The 1920s and 1930s were the era of the great American song-writing teams - George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. In their shows, songs began to be integrated rather than just inserted into the plot, and were used to help develop storyline and character.
Programme for the musical Show Boat, Drury Lane Theatre, London, Printed by Henry Good and Son Limited, September 1928
In 1928 Show Boat, a new musical adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and music by Jerome Kern, opened at the Drury Lane theatre. It had been produced in New York the previous Christmas. The play takes place on the show boat, 'Cotton-Blossom', a floating theatre that travels up and down the Mississippi, stopping to put on performances along the way. The great American actor and singer Paul Robeson played a minor role, but stole the show with the song 'Ol Man River'. All the reviews singled out Robeson, one claiming that he and the other black member of the cast Marie Burke, ‘towered above everybody else on the stage in their suggestions of character and atmosphere’. His position at fourth in the cast list shows that the producers didn't underestimate his worth either. Robeson was a major pioneer among black performers. He visited Britain several times in the 1920s and 30s, starring in a number of films here and appearing on stage in London and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon.
Music sheet cover for Old Man River, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1928
Show Boat combined the talents of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, both of whom had felt for some time that Broadway musical theatre was suffering from a surfeit of fluffy musical comedies and needed some depth. Based on Edna Ferber's sprawling novel of life on the Mississippi, Show Boat opened in New York in 1927 and set out to deal with issues such as unhappy marriages and racial prejudice. It opened in New York in 1927 and ran for 572 performances. Magnolia Hawks, whose father owns the show boat 'Cotton Blossom', falls in love with a gambler named Gaylord Ravenal. They marry, but he gambles away all their money and they separate. The subplot involves Magnolia's mulatto (a person having one white and one black parent) friend, Julie La Verne, who is forbidden to perform when her parentage is revealed. The show mixed white and black performers, and 'Ol' Man River', sung by Paul Robeson, became an anthem for black Americans. He repeated his role in the 1936 film, starring Irene Dunne and Alan Jones as Magnolia and Ravenal, who appear on this sheet music, rather than Robeson, who actually performed the song.
Scene from the musical Pal Joey, Princes Theatre, London, 1954, black and white photograph
Pal Joey, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, was based on a series of short stories by John O'Hara about Joey Evans, a small-time, fast-talking Chicago entertainer. Starring an unknown called Gene Kelly, it opened on Broadway in 1940, but didn't run, although many of the songs became standards with the big bands of the time. Not until 1952 did it become a hit when a new production played on Broadway for 540 performances, sparked a twelve-city national tour, and went on to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for 'Best Musical'.