Everyone has their own idea of what makes a great musical!
Show Boat (1927)
The history of music theatre is divided into two eras: before Show Boat and after Show Boat. Before it, musicals were pastiche, light-weight entertainment – a skeleton of a plot on to which songs were hung. Show Boat revealed that a Broadway musical was free to take up any kind of theme, however controversial, and deal with serious issues in a provocative way. Light and cheerful scenes could be contrasted with others of human anguish set in a score both tuneful and memorable.
Show Boat was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1926 and first performed on 15 November 1927. Act I ran for two hours and the whole evening lasted four hours ten minutes! Imagine, too, the shock at the Broadway opening when the curtain rose on a chorus of Negroes lugging huge cotton bales and singing
“Niggers all work on de Mississippi,
Niggers all work while de white folks play –
Loadin’ up boats wid de bales of cotton,
Gittin’ no rest til de Judgment Day.”
The verse not only stunned the audience but set the scene for a spectacular portrait of the Old South from the 1880s to the Roaring Twenties. Jerome Kern’s music took the time-line into account, starting with ballade-style songs and ending with contemporary jazz.
Porgy and Bess (1935)
“If I am successful it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger.” This was the challenge that George Gershwin set for himself composing his opera Porgy and Bess. He wrote it in collaboration with his brother Ira Gershwin, and Edwin DuBose Heyward on whose novel Porgy they based the plot. Heyward got the idea from a newspaper article about a maimed black man named “Goat Sammy” Smalls and set the story in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sympathetic to people of colour, Gershwin had already written a one-act work about Negro life called Blue Monday. He revised it three years later when it became 135th Street, but it was not a success. Gershwin still wanted to set Porgy, fighting off a suggestion that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein turn it into a musical for Al Jolson! Gershwin spent several months researching his material, living on Folly Island, South Carolina, listening to Negro spirituals and local (undoubtedly tall) tales.
The opera premiered in Boston and then moved to New York where it ran for 124 performances before touring. But the production wound up losing its entire $70,000 investment and critical reaction was mixed. Gradually, though, its music began to be performed by orchestras and singers and notable revivals took place. It was only in 1976 that the first complete recording was made and since then Porgy and Bess has been performed in concert and at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and at Glyndebourne, Sussex.