’ It’s amazing!”
Show Boat plays at Arlington’s Signature Theatre through January 17, 2010. For ticket information
call 703-573-7328 or go to www.signature-theatre.org.