The evolution of musical theater in America can be viewed through many lenses. Through the lens of hindsight, it is easy to reflect on the treatment and portrayal of African-Americans in the contextual fruition of live entertainment in the United States. Dating back to the later half to the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, ethnic representation in musical theater underwent a gradual change paralleling a shift in societal opinion toward racial equality.
Though by today’s standards, its depiction of African-Americans may seem archaic at best, Show Boat changed the way audiences viewed musical theater through its success as the first show to deal with racial issues in the United States. In order to fully understand the point of view from which racial representation in Show Boat originates, one must have an historical reference point from which to base it. Musical theater in the United States emerged out of an industry of entertainment striving for legitimacy.
Branching away from its European roots, defining America came to be the “central theme in American musicals, to which the other themes relate in both obvious and subtle ways. ”1 But to define America, at the time, meant societal introspection. Society, however, was slow to grapple with some of its most obvious shortcomings: the issue of race and inequality. Meant largely as a satire of American society, one of the earliest forms of musical theater in America, the minstrel show, emerged in the 1840s.
The minstrel show “always featured the element of satire in lyrics and skits with music that appealed to those who favored loud, raucous, and rhythmically jaunty tunes. ”2 Initially absent from these minstrel troupes, African-American representation was left up to the white producers and performers. Thus, blackface found a widespread home in musical performances. Through smearing burned cork over their hands and faces, white actors and singers portrayed what much of society at the time perceived as typical negro behavior. But blackface was not necessarily intended as an offense, though offend it did. Under the protection of scurrilous, primitivist persona, and in the guise of humor at the persona’s expense, an actor could do or say – or sing virtually anything. ”3 Simultaneously though, blackface reassured white audiences that not only was the status quo in America acceptable, but that African-Americans, under the assumption that the performances audiences witnessed were accurate, did not deserve a higher seat in society. It was ten years after the emergence of the minstrel show when African-Americans began learning the business.
Ironically enough, these African-American troupes also performed in blackface. Eventually creating their own form of theater, African-American musical theater flourished between the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century. But it wasn’t until Shuffle Along, in 1920, that the color barrier on Broadway was truly broken. Creating a new model for the productions that followed, Shuffle Along incorporated new musical genres such as jazz and ragtime; typically associated with African-Americans.
Integrating these musical stylizations into musical theater could have only seemed logical considering “from the time of the arrival of the first Africans on the North American shore…their musicality was vigorous, impressive, and frequently preeminent. ”4 Shortly after Shuffle Along’s premier came the 1926 novel, Show Boat by Edna Ferber. And while Shuffle Along may have been the first integrated musical on Broadway – bringing racial issues to the forefront of thought among audiences – Show Boat became the first musical to tackle these issues.
For the first time, African-Americans were portrayed as real characters, rather than agents of parodied comedic relief. This is seen most clearly through the characters of Queenie and Joe. Composing the script, lyrics, and music for Show Boat were Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. “The creators of Show Boat wanted the musical to be about Americans, not race conflict, although the race of the characters contributed significantly to the development of the plot. ”5 Show Boat follows the lives of a number of performers and workers on the Mississippi River Ferryboat, the Cotton Blossom.
In her doctoral dissertation, Katherine Axtell examines Show Boat from its novel origins to its inception and creation as a work of musical theater. It is clear from her analysis that even though Hammerstein and Kern may not have intended Show Boat to be about race, it was still at the forefront of their minds. Axtell states, “sources…strongly suggest that, page for page and line for line, the composer and librettist expended the greatest energy on the development of material for the romantic leads, Magnolia and Ravenal; that they took nspiration…from contemporary African-American musical theater. ”6 Axtell also cites Todd Decker, “who in 2007 included Show Boat in a larger study of ‘black-white encounters’ in selected American stage and film musicals… Decker argues that Kern and Hammerstein concentrated, from the beginning of their collaboration, on the development of interracial encounters and the creation of such numbers as ‘Can’t Help Lovin; Dat Man’ and ‘Ol’ Man River. ’”7 It was, in fact, “Ol’ Man River” that many believed to be the highlight of the show.