The opening night of Showboat,
15 November 1927, was a defining moment in
the history of American musical theatre. Quite
apart from the quality of the book, music
and lyrics, this show broke new ground by
proving it was possible to address difficult
issues, in this case miscegenation, in the
context of light entertainment. Since its
première Showboat has been through
umpteen productions, including a film, and
as the notes accompanying this CD point out,
every production has been different. Various
musical numbers have either been included
or excised; words have often been changed;
and the orchestral arrangements have been
many and various.
I first saw the show at Stratford-on-Avon
a good number of years ago in a memorable
co-production between Opera North and the
Royal Shakespeare Company. That experience
inspired me to invest in John McGlinn’s superb
1987 recording for EMI. That indispensable
recording is in many ways definitive, not
just because it is out of the top drawer artistically
but also because it follows very closely the
original 1927 score, although it omits some
extensive passages of music, which underscore
dialogue. It also includes, as an appendix,
a good selection of additional numbers either
cut from the show during its try-out runs
or added for subsequent productions.
The McGlinn venture is as
near as we’re likely to come to an ur-text
recording. This fascinating Naxos release,
though it can and should be enjoyed simply
as entertainment, also expands our knowledge
of the recorded history of this great show.
It’s based on two albums.
One is the 1946 Broadway Revival album. The
other is a 1932 offering, "Brunswick
Presents the Musical Romance." It will
be noted that several numbers are common to
both, thus presenting a fascinating chance
to compare performance styles.
One number that is not common,
though it might appear so from the track-listing,
is the Overture. The two pieces we hear on
this CD are completely different from each
other, though each is a pot-pourri of melodies
from the show. I’m afraid I can’t say who
compiled the 1932 piece. The 1946 Overture
is apparently the work of the celebrated Robert
Russell Bennett, no less. I wonder if he was
also the arranger for the other 1946 numbers?
What is certain is that neither is the original
1927 Overture as presented by McGlinn. The
two pieces are quite different. The 1946 version
is much more obviously "arranged".
Some may find it too opulent and may prefer
the more authentic, comparatively raw feel
of the 1932 piece. I enjoyed both but I found
I preferred marginally the more polished 1946
piece. This rather surprised me since I’m
a huge fan of the 1927 score and the overture
to that much more closely resembles the 1932
The 1932 recording has one
very obvious trump card, the presence of the
inimitable Paul Robeson as Joe. He is surprisingly
fleet in his pacing of ‘Ol’ Man River’ but
his sincere phrasing and simple, direct delivery
is unique. Kenneth Spencer (1946) is good
too. He has a deep, rich voice. He brings
a blues-like inflection to the song, bending
a good number of notes. It’s a valid approach
but for me the song is so fine that it doesn’t
need that sort of ‘help’ to make its expressive
effect. The treatment of the song in 1946
is more as a "big number" than in
1932 and Spencer is joined by a chorus – not
a very good one, I fear.
It’s fascinating to hear
another truly great song, ‘Bill’, sung by
the creator of the role of Julie, Helen Morgan.
She delivers the number in a light voice,
sounding like a young girl expressing open-hearted
enthusiasm for her man. There’s a touch of
innocent vulnerability. By contrast, Carol
Bruce (1946) is clearly a much more mature
woman with a voice to match and she takes
the song in a lower key. Bruce’s is a more
"sophisticated" approach, very much
post-war in style. One assumes that Morgan’s
was the voice and vocal style that Kern had
in mind but it strikes me as being a bit too
pert. I rather prefer the later version –
but it’s great to have the contrast.
I feel that Carol Bruce also
captures better the bittersweet flavour of
‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ more effectively
than does Helen Morgan. Having said that,
not everyone will like the big-band nature
of the accompaniment in 1946. It sounds a
bit like the work of Nelson Riddle, though
I’m sure it’s not. Think Riddle, however,
and you may get an aural picture. I’m not
for one moment getting at Riddle, by the way.
He was a supreme arranger but not, perhaps
one whose style would be best suited to Showboat.
On the credit side of the ledger, however,
the 1946 recording presents this song, authentically,
with the involvement of Queenie and Joe, whereas
the 1932 version is a solo and less interesting
as a result.
There’s one aspect of the
1932 recording that just doesn’t work for
me at all, I’m afraid. This is the singing
of James Melton. His is a most peculiar voice.
It’s a light tenor in essence, though where
it’s needed he has plenty of power. His production
is easy and very forward and as a voice it
has a great deal to commend it. Unfortunately,
his delivery is almost comic. I don’t know
if he was Irish but he pronounces words in
what I can only describe as a Hollywood-style
caricature Irish accent such as was used by
actors playing kindly New York Irish cops
in a certain type of 1930s movie. This style
is all wrong for the role of Gaylord Ravenal.
In fact after a while I found it completely
off-putting. Melton has two superb solos to
sing and his voice easily encompasses the
wide vocal range of both songs. Were it not
for the truly dreadful accent he’d be a pleasure
to listen to. As it is, I’m afraid this was
a grotesque piece of mis-casting.
Better by far is Charles
Fredericks (1946). His delivery is easy, natural
and completely unaffected. His voice is heavier
than Melton’s and has a baritonal quality
to it. His singing gives pleasure. Importantly,
too, the 1946 recording presents both ‘You
Are Love’ and ‘Only Make Believe’ as duets
between Ravenal and Magnolia, as they should
be. In both duets Fredericks is joined to
excellent effect by Jan Clayton.
To return for a moment to
Melton, I wonder why Frank Munn took over
the role of Ravenal for ‘Why Do I Love You?’
Oddly, this number was set down on the same
date as ‘Make-Believe’ (9 August 1932), whereas
Melton had already made a separate trip to
the studio to record ‘You Are Love’ on 20
July. Anyway, whatever the reason for the
change it’s an improvement, I think. Countess
Olga Albani sounds a bit like a grand-dame,
as befits her title and both she and Munn
sound rather "high society" but
Munn is infinitely preferable to Melton. The
same number appears in the 1946 recording
and the version here, well sung by Jan Clayton
and Charles Fredericks, is much closer to
the 1927 original text
Now a few comments about
numbers that aren’t common to both recordings.
The final 1932 track is entitled ‘Finale’,
to which one might ask "Finale to what?"
It’s certainly not the finale to the 1927
show and I can only imagine that this was
put together especially for the recording.
As with the overture it’s a pot-pourri
of tunes from the show and it’s mainly for
orchestra though right at the very end a chorus,
rather predictably, reprises ‘Ol’ Man River.’
The 1946 album contains a
vigorous but exhilarating account of ‘Cotton
Blossom’ – what a splendid number to have
so near the start of a show! Colette Lyons
is hugely entertaining in ‘Life Upon The Wicked
Stage’. Her performance is just right, suiting
this ironic number to a tee. And there’s also
‘Nobody Else But Me.’ This song was added
to the show for the 1946 production and it
has the distinction of being Kern’s last song.
It features a typically grateful melody and
equally typically inventive lyrics by Hammerstein.
It’s persuasively put across by Jan Clayton.
The odd man out in all this,
since it comes from neither album, is ‘Ah
Still Suits Me,’ a vehicle for Paul Robeson
in the 1936 film in which Joe duets with Queenie.
Not perhaps one of Kern’s finest numbers but
it’s good to have the chance to hear Robeson
You may wonder why I’ve written
such a detailed review of a disc of vintage
musical recordings, treating this as if it
were a recording of excerpts from Grand Opera.
Well, frankly, Showboat is such a significant
part of the history of twentieth-century music
theatre that one has to pay it the compliment
of treating it just as seriously as one would
an opera. That’s not to say that one can’t
and shouldn’t just surrender to the superb
music and lyrics and enjoy them for their
own sake. And this Naxos CD deserves to be
taken pretty seriously too for it offers us
a fascinating and very welcome chance to hear
how music from the show was presented in the
1930s and 1940s, two key decades in the evolution
of Broadway musicals and their performance.
A quick word about presentation.
The transfers are good. The notes are useful.
No texts are provided but for English-speaking
listeners that won’t be a problem for the
diction of all the solo singers is very clear.
Finally the evocative cover picture, something
one doesn’t often comment on, is well chosen
This is a fascinating opportunity
to compare and contrast the styles – and standards
– of singing between these two albums and
the same is true of the orchestral arrangements.
I must admit a strong preference for the vocal
performances in the 1946 version, even though
I know that the arrangements are not ‘authentic’
and may strike some as too sophisticated and
‘big band’ in nature. But that’s how things
were done in those days. Having said that,
I wouldn’t want to be without Paul Robeson.
This CD seems to me to be an essential supplement
to the McGlinn recording for all those who
love this truly wonderful show.
An essential supplement to the McGlinn recording
for all those who love this truly wonderful
show. ... see Full Review