Show Boat Study Guide


Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the Bestselling novel of the same name by Edna Ferber


Characters & Synopsis
Looking into History
Edna Ferber: The Story
Jerome Kern: The Music
Oscar Hammerstein II: The Adaptation


Characters & Synopsis

Act I
Spanning 20 years, Show Boat begins in the late 1880s along the Mississippi River at Natchez, touring amidst the backdrop of the post-reconstruction South.

The townsfolk gather to greet the arrival of the floating theatre, known as the Cotton Blossom, led by Captain Andy Hawks. Inspiring a parade, the Captain presents the members of the company and promotes the evening’s performance.

A heated argument ensues among the Cotton Blossom’s engineer, Pete, and one of the lead performers, Steve. Pete is flirting with Steve’s wife and co-star, Julie. Captain Andy passes the brawl off as part of their planned show; describing the troupe as “one big happy family,” but later he fires Pete.

Captain Andy’s young daughter, Magnolia, plays the boat piano, attracting the attention of Gaylord Ravenal, a riverboat gambler. The two are immediately smitten with each other. The couple engages in some playful flirting in the popular tune “Only Make Believe.”

The Sheriff informs Ravenal that he has to leave town within the next twenty-four hours on an account of a murder charge. Ravenal defends himself, as the killing was proven an action of self-defense. Joe, a crewmember aboard the boat, seems to observe all the recent developments surrounding the boat. He sings the famous tune, “Ol’ Man River” as he considers life along the Mississippi, and the role that the River plays in everyone’s lives.

Despite the stern disapproval of Magnolia’s mother, Parthy, Magnolia and Julie have become close friends; Julie gives Magnolia piano lessons, and Magnolia confides in Julie about her interest in Ravenal. Joined in the kitchen by Queenie (the boat cook), Joe and other crew members, they discuss the wonders of love in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

Queenie senses that misery is coming around, while a bitter Pete reveals to the Sheriff that Julie is actually of racially mixed parentage and is passing herself off as a white woman. The Sheriff is on his way to arrest Julie because in Mississippi inter-marriage between races is a crime. Wanting to support his wife, Steve takes out his large knife, cuts Julie’s hand, and drinks her blood, as an attempt to claim that he has “negro” blood in him. The Sheriff lets them off the hook, but prohibits that evening’s performance. Julie and Steve feel they have no choice but to leave the Cotton Blossom.

Now in need of new stars for the show, the Captain considers his daughter, Magnolia and the gambler, Ravenal, despite Parthy’s objections. The ensuing on-stage romance fuels the off-stage passion between Magnolia and Ravenal as they enjoy great success with the show, performing to sold-out audiences. Ravenal eventually proposes to Magnolia. They profess their love for each other in the favorite tune, “You are Love.” The following morning everyone comes together to participate in the wedding celebrations.

Act II
Everyone is entranced in the festivities at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Ravenal’s perilous lifestyle relocates the couple to the city. For a time, gambling pays well and they live in luxury. But their luck quickly fades and by 1903, the couple is forced to move into a boarding house, with their new daughter, Kim. Unable to cope with family and financial responsibilities, Ravenal abandons Magnolia and Kim.

Forced to search for performing opportunities, Magnolia takes an audition with the company where Julie is currently working. Unfortunately, the once loyal Steve has since abandoned Julie and she has taken to heavy drinking. Julie overhears Magnolia singing the song which Julie taught Magnolia years ago on the boat. Knowing that Magnolia must be desperate for work, Julie quietly quits her job and leaves before the two can reunite.

Once Magnolia is employed, Andy and Parthy take a surprise trip to Chicago to visit. Attending a show alone in the city, Andy finds his daughter in the performance. An emotional mess, Magnolia is just about booed off stage. Knowing how to work a crowd, Andy charms the audience into a sing-along. The rallied support from the audience energizes Magnolia.

More than twenty years later, in 1927, Magnolia is retiring from a successful performing career and returning to the Cotton Blossom. Captain Andy has a fortuitous run in with Ravenal and is eager to reunite the family. Kim, who has also become a Broadway stars, visits the boat and charms her fans. A hesitant Ravenal encounters Magnolia. She greets him warmly and he reprises his song “You are Love” as the couple walks along the boat together, each hoping to rekindle abandoned love.

Looking into History

Post-Reconstruction South:
History Chanel: Civil War Reconstruction
13th Amendment: Abolishes Slavery
14th Amendment: Provides birthright citizenship
15th Amendment: Provides freed slaves with right to vote

Jim Crow Laws
National Park Service: Jim Crow Laws

Interracial marriage
Anti-Miscegenation Laws enforced racial segregation by criminalizing interracial marriage. Although the term “miscegenation” was first coined in 1863, the laws were first introduced in the late 17th century by several of the Thirteen Colonies and subsequently adopted by more US states. In 1967 during the court case known as Loving v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court found the anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional. The term is now primarily used only in historical context.

PBS: Interracial Relationships that Changed History

World’s Fairs:
ExpoMuseum: The History of World’s Fairs
ExpoMuseum: Chicago, 1983

Edna Ferber: The Story
Rodgers and Hammerstein II: Show Boat “An End and A Beginning”
Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia

Jerome Kern: The Music
Rodgers and Hammerstein II: Jerome Kern Bio

Oscar Hammerstein II: The Adaptation
Rodgers and Hammerstein II: Oscar Hammerstein Bio