Bath to Broadway: Edna Ferber and “Show Boat”

On December 27, 1927, the musical “Show Boat” premiered on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. Composer Jerome Kern and Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II adapted Edna Ferber’s 1926 eponymous novel to the stage.

“Show Boat” was the first dramatic musical on Broadway, featuring a strong plot and incorporating lyrics into the staging. Its classic songs like “Ole’ Man River,’ “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “After the Ball” were further popularized by soprano and Winston-Salem native Kathryn Grayson in the 1951 film adaptation.

Ferber’s story about the interconnected lives surrounding a river showboat was based on the four days she spent on the James Adams Floating Theatre in Bath. Already a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ferber visited Beaufort County to research river theater and, while on her trip, met performers Charles Hunter and Beulah Adams, who were fans of her work and had staged her stories.

Ferber took a second trip to North Carolina in April 1925 to meet a showboat in Bath. She lived, played, worked, rehearsed and ate with the theater company on the huge boat, gathering inspiration and stories from Charles Hunter and her observations of the audiences. The novel and musical dramatize timeless themes of racial injustice, tragic romance, gambling and small town values.

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