Showboat footnote

From my wife Anne Midgette’s terrific review on Musical America (you have to subscribe to the site — well worthwhile — to read the full text). I agree with all of this, but couldn’t have put it this well:

Show Boat,” the 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, represents a turning point in the history of the American musical. And you’d better remember it; Carnegie Hall certainly did. The gala semi-staged performance it presented for its own benefit on Tuesday night wore its significance like the Pope his heavy golden robes: with a self-consciousness about representing a link to the past and concern about rising appropriately to the occasion. God forbid it should be only perceived as light entertainment.

The American musical has in any case reached a museum-like phase of its history, when it has become appropriate for exploration by the so-called serious classical music organizations. Gone is the sense of tacit disapproval that accompanied New York City Opera’s early forays into musicals in the mid-1980’s under Beverly Sills – the idea that an otherwise highbrow institution was simply going slumming in search of audiences. This spring alone, we’ve had “Camelot” at the New York Philharmonic, now “Show Boat” at Carnegie Hall and a revival of “South Pacific” that is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. The question is no longer whether the American musical is appropriate fare, but how high we can make the pedestal on which to place it.

The risk, of course – just as it has long been in opera – is that the original dramatic impulse gets lost in all the pomp. Tuesday night, particularly the first half of the evening, showed the spectacle of a number of people going through some pretty grand motions. The stilted gestures of “The Parson’s Bride” – the play-within-a-play that illustrates the charming world of the 1880’s that “Show Boat” seeks to recreate – were hard to separate from the “real” acting, as the players spat out lines with cramped intensity or delivered jokes as if within veritably audible quotation marks. The symbol of this particular evening was less “Ol’ Man River,” sung doughtily by Alvy Powell (who has an earth-shaking bass and very little top) than a cameo walk-on by Marilyn Horne, whose entrance in the last act stopped the show for minutes of applause. She then delivered a couple of throw-away lines and walked off again.

History, in short, was represented rather than made anew….Another component was the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, which, under Paul Gemignani (now elevated to patron-saint status) sounded like it was attempting to play “Tosca”: the result was not at all idiomatic, but very pretty and very earnest.

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