If You've Ever Wanted to Rewrite Show Boat, Now's Your Chance | Playbill

Special Features If You've Ever Wanted to Rewrite Show Boat, Now's Your Chance

The Oscar Hammerstein II-Jerome Kern musical’s copyright has expired, and we’re digging into what that means.

Show Boat at the Ziegfeld Theatre White Studio/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Have you heard the news? As of January 1, 2023, the landmark Broadway musical Show Boat has entered into public domain and its copyright has expired. But what does that mean? Can anyone now rewrite/adapt/revamp Show Boat? What if you want to create a remix of "Old Man River"?

We have the answers for you musical theatre fans.

What is Show Boat? 

Show Boat, which premiered at Broadway’s Ziegfeld Theatre December 27, 1927, is considered a classic of American musical theatre, and a historic moment for the genre. Before Show Boat, most musicals were more connected to vaudeville and other variety-style entertainments, with airy plots that did little more than provide the most rudimentary of setups for the show’s songs, which almost always had zero connection to the story. 

When the idea came to adapt Edna Ferber’s epic novel Show Boat, which follows a performing troupe on a turn-of-the-century Mississippi River show boat, Oscar Hammerstein II decided that the resulting work would have to be a serious musical, maybe the first serious musical. He wanted to tell Ferber’s story authentically and effectively—and that meant tackling heavy topics like racism, abuse, and addiction. With the musicals of the day focused more on scantily clad showgirls, revues, and rousing musical numbers, Show Boat would offer something starkly different and new: Arguably the first book musical.

Hammerstein (who penned the musical’s book and lyrics) and Jerome Kern (who composed the music) did this essentially by merging light opera with the American musical. The work was not entirely one or the other, aspiring to be straightforwardly entertaining while also telling a serious story. 

And most importantly, Show Boat was a huge hit, running for 572 performances (a staggering count for the 1920s) on its first outing and quickly becoming a favorite worldwide—much of its score (including “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe,” and “Why Do I Love You?”) are now considered standards. Hammerstein and Kern had basically invented what we now think of as musical theatre, a form Hammerstein continued to develop and refine when he began collaborating with composer Richard Rodgers in 1943.

Paul Robeson sings "Ol' Man River" in the 1936 film version of Show Boat. Criterion

How does copyright work?

For works that premiered prior to 1978, the period of copyright protection is tied to the premiere publication. The work enters public domain 95 years after that date. This means that Show Boat, along with all of its individual songs, are no longer protected by copyright and can be performed without permission or royalties due to the estates of its late writers. 

This also means that artists can now create their own derivative works based on and even using material from Show Boat, which could prove the most interesting element of the musical’s copyright status to keep an eye out for. When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby entered into public domain in 2021, we almost immediately got news of not one but two new stage musical adaptations of the story in the works, as well as an immersive play. All are clearly direct results of the novel’s copyright expiring.

Show Boat is hardly the first theatrical work to enter public domain. Many classic plays—the entire Shakespeare catalog springs to mind—and much of classic opera literature were either written before copyright even existed or have long been in public domain. 

What makes Show Boat particularly interesting is that it is a musical. It may not be the first musical, but it is the first musical that is still regularly produced today to lose copyright protection.

Wait, you may still have to pay royalties though.

Don’t get carried away. Show Boat’s copyright situation is a little more complicated than it might appear at first glance. That means Concord Theatricals, which administers performance licenses for Show Boat, should still be in the mix. According to Concord Vice President of Acquisitions and Artistic Development Amy Rose Marsh, copyright law is sticky stuff. According to Marsh, “musicals are especially tricky because they’re multifaceted. Rental packages and orchestrations can have different copyrights, so that’s something for theatre makers to keep in mind. I think if people have questions, it’s still good to contact the licensing company and ask.”

Marsh’s biggest caveat is that Show Boat’s public domain status only applies in terms of copyright protections in the United States. Different countries have different rules, and Show Boat has been produced internationally for the better part of a century. If you want to do anything with the material of Show Boat and think there’s any chance that it could be performed in another country, you’ll still want to get in touch with Concord.

The other wrinkle with Show Boat is that the copyright protection has only expired for its original 1927 Broadway version, and if you've seen Show Boat performed recently, it's pretty likely it wasn't this version. 

Concord currently offers performance materials and licenses for three versions of the musical. The closest to the original 1927 version they currently send out actually reflects some subtle updates that were made to the work for a 1946 Broadway revival, subtle enough that it still shares the expired copyright of the original 1927 version. Those updates include the deletion of some material that was originally tailored to specialties of the original 1927 cast, a new overture, and the discarding of some unsavory material (more on that later).

The other two versions Concord offer are much newer and include more dramatic updates, both to bring the material more in line with current audience expectations and also to better meet the way musicals are currently produced. What Concord calls the "Hal Prince" version matches how the show was done in the 1994 Hal Prince-directed Broadway revival. This version is the most drastically different, with songs from movie adaptations of Show Boat interpolated into the stage score and a restructured second act, among other changes. Concord also licenses a chamber version of the show designed for smaller casts and orchestras that debuted at Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals in 2011 and later played London's West End. Both of these more recent revisions, which collectively are the most produced versions of Show Boat today, carry their own copyrights that have not yet expired.

And for once, we’re pleased to report this particular caveat is not simply due to capitalism! Show Boat was, and is, revolutionary. But compared to the musicals of today, it was a baby step in the right direction. The original production was, after all, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld of Ziegfeld Follies fame, who still found ways to work in some of his trademark costume parades, show girls, and inconsequential dance numbers. There is, in fact, not a small amount of material in that original version of Show Boat that hasn’t been performed for decades, and modern audiences would likely be confounded and bored by much of it today.

Having been written in 1927, it’s also not shocking that some of the original version was and is offensive in terms of how it talks about race. Though Hammerstein’s heart was likely in the right place—the lyricist would go on to write songs like South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” after all—he was still a white man writing in the ‘20s. 

Most infamously, Hammerstein had Show Boat’s curtain rise on a chorus of Black characters singing the N-word. His aim was to shock audiences (he succeeded, to say the least) and immediately signal that this daring new musical would not shy away from tricky subject matter. But needless to say, the lyric choice was an unfortunate one then and now. Thankfully, it was discarded as early as 1928, when the work made its West End debut. That also means that this particular blemish on Show Boat's history is not included in Concord's public domain version of the show; the cut had already been made by that 1946 revival.

In short, though you now can perform the original version of Show Boat without paying royalties, it's unlikely that most modern theatre companies would want to, says Marsh. The two copyrighted revisions Concord licenses have dealt with most of the musical's issues, dispensing with outdated material and updating the show as a whole to be more in step with modern sensibilities. 

Says Marsh, “Our fear is the licensees read that Show Boat has gone into public domain and then maybe there’s an assumption that every time you see a Show Boat on an American stage that it’s the ’27 version. It’s not. Those revisions have been built for completely new production processes. There’s a lot of book changes and they’ve been constructed with modern producers in mind.”

Oscar Hammerstein II

What if I want to rewrite Show Boat?

If we’re clear to make derivative works based on that original version, does that mean that we can create our own revisions to the original and perform those royalty free? The short answer is yes.

But Concord encourages theatres to think hard about whether they really want to endeavor to do that. After all, the revisions have already been done—in some cases by world class, Tony-winning theatre artists. “Those revisions went through an intensive production process, and trial and error, and rehearsal rooms,” shares Marsh. It might just be worth paying the royalty fee for the subsequent versions of Show Boat rather than try to reinvent the wheel with yet another new revision.

And that’s not just Show Boat. The same idea is at play when theatres license copyrighted adaptations of public domain works like A Christmas Carol or Sense and Sensibility. “There’s been some amazing stage versions [of those works] in recent years,” says Marsh. “We still have people licensing cuttings of Hamlet from us because they’re really good cuttings. Shakespeare’s never not been in public domain. You could make your own cutting if you wanted to. But people want to do what they saw the theatre next door do, and what they know got good reviews.”

And what if you really do want to produce the original 1927 version of Show Boat without Concord?

You'll need to find performance materials, and you'll need to be extra careful that they reflect the public domain edition of the show. Intrepid googlers might be able to find and download a script and score online, but those could easily include revisions that are still protected by copyright. Show Boat’s original libretto is currently available to purchase in a collection of Broadway scripts published by the Library of America. Note though, that type setting has its own copyright—to legally make copies of that script, you would have to re-type it in its entirety. But you would save on having to pay royalty fees.

As for the score, the published version of the public domain 1946 revision (with all vocal parts and solo piano accompaniment) is available for purchase. The truly original 1927 version has been out of print for decades. You can find it in libraries, but WorldCat lists it in the catalog of just 17 institutions nationwide.

The bigger issue music-wise is that Show Boat’s orchestration, by Robert Russell Bennett (with additional work by Hans Spialek) has never been published. The Library of Congress holds the original orchestral score. Interested parties could ostensibly make a copy of the entire thing and prepare a new set of instrument books, but that would be quite the task. Those orchestral scores are handwritten and not easily read, and could even be missing revisions and corrections that went into individual instrument books prior to opening night. Your only other option (outside of working with Concord) would be transcribing all of the material by ear.

And so for artists who want ease, Concord Theatricals is still the only one-stop shop for performance materials for Show Boat. According to Marsh, Concord will continue to make orchestration and rental packages available for the work regardless of its copyright status, a role the company plays for a number of public domain works in its catalog. “In most cases, and this has happened with shows that have gone into public domain over the years, we’re still acting as the publisher,” explains Marsh. “We publish acting editions of the script and distribute that. That doesn’t change. We supply materials to groups that want to do the show.”

Put differently, The Odyssey and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are both in public domain and freely available online, but many readers still elect to purchase a published copy when they want to read those works. Online repositories of material like that can be pretty inconsistent, whereas good publishers have copy editors and stewards that ensure their editions are professional grade and authentic. That's a huge part of Concord's role with Show Boat and other theatrical works whose copyrights have expired.

And Marsh is clear that Concord’s relationship with a work in their catalogue post-copyright goes well beyond scripts and orchestra books. Having administered a work’s rights and dealt with its authors or their estates over many years, Concord remains the authority on these plays and musicals, and can be an important player in their stewardship and continued relevance. “Concord records cast albums,” says Marsh. We develop shows.” Those shows, based on classic musicals, can lead to projects like the 2012 Broadway revision of Porgy and Bess with a revised book by Suzan-Lori Parks—which is licensed by Concord. 

It can also mean more unique projects, like the TV adaptations of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! and Cinderella currently being developed that could help keep those classic musicals relevant to a whole new generation of audiences. 

“The original work is going to fall into public domain. It’s inevitable,” admits Marsh. “The truth is that these things from the 1920s don’t always work for modern theatre makers for a variety of reasons. If we can identify that sooner and figure out exciting ways to engage with the material that makes sense for modern audiences, that keeps those original works alive, which is ultimately our goal.”

Show Boat’s need for revisions make it an interesting case as its original copyright expires. The same will be true as musicals from the ‘30s and early ‘40s—most of which are never performed as they were originally produced, like Show Boat—pass into the public domain. 

Where things are really going to get interesting is when works that are performed as they were originally written start losing copyright protection. Oklahoma!, On the Town, Carousel, and Annie Get Your Gun will, barring any further legal action that updates the copyright laws, enter into public domain in 2039, 2040, 2041, and 2042, respectively. Will Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals go the way of Shakespeare, with countless productions feeling free to dramatically re-set and revise the original text for modern audiences? 

Will we see a Sound of Music in 2055 with Maria Von Trapp trading in her guitar for a grenade launcher to take down the Nazis? Only time will tell.

[This piece was updated January 20, 2023 to reflect that the 1946 revision of Show Boat is also now in public domain, and that its performance materials are available from Concord as a stand-in for the 'original' version of the work.]

Photo Lookback: Original Broadway Production of Show Boat

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