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Port of Call : When 'Show Boat' pulls into Costa Mesa on Tuesday, it will be duly noted by theater historian Miles Kreuger, founder of the 25-year-old, L.A.-based Institute of the American Musical.

August 23, 1997|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Miles Kreuger, founder of the Institute of the American Musical Inc., is the foremost theater historian of "Show Boat." Among his many Broadway chronicles, Kreuger, 63, wrote "Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical" (Oxford University Press, 1977) about the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II collaboration.

The Los Angeles-based institute, which celebrates its 25th anniversary Monday, houses a more extensive theater archive than the Library of Congress. Kreuger notes, "It's also the world's largest collection dedicated to musical theater and musical film," ranging from every recording of every musical to virtually every published vocal-piano score.

Hammerstein's personal copy of the "Show Boat" script, given to Kreuger by the writer-lyricist, is among the institute's most prized possessions. Theater historians once believed no complete script existed for the original 1927 production. This justified later interpretations, which, Kreuger says, "were just plain wrong."

To honor the institute's birthday--and because Harold Prince's reconception of "Show Boat" arrives Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa--The Times recently interviewed Kreuger about the Kern-Hammerstein musical.

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Question: How did "Show Boat" get to Broadway in the first place?

Answer: Edna Ferber's novel "Show Boat" came out in August 1926. It had been serialized earlier in Woman's Home Companion. Jerome Kern read the novel and was smitten. He decided at once it must become a musical. He knew that his friend Alexander Woollcott, who was then the theater critic for the New York Times, knew her. Woollcott went to the Globe Theater, now the Lunt-Fontanne, to see a show called "Criss Cross," with music by Kern. At the opening, Kern walked up to Woollcott and said, "I want to meet Edna Ferber." Being a wag, Woollcott took him by the hand, led him across the lobby and introduced them to each other: "Kern, Ferber. Ferber, Kern." That is how the die was cast. It was the fall of 1926. Kern brought in Hammerstein. They had worked together on "Sunny" in 1925.

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Q. Why didn't Ferber believe her novel could be made into a musical?

A. First, it had so many characters and spanned so many years--three generations from the 1880s to the 1920s. That was not the kind of thing that could conveniently be the subject of a musical. The novel is rather picaresque. It rambles all over the place.

Second, musicals in the 1920s tended to be frivolous. The most common subjects were showgirls trying to become stars, or the local college student trying to win the football game so he could capture the heart of his girlfriend. Ferber's novel, by contrast, had some rather serious themes.

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Q. Why is "Show Boat" regarded as "the great American musical"?

A. It was historic in terms of theatrical innovation. It was the first time that the protagonist of a musical grew and changed. There was no character development in musicals until then, because there was no occasion for it.

Magnolia evolves from a sheltered, naive, trusting teenager whose values of right and wrong come entirely from the melodramas that she has seen on the Cotton Blossom, which is the showboat her parents operate up and down the Mississippi. She's always in a cloistered environment. She's never in any one town long enough to be touched by it.

The moment she sees Gaylord Ravenal, of course, it's love at first sight, because in melodrama it's always love at first sight. Later, Magnolia becomes a woman who has to face the fact she is a mother alone, in cold, heartless Chicago, where she's been abandoned by her husband, and has to raise her 10-year-old daughter. So Magnolia falls back on the one thing she knows how to do--which is to sing, because she sang on the showboat.

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Q. What about the serious themes?

A. You have the problem of miscegenation, which was simply unheard of in musicals. Well, almost unheard of. It was unheard of to be taken seriously. Miscegenation usually was some sort of a joke. When it was treated at all, it was used lightly as a comedy device."

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Q. The musical also deals with alcoholism.

A. Yes. Alcoholism wasn't treated in the usual way as buffoonery--ordinarily, a vaudeville comedian with a red nose would do a funny dance--but as a tragic situation.

Q. Theatrical lore has it that Florenz Ziegfeld, who produced the original 1927 "Show Boat," had to be prodded into it. True?

A. The myth is absolutely untrue. It's nonsense. That story got started with Norma Terris, who created the role of Magnolia. I have her on tape repeating what she always said: "Show Boat" kicked around for three or four years and nobody would touch it until her husband, who was Ziegfeld's doctor, convinced him to do it while the two of them were out in a rowboat on some lake in the country.

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Q. How do you know she was wrong?

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