Show Boat (1927)


Show Boat (1927)

Full-Length Musical, Drama  /  8w, 9m, 1girl(s)

Music by Jerome Kern
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Based on the novel Show Boat by Edna Ferber

This classic musical, centered around the Hawkes family, follows forty years in the lives of the people connected with a Mississippi River show boat. Its themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love.

Image: 2006 Royal Albert Hall Production (Tristram Kenton)

  • Cast Size
    Cast Size
    8w, 9m, 1girl(s)
  • Duration
    More than 120 minutes (2 hours)
  • SubGenre
    Adaptations (Literature), Period, Docudrama/Historic
  • Audience
    Target Audience
    Appropriate for all audiences, Adult


Spanning the years from 1880 to 1927, this lyrical masterpiece, centered around the Mississippi show boat Cotton Blossom, concerns the lives, loves and heartbreaks of three generations of show folk and their lifelong friends. Show Boat follows the story of the Hawkes family, including the captain’s naive daughter Magnolia, who wants to be a performer, as she marries a gambler and moves with him to Chicago. When his debts compound, he deserts her and their young daughter. Magnolia's selfless best friend Julie, a performer on the Cotton Blossom, faces arrest on charges of miscegenation, which is illegal, and she spirals into despair. The passing of time reunites Magnolia and her now-grown daughter with Magnolia's estranged husband, who returns offering a second chance at familial happiness.

Show Boat opened on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27, 1927. The show was a great critical and popular success, running for a total of 572 performances. In 1936, Universal Studios released a film adaptation of the musical featuring Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson. In 1951, MGM released a full-color film adaptation, using many of the songs from the stage adaptation but reworking much of the plot. After its initial run, Show Boat returned to Broadway no less than six times: in 1932 and 1946 at the Ziegfeld Theatre; in 1948 and 1954 at New York City Center; in 1983 at the Uris (Gershwin) Theatre featuring Donald O'Connor as Cap'n Andy; and in 1994, again at the Gershwin, under the direction of Harold Prince. Prince's 1994 production earned Show Boat its longest Broadway run with 947 performances. In 2011, a new version of Show Boat, adapted for a smaller cast and orchestra, opened at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, under the direction of Rob Ruggiero.

Writers' Notes

Edna Ferber:

As the writing of the musical play proceeded (and its ups and downs were even more heartbreaking than those of most musical plays) I heard bits and pieces of the score. Once or twice everything was seemingly abandoned because Ziegfeld said he couldn't produce the play. Almost a year went by. I had heard "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" with its love-bemused lyric... I had melted under the bewitching strains of "Make Believe" and of "Why Do I Love You?"... And then Jerome Kern appeared at my apartment late one afternoon with a strange look of quiet exultation in his eyes. He sat down at the piano. He didn't play the piano particularly well and his singing voice, though true, was negligible. He played and sang "Ol' Man River." The music mounted, mounted, and I give you my word my hair stood on end, the tears came to my eyes, I breathed like a heroine in a melodrama. This was great music. This was music that would outlast Jerome Kern's day and mine. I have never heard it since without that emotional surge. When Show Boat was revived at the Casino Theater in New York just four years after its original production at the Ziegfeld I saw a New York first-night audience, after Paul Robeson's singing of 'Ol' Man River,' shout and cheer and behave generally as I've never seen an audience behave in any theater in all my years of playgoing.

Alice Hammerstein Mathias:

For the 1946 revival of Show Boat, my father Oscar Hammerstein II inserted a note in the program giving P.G. Wodehouse full credit for the lyrics to “Bill.”  Wodehouse did write the original lyric, but my father contributed to the song as performed in Show Boat. In addition, as was customary in the 1920’s, the authors interpolated three ‘modern’ selections to the second act. They are John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post March,” Joseph E. Howard’s “Goodbye, My Lady Love,” and Charles K. Harris’ waltz “After the Ball.” All three have become part of the traditional score of Show Boat.


Act I

On a levee on the Mississippi River in the late 1880s, workers load cotton bales while townspeople crowd around a showboat (“Cotton Blossom”). As Captain Andy Hawks leads the Show Boat Parade, he introduces varying talents presented aboard the Cotton Blossom (“Show Boat Parade and Ballyhoo”). When the parade ends, Pete, a wild-eyed local man, approaches the leading lady of the Cotton Blossom, Julie LaVerne. Using a racist expletive, he accuses LaVerne of giving a golden broach he’d given to her to a Black woman. Clearly, the gift was unwelcomed and the Cotton Blossom’s handsome leading man, Steve Baker, fights Pete for bothering his wife. The fight is broken up and Cap’n Andy chalks it all up to another sample of their act; “Jest one big happy family!” The band strikes up again.

Parthy Hawks, Cap’n Andy’s wife, tells Julie she doesn’t want their daughter Magnolia to associate with anyone of her kind. Julie, who loves Magnolia like a sister, runs off saying that if she can’t see Magnolia, she can no longer do the show. Cap’n Andy is torn because Julie is the best leading lady on the river, but he also wants to honor his wife’s wishes.

Gaylord Ravenal, a young gentleman wayfarer, is back in town but, legally, can only stay in Natchez for 24 hours. An optimist, he’ll ride anywhere the river takes him. By chance, he meets Magnolia on the wharf. To keep proper, the two pretend to be already acquainted with one another (“Only Make Believe”). They say goodbye when Ravenal is called to see a local judge. Joe, a Black Cotton Blossom employee, stumbles upon them saying their goodbyes. As Magnolia leaves, he suggests she ask the river what it thinks of boys like Ravenal, for the river must know something about everything (“Ol’ Man River”).

Magnolia sits in the kitchen pantry of the Cotton Blossom with Joe’s wife Queenie when Julie arrives. Magnolia declares she’s in love with a man whom she does not know. Julie says girls like Magnolia don’t fall out of love so easy, saying that she can’t imagine a life not spent loving her own husband (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”).

The company of the Cotton Blossom rehearses for that evening’s performance of their melodrama. Sheriff Vallon arrives declaring that there is an illegal interracial marriage onboard, detailing that Julie had a white father and a Black mother. Because she’s married to Steve, a white man, their union is against the law of the state. Horrified, Steve and Julie pack their things. Andy cancels that evening’s show, unsure of who will fill their roles. Frank, a supporting actor in the show, mentions a handsome fellow he met on the wharf who might be perfect to take over Steve’s part, and introduces Andy to Gaylord Ravenal. He doesn’t seem keen on the proposition until Ravenal notices Magnolia, who is then offered Julie’s lead role opposite him. Julie and Steve leave the Cotton Blossom, and Andy begins directing Ravenal and Magnolia in a love scene.

Three weeks later, Ravenal and Magnolia are popular stars in demand at the box office. While selling tickets, Ellie is avoiding Frank’s proposition of marriage when two backwoodsmen approach. They purchase two tickets for that night’s show, ensuring they won’t have any trouble should they arrive carrying guns. When they leave, two girls recognize Ellie as an actress and gush over how glamorous her life must be. Ellie explains that though her profession may be different, it’s never what a girl supposes (“Life Upon The Wicked Stage”).

Though Andy disagrees, Parthy is concerned about Ravenal’s admiration for Magnolia, saying she has reason to suspect his character. Queenie asks about the size of the audience that night and Andy says that it’s full except for the balcony. Queenie thinks Andy isn’t doing enough to talk to the Black customers and decides to help him (“Ballyhoo”).

In the Cotton Blossom’s sold-out auditorium, Magnolia and Ellie play sisters when Ravenal enters as Magnolia’s love interest. The backwoodsmen sit in box seats with Parthy and excitedly watch their first play but stand up and brandish their guns when Frank appears as the villain to Magnolia’s character. When Frank fearfully exits the scene, Andy must complete the play by telling the story by himself.

On the Cotton Blossom later that night, Ravenal asks Magnolia to marry him in Greenville the next morning, when her mother will be out of town on business. Hesitant, Magnolia wonders whether she will always mean as much to Ravenal as she does now. Ravenal, determined, explains how his fortune changed since meeting her (“You Are Love”). On the levee at Greenville the next morning, large groups of townspeople have come excited to see the two leads get married. Just as festivities get underway, Parthy storms in with Sheriff Vallon, announcing that Ravenal killed a man last year, though the Sheriff adds that it was in self-defense. Andy admits to having done the same when he was 19 years old. Outraged, Parthy faints and the wedding goes on joyously.

Act II

A few years have passed. At the World’s Fair in Chicago, where Ravenal and Magnolia now live, crowds enthusiastically take in the sights and attractions (“At the Fair”). Magnolia remains vague when Parthy asks what Ravenal does for a living, commenting on how well off they are now. Ravenal and his friend appear to have just made a large sum of money. Ravenal suggests Magnolia and her parents celebrate with a lavish dinner, but Parthy declines disapprovingly on behalf of Andy, leaving the newlyweds to dine without them. Before Ravenal returns to his card game, Magnolia tells him how happy she is, how much she loves him and how much she misses him when he’s gone (“Why Do I Love You?”).

Eleven years later, Ellie and Frank are seeing a potential home in Chicago. The landlady divulges that the current tenant is a gambler who’s been losing all his possessions to pawn, including his wife’s wedding ring. Just then, Magnolia appears, and it’s clear that Ravenal is the said gambler, and they are to be evicted for not paying rent. As Frank, Ellie and Magnolia catch up, avoiding the elephant in the room, an envelope from Ravenal is delivered. It’s money to care for their daughter, Kim, and a letter detailing that he is out of money and must leave them. Ellie and Frank offer to help her get a job assisting their new act.

In rehearsal at The Trocadero, Frank and Ellie warm up. The manager demands to see his leading lady, an older Julie LaVerne, sing a new song, despite her feeling under the weather since Steve left her due to her drinking problem (“Bill”). He threatens that if she goes off on another tear tonight, she will lose her job. Julie dismisses the threats and goes backstage just before Magnolia arrives at the stage door. Frank introduces Magnolia to the manager, who says there are no spots left on the bill. Pessimistically, he watches her sing while accompanying herself on the guitar (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” Reprise), while Julie watches from behind the curtains. Unseen by Magnolia, Julie leaves out the stage door with her belongings. When Magnolia finishes the song, the manager is unimpressed. The doorman relays a message from Julie that she’s gone on that tear, and the manager hires Magnolia after all, in Julie’s place.

At St. Agatha’s Convent, Ravenal says goodbye to his daughter before leaving town. She promises to think of him all the time, and to never forget what he told her; to make believe (“Only Make Believe” Reprise).

Back at the Trocadero, on New Year’s Eve, Ellie and Frank perform their act (“Goodbye My Lady Love”). A tipsy Andy is ushered to a table. Frank is surprised to reunite with Andy and explains that Magnolia is coincidentally opening her act at this very restaurant this evening. She begins her number (“After the Ball”) but the crowd initially rejects her, frustrated by the sudden absence of the show’s star, Julie. However, in the middle of her song, Magnolia spots her father in the audience and regains confidence, thus winning over the crowd. Magnolia and her father joyously reunite to wish each other a Happy New Year just as the clock strikes midnight.

On the stern of the Cotton Blossom in 1927, Joe and Queenie bicker as always. Queenie remarks that Joe hasn’t changed in all that time. Joe, looking to the river, doesn’t think much has changed at all (“Ol’ Man River” Reprise).

Andy and Ravenal sit on the upper deck of The Cotton Blossom listening to Magnolia’s voice on a radio. She has become a Broadway star. When her song finishes, the announcer reveals that, though Magnolia Ravenal retired six years ago, her name is kept on by her musical comedy star daughter, Kim. Andy and Ravenal, who ran into each other the day before, anticipate Magnolia’s arrival the following evening. Parthy calls on Andy, who goes to see her, leaving Ravenal to imagine seeing Magnolia once again after all these years (“You Are Love” Reprise).

As boys and girls sing on a slightly modernized Cotton Blossom at the Greenville levee in 1927, Frank and Ellie apologize to Andy for having to leave the show early to make an eleven o’clock boat out of town. Ravenal and Magnolia share a warm reunion, as do the rest of the show folk, finally gathered again after so many years.

The ensemble for Show Boat features a Black singing and dancing ensemble and a non-Black singing and dancing ensemble, as well as numerous small roles and children.

Windy – the pilot of the Cotton Blossom.
Steve Baker – the leading man in the Show Boat Troupe
Pete – the engineer on the Show Boat
Queenie – the African American cook on the Show Boat
Parthy Ann Hawkes – Cap’n Andy’s wife
Cap’n Andy – the captain of the Show Boat
Ellie May Chipley – the soubrette in the Show Boat Troupe
Frank Schultz – Ellie's boyfriend, the villain in the Show Boat Troupe
Julie LaVerne – Steve's wife, the leading lady in the Show Boat Troupe, mixed ethnicity
Gaylord Ravenal – a handsome gambler
Sherrif Vallon – of Natchez
Magnolia Hawkes – Parthy and Andy’s daughter
Joe – Queenie's husband, an African American stevedore
Congress of Beauties
Jim Greene – the director of the floor show at the Trocadero Nightclub
Jake – the pianist at the Trocadero
Charlie – the doorman at the Trocadero
Mother Superior
Kim (child) – Magnolia and Ravenal’s 10-year-old daughter
Old Lady on Levee

Based on the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber and spanning the years from 1880 to 1927, Show Boat chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom. The roles and ensembles indicated as African American should be cast accordingly. One pivotal plot point involves the character of Julie, who is mixed ethnicity. This should always be taken into consideration when casting that particular role. The use of make-up or prosthetics to alter an actor’s ethnicity is prohibited.

Based on the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber and spanning the years from 1880 to 1927, Show Boat chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom. The roles and ensembles indicated as African American should be cast accordingly. One pivotal plot point involves the character of Julie, who is mixed ethnicity. This should always be taken into consideration when casting that particular role. The use of make-up or prosthetics to alter an actor's ethnicity is prohibited.

  • Time Period 1920s, 1910s / WWI, 1900-1910, 18th Century
  • Setting Along the Mississippi River and in Chicago, 1890s-1927.
  • Features Period Costumes
  • Duration More than 120 minutes (2 hours)


Show Boat has become part of the American experience, part of our folklore, with ‘Ol’ Man River’ occupying a permanent place in our collective unconscious.” — The New Yorker

Excellent ...perilously close to being the best New York has exceptionally tuneful score...every ingredient that the perfect musical should have.” — The New York Times

Show Boat dates from 1927's for the ages.” — Chicago Tribune

A jewel of the American theater...Featuring so many perfect scenes and songs that it is impossible to mention them all. Show Boat is the granddaddy of every great musical ever written!” — Los Angeles Times

A masterpiece!...Show Boat is a great and richly entertaining musical.” — Houston Chronicle


  • Show Boat (1927)

    Image: 2006 Royal Albert Hall Production (Tristram Kenton)

  • Show Boat (1927)

    Image: 2006 Royal Albert Hall Production (Tristram Kenton)


Music Samples

1. “Cotton Blossom” – Stevedores and Townspeople
2. “Show Boat Parade and Ballyhoo” – Cap’n Andy, the Show Boat Troupe and Townspeople
3. “Only Make Believe” – Ravenal and Magnolia
4. “Ol’ Man River” – Joe and Stevedores
5. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” – Julie, Queenie, Magnolia, Joe and Quartette
6. “Life Upon The Wicked Stage” – Ellie and Ensemble
7. “Ballyhoo and Dance” – Queenie and Ensemble
8. “You Are Love” – Magnolia and Ravenal
9. “Finale” – Entire Ensemble
10. “At The Fair” – Sightseers and Barkers
11. “Why Do I Love You?” – Magnolia, Ravenal and Ensemble
12. “In Dahomey” – Dahomey Villagers
13. “Bill (Lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse)” – Julie
14. “Reprise: Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” – Magnolia
15. “Service and Scene Music, St. Agatha’s Convent” - 
16. “Reprise: Only Make Believe” – Ravenal
17. “Goodbye My Lady Love (Cake Walk)” – Frank and Ellie
18. “After The Ball” – Magnolia
19. “Reprise: Ol’ Man River” – Joe
20. “Reprise: You Are Love” – Ravenal
21. “Finale” – Entire Ensemble

Full Orchestration

Flute (Doubling Piccolo)
Oboe (Optional English Horn doubling)
Clarinet I&II
Horn I&II
Trumpet I&II
Violin A,B,C&D
Viola (Divisi)
Cello (Divisi)
Banjo/Guitar (Requires 2 Players)

Trap Set

  • Musical Style Classic Broadway, Operetta
  • Dance Requirements Difficult
  • Vocal DemandsModerate
  • Orchestra Size Medium
  • Chorus Size Large

Licensing & Materials

  • Licensing fees and rental materials quoted upon application.

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Music Rentals

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30 Libretto-Vocal Book
1 Piano-Vocal
1 Flute
1 Oboe
1 Clarinet 1&2
1 Bassoon
1 Horn 1&2
1 Trumpet 1&2
1 Trombone
2 Percussion
2 Banjo/Guitar
4 Violin A,B,C&D
1 Viola
1 Cello
1 Bass
1 Logo Pack
30 Libretto-Vocal Book
1 Piano-Vocal
1 Logo Pack


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Oscar Hammerstein II

Oscar Hammerstein II was born on July 12, 1895 in New York City. His father, William, was a theatre manager and for many years director of Hammerstein's Victoria, the most popular vaudeville theatre of its day. His uncle, Arthur Hammerstein, was a successful Broadway producer ...

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Jerome Kern

Jerome Kern (1885-1945) composed his first complete show, The Red Petticoat, in 1912. Between 1915 and 1919, he composed a series of intimate chamber musicals, mostly in collaboration with Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, known as the Princess Theatre shows. These works — Very ...

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Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber (1887-1968) was an American novelist and playwright whose camera-like regional descriptions and vigorous portraiture of ordinary men and women made her one of the most popular authors of the early 20th century. Her first professional writing was done for newspaper ...

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