I was lucky to have had the opportunity to choreograph such an innovative classic as Show Boat. The themes of family, theater, and racial discrimination made this a groundbreaking musical in 1927 and again in 1994.
When Hal Prince asked me to choreograph Show Boat, he told me “I want this version to dance more than any other Show Boat.” The story of these riverboat entertainers begins in the 1880s and takes us through the 1920s – which means several dance styles.
I always do a major amount of research when I choreograph a show. I use the geographical setting and the time period to inspire my work – it lets me create my own version of dance based on authenticity.
For Show Boat, the decades of contrasting dance styles and the fact that people in the north moved very differently from people in the south were hugely influential in how I worked.
The characters of Frank and Ellie are an example of the dance teams popular during those years. The rhythmic steps of their choreography are based on clogging steps brought to America by Irish Immigrants. Frank and Ellie dance the two- step, one- step, and even the famous Castle Walk. Their choreography taps into the spirited and comic Vaudeville-style, which enhances their relationship and helps create their characters. By virtue of these roles having been written as song and dance professionals, I had a wide window of opportunity to dance my way through history.
Hal Prince asked me to create montages to show the passage of time.
In Eugene Lee’s masterful set, he recreated the famous revolving doors of the Palmer House in Chicago, placing them center stage. I used those revolving doors as a way to show the years pass by – as actors exited the spinning door, the evolution of Florence Klotz’s gorgeous costumes guided the audience through the changing years.
I gave each group of actors a backstory. They were families, lovers, businessmen, soldiers, etc. In these montages, their stories would unfold through dance and the changing styles of dance also signaled the changing years.
During one of the montages, three Black buskers perform a Charleston for coins outside the Palmer House while white folks stand around watching, trying to pick up the steps. In the next scene the white folks have their own big Charleston – also incorporating a version of a cakewalk, the black bottom, and the flea hop. It’s a moment that illustrates how this free-wheeling dance that came to represent the spirit of the Roaring 20’s was, in fact, created by Black Americans. That aspect separated this production of Show Boat from any that had come before.
The way I conceived of how to stage the montages was a departure from my usual process. During pre-production, I went into a studio, and on the floor I laid out all of Florence Klotz’s costume sketches from wall to wall. There were 73 people in the cast and her designs represented every single year through fashion.
I’d pull sketches from the floor, assign the actors I thought appropriate, and then create the stories based on her sketches. I’d drag her sketches to the center of the room and imagine them coming through the Palmer House’s revolving doors.
The show was enormous in scale. It’s rare to have a cast on Broadway as large as the cast of Show Boat. That gave me the opportunity to create large tableaus – scenes staged as grand panoramas representing the changing times in America.
The Jerome Kern estate was very gracious to allow me to change the dance music to conform to my choreography. David Krane did all of the magnificent dance arrangements and created the music for the set transitions. David was able to weave the glorious melodies of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Why Do I Love You”, “Misery’s Coming Around”, and “Ol' Man River” throughout the montages.
Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber’s novel about life on a Mississippi River Boat during the Jim Crow era, not only taps into miscegenation, but also addresses alcoholism, gambling, abandonment, and the highs and lows of show business.
For all of us in the musical theater who aim to create new shows rooted in more serious material, Show Boat is what made way for our inventions.
I’ll forever be grateful to have had the good fortune to explore all of those relevant issues, and to joyously choreograph my way through 40 years of dance history.
Winning my second Tony Award for this show was a defining moment – from that point on I discovered the importance of taking chances and was able to apply all I had learned from this radical production to my new work.
Music by Jerome Kern
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the novel "Show Boat" by Edna Ferber
Direction by Harold Prince
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Eugene Lee
Costume Design by Florence Klotz
Lighting Design by Richard Pilbrow
Sound Design by Martin Levan
Production Musical Supervision by Jeffrey Huard