Show Boat Synopsis and Further Reading


1887. The Cotton Blossom, a floating theater, docks in Natchez, Mississippi. Pete, the engineer, is in love with leading lady Julie La Verne, who spurns him. When Pete exchanges blows with Steve, Julie’s husband and the company’s leading man, Cap’n Andy fires the engineer. Gaylord Ravenal, a gambler, appears on the levee and is captivated by Magnolia Hawks, daughter of Cap’n Andy. Magnolia talks only briefly with Ravenal before reporting to Julie that she is in love.

Meanwhile, Steve receives unsettling news, which leads him to pull out a knife, cut Julie’s finger and suck blood from it. The sheriff arrives; Pete has informed him that Julie, a negro woman, is married to a white man, Steve. Their union is illegal in Mississippi, but Steve avoids arrest by asserting that he, too, has negro blood in him. Steve and Julie leave the boat. Andy decides to assign Julie’s role to Magnolia, who knows all the lines. Ravenal is hired to play opposite her. Their onstage love story soon continues offstage, and the two are married over the objections of Parthy, Magnolia’s mother.

In 1893, the young couple relocates to Chicago, where Ravenal takes up gambling again. Lucky streaks are followed by terrible losses, but Magnolia puts on a brave face. Andy and Parthy make plans to visit the young family, which now includes a daughter, Kim. Meanwhile, Magnolia crosses paths with a couple of old colleagues from the Cotton Blossom. Sensing that she needs money, they offer to help her find a job just as she receives word that Ravenal is leaving her.

Parthy and Andy arrive in Chicago on New Year’s Eve but cannot locate the Ravenals. Andy later finds himself at the Trocadero Club, where Magnolia has landed a job as a singer. She begins tentatively, but seeing Andy increases her confidence, and soon the crowd is singing along with her. Magnolia’s career takes off. When Ravenal learns of her successes, he sadly recalls their love. Meanwhile, Kim builds her own Broadway career.

When Magnolia returns to the Cotton Blossom after an absence of nearly 40 years, Cap’n Andy arranges a reunion. Magnolia, who never stopped loving Ravenal, takes him back. When Kim rushes to embrace her father, the family is complete.

Further Reading

Show Boat in the hand of its makers Todd Decker examines four archival typescripts from different stages of Show Boat’s creation found at the New York Public Library. He highlights specific annotations by Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and other members of the creative team and crew.

Loving v. Virginia Decision Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, the landmark case that declared all state-held anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967. The full text of his opinion is available courtesy of Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute.

Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat served as the inspiration for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical of the same name. Ferber’s extraordinary literary output includes twelve novels, eight plays, four collections of stories, and more. In this biography, Ferber’s great niece Julie Gilbert offers a witty, loving and unsparing portrait of her formidable “Aunt Ed.”

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