Dysfunctional Families and Independent Women

Show Boat is a big musical in many ways, one that requires a large cast and a large physical production. It is big enough to contain a variety of themes and plot threads. Many of those themes seem to coalesce around the theme of family. Cap’n Andy calls our attention to the fact that this will be a musical about family early in the first scene, when introducing the show boat troupe as “one big happy family.”

The story of the Hawks family – how Magnolia Hawks defied her mother’s wishes to marry the man she thought she loved, and what happened – is the major narrative arc of both the novel and the musical. Parthy is hostile and suspicious of Ravenal from the time he first appears, but her husband, Cap’n Andy, is more accepting of him. Late in the first act, Parthy returns home with news that is intended to wreck the planned marriage between Gay and Nola – what is that news? She accuses Ravenal of having killed a man. Sheriff Vallon allows as how Ravenal “got off” on self-defense, which means that he is a murderer but not a criminal, and Cap’n Andy tells his wife that he himself killed a man when he was nineteen. Clearly matters of life and death like this were held in a different sort of regard a hundred and thirty years ago.

In Act Two, it turns out that, Ravenal’s charm and good looks notwithstanding, being married to him is difficult. He and Nola are reliant on his gambling for their income, which means they have many financial ups and downs. When they have money, life is great, as we see in Act Two Scene One, but Gay’s luck turns bad and when the couple loses everything, Nola has to lie to Ellie and Frank to conceal her embarassment. Ravenal is ashamed of his inability to support his wife and abandons her, sending her the news in Act Two Scene 2 in a letter accompanied by the last of his money.

Now Nola has to find a way to survive on her own. The issue of a woman being able to survive on her own recurs frequently in the stories of Edna Ferber, whose own life story is very much the same. Ferber never married, maintaining an independent life style that some might describe disparagingly as “spinsterhood.”

Interestingly, though, her father plays a role in her initial success at the Trocadero Night Club. Who can describe that incident? During the floor show on New Years Eve, Nola is introduced as singing “an old favorite.” The crowd, disappointed not to see Julie singing and indifferent to the charms of “After The Ball,” the old-fashioned waltz that Nola is singing, is noisy and rude until Cap’n Andy silences them and encourages his faltering daughter. At the end of the song, father and daughter are reunited and reconciled, and presumably her career is successfully launched; the musical now fast-forwards more than twenty years. Nola is a musical star and her daughter Kim is an adult.

In the final scene of the musical, we return to the Show Boat and learn that Cap’n Andy has invited Ravenal there, unbeknownst to Magnolia. This scene is an invention of the musical, and Ravenal does not play a role in the ending of the novel. Why would Hammerstein bring back Ravenal and force a reconciliation that is hard to believe?

I included the song “I Might Fall Back On You” not only because it is a charming song and a great example of a vaudeville style, but also because its lyric has something to say about men and women. The lyric begins with Frank singing:

Little girl, you are safe with me.
I can protect what’s mine.
I’m a sturdy maple tree
And you’re my clinging vine.

Ellie replies,

Woods are just full of maple trees,
Cedar and oak and pine.
Let me look them over, please
Then I’ll let you know
If you have a show.

Here we see the Ferber-style “independent woman” questioning the possessive advances of her mate, who sees his role as protector and provider and her role as a submissive one.

Ellie goes on to sing,

After I have looked around the world for a mate
Then, perhaps, I might fall back on you.
When I am convinced that there is no better fate,
Then I might decide that you will do.

Frank concedes,

I am just an average lad,
Though no gift to womanhood,
Some girls say I’m not so bad.

And Ellie counters,

Others say you’re not so good!
But if you are patient, dear, and willing to wait,
There’s a chance I might fall back on you.

Take a minute and enjoy Gower and Marge Champion as they perform this number from the 1951 film of Show Boat. Perhaps you’ll even have some questions about the appropriateness of their interpretation given what you just read.

This song depicts in comic terms the relationship between a self-important man and an independent woman who sees his imperfections more clearly than he does himself. It provides a humorous echo or counterpart to the Gay and Nola plot. The interplay between the two of them in Act Two Scene Two demonstrates that the characteristics evident in this song are also apparent in their real-life relationship.

The imperfections of men are also prominently featured in the song that Julie sings in Act II, “Bill.” The inclusion of this song in the score has always been a bit of a curiosity. For one thing, it was written by a different lyricist, P. G. Wodehouse, for a show that he and Jerome Kern wrote ten years earlier. That lyric is about the gentleman who is the object of the singer’s affections, a man who is far from perfect, in fact laughable in many ways.

I used to dream that I would discover
The perfect lover someday.
I knew I’d recognize him if ever
He came ’round my way.
I always used to fancy then
He’d be one of the God-like kind of men
With a giant brain and a noble head
Like the heroes bold
In the books I’ve read.

But along came Bill
Who’s not the type at all,
You’d meet him on the street
And never notice him.
His form and face,
His manly grace
Are not the kind that you
Would find in a statue,
And I can’t explain,
It’s surely not his brain
That makes me thrill –
I love him because he’s wonderful,
Because he’s just my Bill.

He can’t play golf or tennis or polo,
Or sing a solo, or row.
He isn’t half as handsome
As dozens of men that I know.
He isn’t tall or straight or slim
And he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim.
And I can’t explain why he should be
Just the one, one man in the world for me.

He’s just my Bill, an ordinary man,
He hasn’t got a thing that I can brag about.
And yet to be
Upon his knee
So comfy and roomy
Seems natural to me.
Oh, I can’t explain,
It’s surely not his brain
That makes me thrill –
I love him because he’s – I don’t know…
Because he’s just my Bill.

Like I Might Fall Back On You and Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man, Bill is used as a diegetic song in the play; that is, it is sung by a singer on a stage who acknowledges the act of singing a song. It’s a bit of a rosy depiction of a loser, and doesn’t indicate what the singer thinks Bill’s feelings are about her. However, from what we know of Morgan’s onstage persona and the documentation of her performance in the 1936, there is a wistful melancholy quality to her delivery that suggests that, at the very least, all is not well between Bill and the girl singing about him.

These three songs – Bill, I Might Fall Back on You, and Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man – are all thematically linked, and suggest that women being all too aware of their mates’ shortcomings but willing to love them nevertheless is a common female experience.

There is, of course, an abundant repertoire of such songs. What are some other songs that girls sing about boys they can’t help loving despite their shortcomings? Brecht and Weill’s Surabaya Johnny is a particularly pungent example.

“Bill” is an interestingly modern lyric. It’s written as a ballad, and if you were to hear the music without the words, there’s an unmistakable tenderness to it. Yet its subject is Bill’s ordinariness. It was unprecedented at the time this song was written to write about one’s beloved as ordinary; indeed, look at the conventional operetta love songs that Show Boat features, like “You Are Love” (“You are Spring/Bud of romance unfurl’d”) which are full of soaring imagery and quite unlike this song. Then, to top it all off, there’s the final stanza, in which the singer finally gives up on her attempts to explain the reason she feels as she does:

Oh, I can’t explain,
It’s surely not his brain
That makes me thrill –
I love him because he’s – I don’t know…
Because he’s just my Bill.

Songs up until this time were all about being able to explain, being able to find the perfect words to convey your feelings. Now, for the first time, we experience an inarticulate character whose feelings go beyond her ability to express them in words. Those three little words – “I don’t know” – are revolutionary for their time, and represent a major breakthrough in how musical dramatists like Oscar Hammerstein used song lyrics. It will be a few decades before we see Hammerstein take full advantage of this innovation, but believe me, we will.

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