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.
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.