From Show Boat to Big River: The Evolution of the Broadway Score
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From Show Boat to Big River: The Evolution of the Broadway Score

In this specific comparison, we can see how Musical Theater is an art form that has evolved and, with time, has branched out in its ability to actively tell stories.

From Show Boat to Big River: The Evolution of the Broadway Score
Wikimedia Commons

Musical Theater is an American created art form, perfected after years of experimentation on the stage. It has been argued time and time again which piece is considered to be the first musical and, while numeral shows of the 1920s and 30s used an element of music and dance, many educated opinions lie in crowing Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat (1927) with the honor. With the creation of staple pieces in the musical theater canon such as Show Boat, it is astounding to admire the shows that have followed in the years after and see the growth of the art form. An example of this growth can be seen in comparing the beloved musical with the 1985 musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain titled Big River. While the bluegrass musical with a score written by acclaimed American country singer Roger Miller does not seem to be conventional as a comparison to the swelling score provided by Jerome Kern, Show Boat and Big River both depict life on the Mississippi River. In both shows, this unlikely character of the Mississippi River is defined by a piece of music which comes to fruition in their own respective songs and reappears throughout the score. Written sixty years apart, this comparison is one of many that exemplifies the growth of Musical Theater and the art of storytelling.

Show Boat is often referred to as the first American musical with its libretto being the first to seamlessly integrate music into its fairly complex and dramatic storyline. The show follows Magnolia Hawkes, the daughter of the captain of the Cotton Palace showboat on the Mississippi River as she comes to be the star of the show. After falling in love with and marrying her fellow actor (and gambler) Gaylord Ravenal, the two set out to live in Chicago with their child, Kim, until Gaylord loses his wealth and abandons the family in guilt. The story was one of a kind as it was one of the first commercialized pieces of theater that dealt with issues such as interracial marriage, alcoholism, failed marriages and single parenting. In a time where the greatest forms of entertainment had been vaudeville shows and the Ziegfeld Follies, where the emphasis was on spectacle and variety, Show Boat tied together two of the three elements that we define as musical theater today. While the show did incorporate the element of dance (with choreography by Sammy Lee), it had yet to be integrated in the way that Agnes de Mille would revolutionize the art form in another twenty years with the revolutionary Oklahoma! in 1943.

Musically, Show Boat encompasses a classically driven sound due to the quality of American music in the time that Jerome Kern was working on his own works and song plugging for Tin Pan Alley. The musical theater “belt,” made famous by the likes of singers such as Ethel Merman, had yet to surge in popularity and the operatic, lush music had no place for anything other than the legit/soprano voices. This show also began the signature trademark of Hammerstein who would come to be known as the master in writing the conditional love song which is exemplified in the show’s duet “Make Believe.” It is because of Hammerstein’s work as a lyricist, librettist, and director that Show Boat truly became a cohesive piece. It brought forth the notion that songs could stem from a conversational place and used music as another tool for forwarding the plot.

However, the conventions in which stories are told have been bent as a means to venture out and explore new styles and techniques to continue forwarding the plot. The sound of Americana is most often associated with the sound we have come to know as country and bluegrass. In its own capacity, country music carries within it a form of storytelling where the importance lies in the lyrics and melodies are simple as a means for listeners to catch on. Using this outline plays with a new form of creating musical theater. Based on the Mark Twain classic set in pre-Civil War Missouri, Big River depicts the life of adolescent Huck Finn as he goes on a big adventure down the Mississippi with his friend Jim who is seeking freedom from slavery. Their adventure goes awry when the two get tangled into the sleazy schemes of two actors, The Duke and The King, but with the help of Huck (and some assistance from Tom Sawyer), the criminals are caught and punished, Jim is declared a freed slave, and Huck finds his own freedom and sense of self in the real world.

In scrutinizing these musicals as a measurement of artistic growth, it is imperative to admire both of the show’s scores. Music had not been used as a dramatic device in the same way that Show Boat had fashioned its swelling, orchestral and classical sounding score. However, as time passed and music evolved, the sound of the south became more categorized and stylized, bringing forward a new voice. The comparison of the scores can be simplified by their most popular melodies, both which coincidentally personify the Mississippi River musically.

Show Boat’s ode to the Mississippi appears in Act One with “Ol’ Man River.” As Magnolia says farewell to the intriguing stranger Gaylord Ravanal, she calls on Joe, who works for her father on the showboat, to ask about his knowledge on the man before running off to tell her closest friend of the incredible encounter. Sung by Joe and the Stevedores on shore, the song is written as a commentary on the life of a hard working African-American man in contrast with the ebb and flow of the carless Mississippi River. In this song, Joe is acting as the front man to the Greek chorus who sees everything unraveling as it happens on stage. Structurally, “Ol’ Man River” follows a tradition AABA structure with a variety of speech like intros which set up the metaphor of the river. It is interesting to point out that no other song in the show is structured similarly except for “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” which may have been Kern’s attempt to stylize the music in a way to best represent the African-American characters. Of course, many modern viewpoints argue the absurdity of the idea that two white men have the right to musically characterize a race they do not identify with, but, in the context of the time in which the show takes place and premiered on Broadway, Hammerstein’s lyric for this song proved to be monumental for never before had anyone sung of the African-American experience on such a public platform. The song touches on the ideas of suffering, subjugation, and the fears of being black in a community of white oppressors. The weight is so heavy that it elicits an envy for the river who is closer to true freedom than Joe will ever be.

Musically, the slow tempo of the piece creates an ease to the music, painting the picture of a rolling river. To help this imagery, the melody ebbs and flows like the water, pitching from bottom to top like the small waves on the surface. The serenity of the song is created by the dynamics at play. While the music is luscious and the rhythm continuous, the addition of the voice at such a small volume makes the lyric precious and gives what is being said a sense of importance. The song reaches a new tempo that gives the melody a more prominent drive, which cinematically invites the inclusion of the chorus working hard on stage as they prepare to join in with their voices. Orchestrally, the song is comprised of a large pit with an occasional strumming of a banjo to add texture and reference the setting in which the show takes place. Kern’s style attributes to this sound quality and musical contour which also transfers into the vocal arrangements.

The song ends in a vulnerable place for Joe, who is proclaiming his truths regarding his fears and feelings towards his life along the Mississippi. The river becomes an image for what could be; a life beyond the grueling labor. However, there is a hint of understanding that the river will continue to roll along with or without him, which adds a sense of finality to Joe’s journey within the song. This musical theme continues to reappear as the show goes on, carrying with it a reminder to the audience and, if acknowledged, the characters on stage that while life may seem difficult and worth giving up on, life continues to roll on and it is each individual's job to survive by carrying on.

Diametrically opposed in musical contour, Big River’s bluegrass score depicts the Mississippi with instruments that capture the sound of the south in relation to country and bluegrass music including piano, banjo, guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and brass. “Muddy Water” is alluded to in the show’s overture but the song is not introduced until the middle of Act I as Huckleberry Finn finds himself on the bank of the Mississippi River. With Huck Finn having faked his own death and Jim running to escape slavery, the two board a raft to avoid being found by towns folks looking for the two of them. They frantically “lay into that pole” and set out on the river towards a new adventure.

The song begins with piano, guitars, and bass which differs greatly from the orchestra that musically supports Show Boat’s score. Already at the top of the song, there is a charging feel to the music which is evoked by the syncopation of the bass as well as the guitar. There is no heaviness or weight to the notes as they are played at a faster tempo, indicating the rushing of the water that is carrying the raft far away from their troubles in Missouri. While “Ol’ Man River” lives in the struggles of its characters with no clear optimism for the future, Roger Miller’s style highlights the possibility and innate hope people carry with them. The lyrics hold possibility and curiosity for the journey ahead which plays into Huck Finn’s youth as well as Jim’s belief that the two of them have a chance to reach freedom as long as they can confidently stare out at the water before them and say “look out for me.”

What is compelling with these two stories is how they’re different in tone, which is largely based on their audience. Show Boat was intended by Hammerstein to be a piece that stirs a larger conversation, something he would do again with his work on The King and I and The Sound of Music. He did not want to skirt around the problem and, instead, showcased the ugliness in life. Show Boat unapologetically depicts the issues surrounding racial tensions as well as the truths behind marriage and the difficulties they create. Julie’s spiral into alcoholism had never been a conventional subject for a musical, nor the lessons learned by Gaylord after losing his fortune and abandoning his wife and child in shame. The message was meant to reach far and wide and be a universal piece for all. By choosing to produce and create dramatic theater, the team that brought the show to life created a new standard of how relevant and bold theater could be. On the other hand, Big River’s source material alone promotes the prospects of bringing in a younger audience. Mark Twain’s novel is read by youngsters all across the country and while adults and avid theatergoers can most certainly appreciate the piece for its theatrical traits, there lives within the material the soul of a child that must live and breathe with the production. If the audience is not encouraged to live in the childlike wonder that makes up the soul of who Huckleberry Finn is as a character, the actors will subsequently have to work harder to drag them along.

These shows carry with them messages that are arguably similar at the core, but they differ in their essence. Show Boat, heavy and dramatic in content and musically lush, shares the realities of the world and is unafraid to paint it as the terrifying place it can be. Yet, through all the suffering and the hardships, each and every person will find a way to survive and learn to forgive not only others but themselves. Big River, with its story rooted in the friendship of two unlikely people, celebrates the idea of unity and challenges the boundaries of societal rules and the decency of the human spirit, promising that we are all dreamers “waiting for the light to shine,” though, at times, it is our responsibility to take action to stand up for those we cherish.

Musical Theater has evolved in the approximately ninety years since its conception. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II began the ideals and fundamental building blocks that allowed for the likes of non-traditional theater composers like Roger Miller to succeed on a Broadway stage. Show Boat’s daring content gave way to the future of musicals whose topics were centered around complicated subjects such as race. As the world changes in culture, music, and world events, artists are encouraged to push boundaries with their own stories, encouraging the risks that allow for a more compelling and innovative form of storytelling. Though the world may be trying at times, we must try to live a life that was predicted for Huckleberry Finn so long ago; a life with “considerable trouble and considerable joy.”

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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