Target Margin Theater and NYU Skirball are collaborating on a reimagined version of Show Boat, to be performed in spring 2025. Target Margin Founding Artistic Director David Herskovits will direct, with casting, creative team, and dates to be announced.
The musical, the original version of which premiered in 1927 and entered into public domain earlier this year, features a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a score by Jerome Kern. The story, adapted from Edna Ferber's novel of the same, is a sprawling one spanning decades as it follows a troupe of performers on a show boat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its beloved score ("Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Why Do I Love You?," and "Bill" are all part of its song list) helped make the show a massive and enduring hit, but the show is also noted for creating the earliest form of what is called musical theatre today. Tackling serious subjects like racism, abuse, and addiction, Show Boat was far more focused on storytelling than the musicals of its day, managing to authentically tell a serious story while also being straightforwardly entertaining. Hammerstein would continue his work refining and defining the form when he began collaborating with composer Richard Rodgers in 1943.
But Show Boat has also always been historically tricky. Though staged often, the show's script and score have been revised nearly endlessly throughout its life, with changes made to address everything from performance practices typical to 1927 that would confound and bore audiences today to the removal of some unsavory and offensive material in the original version. Having been written in 1927, it’s perhaps not shocking that some of the original was and is offensive in terms of how it talks about race. Most infamously, the opening featured a chorus of Black workers singing the n-word, a blemish on Show Boat's history that was thankfully short lived; the word was removed for the musical's London debut the following year.
But as of January 1, 2023, the original 1927 version of Show Boat is no longer protected by copyright, opening up the opportunity for this upcoming new production to reinterpret the that version of the show—For more on the musical's somewhat complex situation with copyright, click here. Target Margin has a long history of re-examining and reinventing classic works, including Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, DuBose Heyward's Mamba's Daughters, Goethe's Faust, and Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra.
"Show Boat is famously unresolved; it has been endlessly reworked, cut, emended, added to, and rearranged. Its gorgeous songs pulse through a chaotic story that is a back-stage romance, a fantasia of troubling racial tropes, and a history of the dawn of the American century. Above all, Show Boat is a call to all of us to reconsider who we are as a nation and as human beings," says Herskovits.
"I love musicals and Show Boat is definitely a cornerstone of the American Musical Theatre tradition," adds NYU Skirball Executive Director Jay Wegman. "It’s marvelous that Target Margin will revisit, revise, and reinvent this classic through the lens of the company’s singular theatricality. NYU Skirball’s audiences are in for a total thrill ride."
In the years since its premiere, Show Boat has returned to Broadway six times, most recently in a 1994 revival directed and heavily revised by Harold Prince. The work was also adapted for the big screen twice, in 1936 and 1951. Visit TargetMargin.com.