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Jerome KERN (1885-1945)
Showboat (1927)
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Studio Album, 1932

Overture [4’21"]
Ol’ Man River [3’59"]
Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man [3’40"]
You Are Love [4’37"]
Make-Believe [4’09"]
Why Do I Love You? * [3’43"]
Finale [4’09"]
James Melton: Gaylord Ravenal
*Frank Munn: Gaylord Ravenal
Countess Olga Albani: Magnolia Hawks
Paul Robeson: Joe
Helen Morgan: Julie LaVerne
The Brunswick Concert Orchestra conducted by Victor Young
Recorded in New York, 20 July – 26 August 1932
Studio Recording, 1936

Ah Still Suits Me [2’51"]
Paul Robeson: Joe
Elisabeth Welch; Queenie
Orchestra conducted by Clifford Greenwood
Recorded 18 May 1936, London
Broadway Revival, 1946

Overture [4’22"]
Cotton Blossom [3’21"]
Only Make Believe [3’57"]
Ol’ Man River [4’17"]
Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man [3’59"]
Life Upon The Wicked Stage [3’51"]
You Are Love [4’26"]
Why Do I Love You? [3’14"]
Bill [4’16"]
Nobody Else But Me [4’05"]
Charles Fredericks; Gaylord Ravenal
Jan Clayton: Magnolia Hawks & Kim
Kenneth Spencer: Joe
Carol Bruce: Julie LaVerne
Helen Dowdy: Queenie
Colette Lyons: Ellie
Show Boat Orchestra conducted by Edwin MacArthur
Recorded 11, 14 February, 1936, New York.
ADD Mono
NAXOS NOSTALGIA 8.120789 [76’04"]

Crotchet Budget price

The opening night of Showboat, 15 November 1927, was a defining moment in the history of American musical theatre. Quite apart from the quality of the book, music and lyrics, this show broke new ground by proving it was possible to address difficult issues, in this case miscegenation, in the context of light entertainment. Since its première Showboat has been through umpteen productions, including a film, and as the notes accompanying this CD point out, every production has been different. Various musical numbers have either been included or excised; words have often been changed; and the orchestral arrangements have been many and various.

I first saw the show at Stratford-on-Avon a good number of years ago in a memorable co-production between Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company. That experience inspired me to invest in John McGlinn’s superb 1987 recording for EMI. That indispensable recording is in many ways definitive, not just because it is out of the top drawer artistically but also because it follows very closely the original 1927 score, although it omits some extensive passages of music, which underscore dialogue. It also includes, as an appendix, a good selection of additional numbers either cut from the show during its try-out runs or added for subsequent productions.

The McGlinn venture is as near as we’re likely to come to an ur-text recording. This fascinating Naxos release, though it can and should be enjoyed simply as entertainment, also expands our knowledge of the recorded history of this great show.

It’s based on two albums. One is the 1946 Broadway Revival album. The other is a 1932 offering, "Brunswick Presents the Musical Romance." It will be noted that several numbers are common to both, thus presenting a fascinating chance to compare performance styles.

One number that is not common, though it might appear so from the track-listing, is the Overture. The two pieces we hear on this CD are completely different from each other, though each is a pot-pourri of melodies from the show. I’m afraid I can’t say who compiled the 1932 piece. The 1946 Overture is apparently the work of the celebrated Robert Russell Bennett, no less. I wonder if he was also the arranger for the other 1946 numbers? What is certain is that neither is the original 1927 Overture as presented by McGlinn. The two pieces are quite different. The 1946 version is much more obviously "arranged". Some may find it too opulent and may prefer the more authentic, comparatively raw feel of the 1932 piece. I enjoyed both but I found I preferred marginally the more polished 1946 piece. This rather surprised me since I’m a huge fan of the 1927 score and the overture to that much more closely resembles the 1932 piece stylistically.

The 1932 recording has one very obvious trump card, the presence of the inimitable Paul Robeson as Joe. He is surprisingly fleet in his pacing of ‘Ol’ Man River’ but his sincere phrasing and simple, direct delivery is unique. Kenneth Spencer (1946) is good too. He has a deep, rich voice. He brings a blues-like inflection to the song, bending a good number of notes. It’s a valid approach but for me the song is so fine that it doesn’t need that sort of ‘help’ to make its expressive effect. The treatment of the song in 1946 is more as a "big number" than in 1932 and Spencer is joined by a chorus – not a very good one, I fear.

It’s fascinating to hear another truly great song, ‘Bill’, sung by the creator of the role of Julie, Helen Morgan. She delivers the number in a light voice, sounding like a young girl expressing open-hearted enthusiasm for her man. There’s a touch of innocent vulnerability. By contrast, Carol Bruce (1946) is clearly a much more mature woman with a voice to match and she takes the song in a lower key. Bruce’s is a more "sophisticated" approach, very much post-war in style. One assumes that Morgan’s was the voice and vocal style that Kern had in mind but it strikes me as being a bit too pert. I rather prefer the later version – but it’s great to have the contrast.

I feel that Carol Bruce also captures better the bittersweet flavour of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ more effectively than does Helen Morgan. Having said that, not everyone will like the big-band nature of the accompaniment in 1946. It sounds a bit like the work of Nelson Riddle, though I’m sure it’s not. Think Riddle, however, and you may get an aural picture. I’m not for one moment getting at Riddle, by the way. He was a supreme arranger but not, perhaps one whose style would be best suited to Showboat. On the credit side of the ledger, however, the 1946 recording presents this song, authentically, with the involvement of Queenie and Joe, whereas the 1932 version is a solo and less interesting as a result.

There’s one aspect of the 1932 recording that just doesn’t work for me at all, I’m afraid. This is the singing of James Melton. His is a most peculiar voice. It’s a light tenor in essence, though where it’s needed he has plenty of power. His production is easy and very forward and as a voice it has a great deal to commend it. Unfortunately, his delivery is almost comic. I don’t know if he was Irish but he pronounces words in what I can only describe as a Hollywood-style caricature Irish accent such as was used by actors playing kindly New York Irish cops in a certain type of 1930s movie. This style is all wrong for the role of Gaylord Ravenal. In fact after a while I found it completely off-putting. Melton has two superb solos to sing and his voice easily encompasses the wide vocal range of both songs. Were it not for the truly dreadful accent he’d be a pleasure to listen to. As it is, I’m afraid this was a grotesque piece of mis-casting.

Better by far is Charles Fredericks (1946). His delivery is easy, natural and completely unaffected. His voice is heavier than Melton’s and has a baritonal quality to it. His singing gives pleasure. Importantly, too, the 1946 recording presents both ‘You Are Love’ and ‘Only Make Believe’ as duets between Ravenal and Magnolia, as they should be. In both duets Fredericks is joined to excellent effect by Jan Clayton.

To return for a moment to Melton, I wonder why Frank Munn took over the role of Ravenal for ‘Why Do I Love You?’ Oddly, this number was set down on the same date as ‘Make-Believe’ (9 August 1932), whereas Melton had already made a separate trip to the studio to record ‘You Are Love’ on 20 July. Anyway, whatever the reason for the change it’s an improvement, I think. Countess Olga Albani sounds a bit like a grand-dame, as befits her title and both she and Munn sound rather "high society" but Munn is infinitely preferable to Melton. The same number appears in the 1946 recording and the version here, well sung by Jan Clayton and Charles Fredericks, is much closer to the 1927 original text

Now a few comments about numbers that aren’t common to both recordings. The final 1932 track is entitled ‘Finale’, to which one might ask "Finale to what?" It’s certainly not the finale to the 1927 show and I can only imagine that this was put together especially for the recording. As with the overture it’s a pot-pourri of tunes from the show and it’s mainly for orchestra though right at the very end a chorus, rather predictably, reprises ‘Ol’ Man River.’

The 1946 album contains a vigorous but exhilarating account of ‘Cotton Blossom’ – what a splendid number to have so near the start of a show! Colette Lyons is hugely entertaining in ‘Life Upon The Wicked Stage’. Her performance is just right, suiting this ironic number to a tee. And there’s also ‘Nobody Else But Me.’ This song was added to the show for the 1946 production and it has the distinction of being Kern’s last song. It features a typically grateful melody and equally typically inventive lyrics by Hammerstein. It’s persuasively put across by Jan Clayton.

The odd man out in all this, since it comes from neither album, is ‘Ah Still Suits Me,’ a vehicle for Paul Robeson in the 1936 film in which Joe duets with Queenie. Not perhaps one of Kern’s finest numbers but it’s good to have the chance to hear Robeson in it.

You may wonder why I’ve written such a detailed review of a disc of vintage musical recordings, treating this as if it were a recording of excerpts from Grand Opera. Well, frankly, Showboat is such a significant part of the history of twentieth-century music theatre that one has to pay it the compliment of treating it just as seriously as one would an opera. That’s not to say that one can’t and shouldn’t just surrender to the superb music and lyrics and enjoy them for their own sake. And this Naxos CD deserves to be taken pretty seriously too for it offers us a fascinating and very welcome chance to hear how music from the show was presented in the 1930s and 1940s, two key decades in the evolution of Broadway musicals and their performance.

A quick word about presentation. The transfers are good. The notes are useful. No texts are provided but for English-speaking listeners that won’t be a problem for the diction of all the solo singers is very clear. Finally the evocative cover picture, something one doesn’t often comment on, is well chosen

This is a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast the styles – and standards – of singing between these two albums and the same is true of the orchestral arrangements. I must admit a strong preference for the vocal performances in the 1946 version, even though I know that the arrangements are not ‘authentic’ and may strike some as too sophisticated and ‘big band’ in nature. But that’s how things were done in those days. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to be without Paul Robeson. This CD seems to me to be an essential supplement to the McGlinn recording for all those who love this truly wonderful show.

John Quinn
An essential supplement to the McGlinn recording for all those who love this truly wonderful show. ... see Full Review

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