"The scene is a glorious summer day on the levee at Natchez on the Mississippi River. The year is 1887. Gliding on the still water … gleaming in the sunlight, the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theater sails into view."
- Show Boat, Edna Ferber
From this bucolic opening in her sweeping novel Show Boat, the Pulitzer prize-winning author Edna Ferber went on to tell a richly romantic story of youthful hope and human disappointment set against serious themes of racism, failed marriage and addiction.
Placed in the American South in the early 20th century, Ferber’s epic novel inspired the groundbreaking Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein Broadway musical of the same name in 1927. With his stage interpretation of Show Boat, Jerome Kern elevated American musical theater which had been dominated by frothy musical comedy revues and melodramatic operettas.
In Show Boat, Kern dealt with realistic themes of human life. Kern's Show Boat broke theatrical conventions in several ways. It was among the first Broadway productions to merge the storyline and musical numbers in a unified narrative. In an even greater break with social custom, Jerome Kern presented the first cast of freely integrated black and white players on stage.
The 1951 MGM movie adaptation of Show Boat enlisted William Warfield, one of the great vocal artists of the mid-20th century, to portray the dockhand ‘Joe.' Warfield’s bass baritone became so deeply associated with “Ol’Man River,” that it is immediately recognizable as his theme song as well as the signature composition of the Kern musical. In a 1995 interview in San Antonio, Mr. Warfield talked about recording "Ol' Man River" for the 1951 film, remarkable because it was captured on the first take.
LISTEN — Stage legend William Warfield on recording "Old Man River"
The music of Jerome Kern's score for Show Boat has been much loved by jazz artists from Artie Shaw and Bud Freeman to Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Petersen. Bandleader Jim Cullum is no exception. Fascinated with Edna Ferber's story and Jerome Kern's musical adaptation of it, Cullum launched a project in the early 1990s to create a jazz transciption of Kern's Show Boat, and he enlisted William Warfield to be the narrator. The result is the production of Show Boat heard here, recorded live at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio in 1995.
On this edition of Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band presents their original jazz transcription of Jerome Kern's 1927 score and William Warfield uses his immense talent as a storyteller to bring Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat to life in an original script adapted for radio by Margaret Moos Pick.
Photo credit for home page teaser image:
Stage and screen legend William Warfield as ‘Joe’ in MGM's 1951 movie adaptation of Show Boat. Photo courtesy William Carter
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script ©2011 by Margaret Moos Pick