1927 December 27

“Show Boat:” First Racially Integrated Broadway Musical, And With Interracial Themes


The musical Show Boat opened on Broadway on this night. It made Broadway history as the first musical that merged musical numbers into the telling of a serious story. Musicals to this time had generally been revues that presented a series of musical numbers that were not related to each other. Show Boat also made history as the first musical where white and African-American singers performed together on stage. Additionally, based on the successful novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat included serious themes of racial identity, including an interracial marriage.

Although Show Boat remains highly popular and respected, it continues to generate controversy over some of its language and depiction of African-Americans. The “n” word appeared in the original lyrics, but some later revivals substituted “colored folk,” “darkies,” and in some cases “here we all.” Some of the African-American dialect, meanwhile, is offensive to many people today.

The music for Show Boat was written by Jerome Kern, and the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, two of the most famous and respected figures in American music. The most famous songs from the musical are “Ol Man River,” “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.”

Paul Robeson, the famed African-American singer and political activist, played the character Joe in the 1928 London premier and the 1936 Hollywood film version. During the Cold War, Robeson was blacklisted because of his left-wing political views. The U.S. government seized his passport on August 4, 1950, which denied him the opportunity to perform overseas. Combined with the blacklist in the U.S., the Cold War ruined his commercial singing career.

Read the original novel: Edna Ferber, Show Boat (1926)

And read: Miles Kreuger, Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical (1977)

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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