THE "Cotton Blossom", a show boat travelling up and down the Mississippi River in or about 1890, has come to Natchez. Stevedores are hard at work on the levee, while the gay crowds have come to welcome the arrival of the show folks ("Cotton Blossom"). Gaylord Ravenal, a dashing young man who is also an irresponsible gambler, meets Magnolia aboard ship. She is the daughter of Cap'n Andy, owner of "Cotton Blossom". She soon reveals to Gaylord that, since she is most at ease in the world of make believe, she would like to become an actress. Gaylord counters by inquiring why the two of them cannot make believe that they know each other well ("Only Make Believe"). After Gaylord leaves, Magnolia asks Joe what he thinks of Gaylord. Joe prefers to be evasive: he advises Magnolia to direct her question to the Mississippi, which knows all the answers ("Ol' Man River").
A half hour later, in the kitchen pantry of "Cotton Blossom", Magnolia confesses to Julie -- star of the Show Boat -- that she has just fallen in love. Julie warns Magnolia to be careful about falling in love, that love is a treacherous thing, that a girl must be sure that the man she loves is worthy of her ("Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man").
A sheriff then comes to the boat to warn Cap'n Andy that under no circumstances are Julie, and her husband Steve, to be permitted to appear in the Show Boat performance that evening. Julie is a Negress, and her husband is half white; local laws forbid miscegenation. Julie and Steve make their leave of their good friends on "Cotton Blossom". Their parts in the show are hurriedly assumed by Magnolia and Ravenal. After the performance that night, on the boat's deck Magnolia and Ravenal confess to each other how much they are in love ("You are Love"), and Gaylord asks Magnolia to marry him.
Several years elapse. Magnolia and Gaylord are married and have a daughter, Kim. Cap'n Andy comes to visit them at the Midway Plaisance of the Chicago World's Fair. Magnolia reveals to her father that Gaylord is irresponsible, that his changing fortunes as a gambler have poisoned their lives; but none the less she loves him still. But before long, Gaylord deserts his wife and child. To earn a living, Magnolia applies for a singing job at the Trocadero. The singing star there is none other than Julie, who entertains her audience with a poignant rendition of the ballad "Bill". When Julie discovers that Magnolia is out of work, she precipitously gives up her own job at the Trocadero so that Magnolia might take over. Magnolia does -- and becomes a huge success. Then Cap'n Andy comes to the Trocadero to take her and Kim back to "Cotton Blossom". There a repentant Gaylord is waiting for his wife and daughter.
With Show Boat a new art form emerged in the American musical theatre for the first time: the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy. Here was a rich, colorful, nostalgic chapter from the American past filled with humour, gentle pathos, tenderness and high drama. It bewitched the eye, ear and heart. It was a revelation; and it was a revolution. Here was something unique for the musical stage of that day: an American musical comedy with dramatic truth; a plot with a logical, believable line; a love story that rang true. Here were three-dimensional characters in place of the cardboard images previously populating the musical stage. Here were authenticity of background and atmosphere. Here were dialogue and lyrics that were supple, fresh and imaginative -- capable of soaring to poetic heights without abandoning the vernacular and the idiomatic. And, finally, here was a musical score which was an extravagant outpouring of the most wonderful melodies. Though it was a pioneer in creating a new genre in the musical theatre -- and though many remarkable productions since 1927 have developed the musical play into a genuine art form -- Show Boat still remains one of the best of the species. In its frequent revivals, whether on stage or screen, Show Boat still never fails to cast a spell on audiences.
It was for a revival of Show Boat on Broadway, in 1946, that Kern wrote the last song of his rich career, "No One But Me". Before that revival could reach the stage, Kern suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that proved fatal. He died in New York City on November 11, 1945. The revival of Show Boat, for which Kern had come to New York, opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on January 5, 1946, to begin a run of 418 performances.
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