The Oakland East Bay Symphony closes its 20th anniversary season Friday night with a concert version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat (1927), the first Broadway musical with an integrated cast (and the first to depict an interracial marriage).
The performance is the third in the Symphony’s American Masterworks series, conducted by musical director Michael Morgan and featuring Julie Adams (soprano), Tami Dahbura (soprano), Debbie de Coudreaux (mezzo-soprano), Ben Jones (tenor), Robert Sims (lyric baritone) and the Oakland Symphony Chorus, directed by Lynne Morrow.
The program will open with a selection of Kern’s standards: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Julie Adams), “Pick Yourself Up” (Robert Sims), “Yesterdays” (Debbie De Coudreaux), “I Won’t Dance” (Tami Dahbura), “Why was I Born” (Dahbura), “The way You Look Tonight” (de Coudreaux), “Long Ago and Far Away” (Ben Jones), “All the Things You Are” (Chorus) and “Look for the Silver Lining” (Chorus).
Showboat in concert features about 45 minutes of the most famous songs from the original stage production, over three hours long. “I wanted to do more of the music than in the concert version,” said Michael Morgan, “but the estate won’t license more than the big numbers.”
“Showboat was always on our list to do,” Morgan noted. “It changed the history thereafter, as the first musical to include race and gender issues. Everything’s in Showboat.” The 1927 musical proved groundbreaking in more ways than one. Based on Edna Ferber’s bestseller of the year before, Showboat is considered the first true American “musical play,” versus musical comedy, revue, operetta. Introducing serious themes in a story integral with the music and choreography, Showboat depicts characters on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat, from 1880 to 1927: gamblers, actors, crew members, dock workers. The original production was produced by Flo Ziegfeld, of Follies fame, a departure from his usual fare.
Showboat’s most famous number, “Ol’ Man River,” was originally written for Paul Robeson, though Robeson didn’t take up the role of Joe until a London run in 1928 (with Alberta Hunter as Queenie and Mabel Mercer in the black chorus). Robeson later starred in James Whale’s 1936 film version, with Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan and Hattie McDaniel) “Ol’ Man River,” with some changes in the lyrics, would become Robeson’s theme song both in concert halls and at political meetings and demonstrations. William Warfield took the role of Joe in the 1951 film (with Ava Gardner, Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead) version. (Robert Sims sang in concert with Warfield and has performed tributes to both Robeson and Warfield.) In all, five versions of Showboat were on the screen between 1929 and 1989, when a live performance was taped for television. Orson Welles produced Ferber’s story as a non-musical radio play, broadcast on Campbell Playhouse in 1939 with Margaret Sullavan.
Morgan commented on “the series of coincidences” that brought Showboat, Verdi’s Otello and a symposium on the social issues pertaining to both (held May 2) so soon after President Obama’s inauguration. “We could have done this at any time. The Bay Area is always interested in talking about these issues. Elsewhere, it might engender some controversy; nothing like that here. The panelists at the discussion were great—not that they would run out of things to talk about! And the film clips were incredible.”
After Showboat, the symphony will “take a year off, to gear up for bigger things” in the American Masterworks series. Morgan mentioned for the future “there’s got to be a Sweeney Todd, and Street Scene, by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes. And a full-on West Side Story. We can’t do a concert version; Bernstein forebade it, as the piece has no musical, only a dramatic ending.”
SHOWBOAT IN CONCERT
Presented by the Oakland East Bay Symphony at 8 p. m. Friday at the Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. $25-70.
(800) 745-3000. www.oebs.org.