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A deep look at ‘Show Boat’ with Landmarks Orchestra

One City choirmaster David Coleman at a rehearsal for the choir’s performance with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.
One City choirmaster David Coleman at a rehearsal for the choir’s performance with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.(Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)

Note: Due to thunderstorms in the forecast, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra concert scheduled for July 31 has been moved to Aug. 1.

The One City Choir, an all-comers-welcome group, assembles each summer to perform with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra on the Charles River Esplanade. In recent years, it has taken on such staples of the choral repertoire as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Verdi’s Requiem Mass. But this summer brings something very different: “Deep River,” scheduled for July 31, is a program centered on music composed and performed by black Americans. It concludes with a 45-minute concert suite from “Show Boat,” the 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein that put race relations in post-Reconstruction America on the Broadway stage.

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Landmarks aims to take on the show with fresh eyes and use it as a jumping-off point to explore how race has been portrayed on the theatrical and concert stage, past and present.

“It’s difficult to understand the complexities and sensitivities of all of this,” says Landmarks music director Christopher Wilkins, who is white, in a phone interview. “I think we have to be a little bit humble in front of all of it.”

“Show Boat” has been controversial from its genesis. One of the first major shows to put black and white performers onstage side by side, it incorporates conventions from European operettas, black stage musicals, and Negro spirituals to tell a story that takes place over 40 years. It’s been criticized for what some see as perpetuating stereotypical depictions of black characters, and directors and performers have made various alterations and cuts.

“‘Show Boat’ just creates so many interesting problems,” says Wilkins on the phone. “That complexity of the conversation around ‘Show Boat’ is part of history, and it’s part of contemporary life.”

While the show calls for both a black chorus and a white chorus, the One City Choir will not be split at the Landmarks performance. “It’s not necessary to actually re-create the racial divide, as if it were a theater piece, in a concert setting,” says One City choirmaster David Coleman by phone.

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Songs that are in African-American vernacular English, however, will remain so. “I find that if you take teachable moments, and explain the historical significance of a dialect, that people approach it that way,” says Coleman, who is black and conducts multiple choruses, including Tufts University’s Third Day Gospel Choir. “I totally love when I see a choir respect and do the dialect correctly. . . . My thing is consistency. If you’re going to say ‘de boat,’ then say ‘de’ boat and don’t say ‘the.’ ”

Coleman says he recruited some new members for this year’s One City Choir, which includes singers of many races. And with this diverse group, some “Show Boat” lyrics have been altered. “The white folks play” in “Ol’ Man River” was changed to “the rich folks play,” explains Coleman, but “[with] the dialect and knowing what you’re singing about, the race element is obviously still there.”

“Ol’ Man River,” the show’s most famous song, was written with bass-baritone Paul Robeson’s powerful voice in mind. Robeson’s recitals of spirituals were filling up New York concert halls in the mid-1920s, and with “Ol’ Man River,” Kern and Hammerstein created a showstopper with all the heft of a spiritual and some extra Broadway drama.

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In the song, the stevedore Joe meditates on the hardships of life, while “that ol’ man river . . . keeps rolling along.”

In its nine decades on Earth, it’s gone through countless lyrical incarnations. The original lyrics included the N-word; later performers changed it to various things including “colored folks.” When Robeson sang the song in concert in later years, he took further steps to empower the narrator. He axed the line “get a little drunk and you land in jail,” in favor of “show a little grit.”

But no matter the lyrics, “white audiences in particular really respond in an outsized way to [Ol’ Man River],” says musicologist Todd Decker in a phone interview. Decker’s research has resulted in two books on “Show Boat,” one of which is specifically about the song. “[The program] is going to set up the song in a way that I hope makes people think about where the song comes from, but also why they respond to that song in a way that they maybe don’t to the other songs on the program.”

In the mid-20th century, white performers such as Frank Sinatra regularly performed “Ol’ Man River.” Then in the early 1990s, says Decker, there was a paradigm shift around the song. “We sort of [admitted] that this song is so much about the black experience that only a black baritone or bass should sing it.”

But that can put black singers and listeners alike in unique and uncomfortable situations, even in the present day. The song is anathema to the black bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green; Daniel Bergner’s book about Green, “Sing for Your Life,” includes a chilling scene in which the singer is pressured into performing “Ol’ Man River” at the behest of a wealthy white crowd at a private party.

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Growing up in Tennessee, Coleman regularly saw mostly white audiences go crazy cheering for local fixture James Hyter singing “Ol’ Man River” to close out the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Sunset Symphony” concert.

Hyter adored singing “Ol’ Man River” and thought it brought people together, says Coleman. “I don’t know if you’d call it a ‘woke moment,’ ” he adds. “But I felt very uncomfortable as a black kid, sitting there, watching them get so excited about this song. . . . It suddenly hit me like — ‘Oh. They’re not reacting to his singing. They’re reacting to how this song and his performance makes them feel.’ ”

Coleman didn’t have an issue with the song itself, he explains, but watching a “predominantly white [audience], clapping and screaming, cheering for this black man to sing ‘Ol’ Man River’ again, because it made them feel some kind of way” was an unpleasant reminder of what he perceives as a white Southern longing for the so-called good old days. “It just sparked all of this imagery and stuff that today we look back on as minstrel.”

Bass-baritone Alvy Powell, a featured soloist in the “Deep River” concert, sees it differently. Powell sang in the United States Army Chorus for decades. He was the Army’s oldest enlisted soldier when he retired from active duty in 2017. His “Ol’ Man River,” he says on the phone, prompted President Gerald Ford to give him a standing ovation and moved first lady Barbara Bush to tears.

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How often has Powell seen a rendition of “Ol’ Man River” bring audiences to their feet? “99 percent of the time,” he estimates. “And I’ve sung ‘Ol’ Man River’ hundreds of times.”

“I’ve gotten older white men coming to me in tears saying that their father loved that song and it just reminded them of him,” he says. “I’ve also had older white gentlemen come to me and apologize for their race, the way their race treated my race.”

Powell says it’s a great song, one he thinks people can relate to regardless of race. “Everybody goes through trials in life. Toting a barge and lifting a bale doesn’t necessarily mean literally,” he says. “Maybe in some ways everybody can identify with that song.”

So what place do “Ol’ Man River” and “Show Boat” have in Boston in 2019? “Well, we’ll be on the river. And really, this whole concert is centered around music that deals with race relations,” says Coleman. “The fact that we’re going to be doing [Ol’ Man River] not as just a solo, but [also] with an orchestra and a choir singing it together, it’s really going to make the focus on the song and not the character. And I think that’s what makes it work.”

BOSTON LANDMARKS ORCHESTRA

At Hatch Memorial Shell, Charles River Esplanade. July 31, 7 p.m. Rain date Aug. 1. www.landmarksorchestra.org


Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.