Show Boat (1951)
Show business is the only business that reminds us there is no business like it. And it never tires of that message. If there were as many books about books as there are musicals about musicals, there wouldn’t be room on the shelf for books about anything else.
– from Roger Ebert’s movie review of A Chorus Line, December 20, 1985
Show Boat is a movie set around a turn of the century riverboat that travels the Mississippi, not for paying passengers, but a freight of singers and dancers who act out light, musical comedies of the Victorian era. One is tempted to observe something quaint here, a bygone era. But Show Boat is meta. “Meta” is pseudo-Marxist slang and a De-constructionist prefix college students go around putting in front of anything that’s about itself: meta-physics, meta-analysis, meta-ethics, Meta-llica. Show Boat, like many musicals, is a musical about musicals. Moreover, it’s a movie (the 3rd movie remake) adapted from a Broadway stage musical, itself adapted from a book about the musical cast of a traveling show boat. That’s about as Meta-textual as one of those edgy college films where a college student films a film about a guy with a film camera.
In the reality of stage musicals, Show Boat is considered an innovation in it’s time. It was the first true musical play; the first complete integration of score, singing, dance production, and drama into one complete piece. Oscar Hammerstein went on to write shows with Richard Rodgers that were bigger and with better music. But Show Boat is a thoughtful take on the disillusionments, heartbreaks, and mistakes that happen in the backstage lives of its actor-characters. In some ways it surprisingly peers into real modern life.