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Five killer versions of the best show tune ever

Adam Feldman

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's massive 1927 musical Show Boat is back onstage, this time in a concert version with the New York Philharmonic. The performance, which is being recorded for PBS's Live from Lincoln Center, is hit-and-miss, as is probably inevitable. Magnificent though parts of it are, the musical is hard to land. It inhabits a strange zone of American cultural history: It deals centrally with racial integration, and it is also a key work in the theatrical history of the so-called "integrated" musical, in which music and dance are in service to serious storytelling. Working with Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein would later prove the defining architect of that wing of Broadway history in such shows as Oklahoma! and Carousel, but Show Boat is only partway there.

The current production, directed by Ted Sperling, is stately and offers a chance to hear Kern's score in glorious fullness, including several numbers that are often cut when the show is produced. Of the major performers, Christopher Fitzgerald (as the male half of the comic couple) hits a home run, Alli Mauzey (as the female half) is a whiff, and the others fall in between. But the most disappointing, for me, was Norm Lewis as Joe: Not because he was bad—he was fine, if lightweight—but because Joe is entrusted with what may be the greatest single song ever written for a Broadway musical. That song is "Ol' Man River," and it needs more than fine. Its bass heft is Show Boat's ballast, and its plain yet cosmic message is Show Boat's cargo.

You'll be able to hear Lewis sing it for yourself when this Show Boat gets broadcast. Meanwhile, here are five other versions that are more than worth your time.

For the classic period version, here is the the great Paul Robeson, perhaps the preeminent African-American actor of his time and a tragic figure in many ways. Although Robeson did not originate the role of Joe, he played it in Show Boat's 1932 return to Broadway, and the 1936 film version. (Compare this with William Wakefield's slower, lusher version in the 1951 MGM remake.)

The most recent Broadway revival of Show Boat was in 1994. Michel Bell performed "Ol' Man River" on the Tony Awards telecast that year, in advance of the show's arrival.

Of today's Broadway stars, the best pick for Joe would be Phillip Boykin, a Tony nominee two years ago for his riveting turn as Crown in Porgy and Bess. Were he not currently busy appearing in On the Town, I imagine he would have been offered the role. But we can get a taste of what he might have brought to it in this clip of him performing in casual concert.

"Ol' Man River" has been performed many times as a standard, including by a young Frank Sinatra and an older Frank Sinatra, but the most powerful version I've ever heard outside the context of the show is Judy Garland's. The pain and self-knowledge she pours into it are testament to the song's transcendence.

And finally, here is, in my opinion, one of the funniest things on the whole Internet. You're welcome.

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