It's been more than eight decades since "Show Boat," the seminal masterpiece created by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, premiered on the stage here in Washington, D.C. Well, now, "Show Boat" is back in Washington, in a lush production put on by the Washington National Opera. NPR's Nina Totenberg, who loves music as much as the law, has this report.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Based on Edna Ferber's epic, best-selling novel, "Show Boat" was nothing like the frothy musicals of the time. Though the story is about a traveling show boat that plays to audiences along the Mississippi River, the plot focuses on serious subjects - racial injustice, alcoholism, abandonment. Panoramic in scale, the show spans 40 years; from 1885 in the South, not long after the Civil War, to the roaring '20s in Chicago. And displayed, in all their glory, are some of the most beautiful love songs of the 20th century.


TOTENBERG: "Show Boat" pioneered emerging music and plot, integrating them for the first time to provide a seamless transition. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, just 31 years old, worked closely with composer Jerome Kern to replicate Ferber's sweeping narrative. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Oscar Hammerstein II was the lyricist.] In a 1950s interview, Hammerstein described how he used the Mississippi River as the thread to hold all the plot elements together.


OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II: I thought that we lacked something to make it cohesive, so I wanted to keep the spirit of Edna's book. And the one focal influence I could find was the river because she had quite consciously brought the river into every important turn in the story - the Mississippi. So I decided to write a theme, a river theme.


TOTENBERG: That's Morris Robinson, singing the role of Joe in the current production directed by Francesca Zambello, who pushed and prodded to bring "Show Boat" back.

FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO: I really was drawn to it because of the issues. And I feel that we have been able to convey to people the fact that the issues of race are still very much with us today.

TOTENBERG: Color is indeed a key underlying theme throughout the drama. Take Julie, the show boat's star act.

ZAMBELLO: Julie is the fulcrum of the show because she brings the dramatic issue that changes everything.

TOTENBERG: She's secretly biracial and married to a white man, a marriage that is a crime in Mississippi and much of the rest of the country. Even before Julie is forced to leave the boat, the showboat's cook and uber mother, Queenie, senses misery's coming.


TOTENBERG: This beautiful number was cut from the original production, for time. But Francesca Zambello restored it, and more.

ZAMBELLO: The theme of "Misery," you hear not only with Queenie and all the women working; but it also weaves its way underneath the dialogue every time Julie speaks after that. It becomes her sadness, and her secret.

TOTENBERG: Zambello sees "Show Boat" as timeless, its themes recurring in American life over and over again. True, there are no laws against interracial marriage anymore, but as "Show Boat" plays at the Kennedy Center this month, the Supreme Court, just a couple of miles away, is considering questions of same-sex marriage, affirmative action and voting rights; while Congress focuses on how we, as a nation, treat immigrants.

ZAMBELLO: To do this kind of work - that has such deep social underpinnings to it, and really speaks about social change - is, I think, rare in music theater. And if you wrote this musical today, I'm not sure that it would get on.

TOTENBERG: "Show Boat," of course, is first and foremost, entertainment. It's spectacle, with joyous dancing, romance and the pathos of love found, lost, and found again. Well, perhaps. In Zambello's production, the ending is not as happy as in the original. It's more ambiguous.


TOTENBERG: But in the meantime, hearts flutter; audience members hold hands, reach for their handkerchiefs, and leave the theater singing the many songs that remain standards long after the show that inspired them has been forgotten by younger generations. As director Zambello observes, most people don't know the context of these songs anymore.

ZAMBELLO: And most of them really have a strong dramatic context, and a meaning behind them.

TOTENBERG: A meaning that was all too apparent to the first audience that saw "Show Boat" in 1927. It sat in stunned silence when the final curtain came down, and only after a moment or two began to applaud. Today, the themes of "Show Boat" are more painful than shocking, for a modern audience. But history is painful because it remains part of our national genetic code.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.


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