How do elements such as lyrics and choreography of the song "Cotton Blossom," on stage and in film, help tell the story of Show Boat by Kern and Hammerstein?
Niggers all work on de Mississippi
Niggers all work while de white folks play-
Loadin' up boats wid de bales of cotton,
Gittin' no rest till de Judgement Day.
Git yo'self a bran' new gal,
A lovin' baby who's de apple of yo' eye.
Coal black Rose or high brown Sal,
Dey all kin cook de sparrer grass an' chicken pie!
Hey! Git along, git along,
Git along, git along.
Hey! Git along, git along,
git along, hey!
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Sadly, in order to remark upon a stage version of a play, one needs to have recently attended a stage version so as to make current observations. Yet, thanks to a production photo of the recent 1994 Hal Prince Toronto stage production, I can make one or two comments that allow some comparison between stage and film versions.
In "Cotton Blossom" in the Hal Prince stage version, the group clustered around Captain Andy on the levee is on the same level as he is, i.e., on the ground, rather than being on different levels as in the 1936 and 1951 film versions in which Captain Andy stands elevated above the crowd. The segregation of the crowd in Prince's "Cotton Blossom" seems less pronounced, at least immediately around Captain Andy, than in the film versions. In fact, in the Prince production photo, blacks seem to outnumber whites. This is the extent of the comparative remarks I can offer--until Show Boat comes to town .... I can, however add remarks about the film version.
In the 1936 film, the choreography of "Cotton Blossom" is far more subtle than the 1951 film. The show boat troupe parades through town while the townspeople--including pigs and horses--gather to see the parade. Once the parade stops, Ellie and Frank and others give snippets of their acts as an enticement to come to the show, much to Parthy's dissatisfaction: "Ya gonna give away your whole show!".
The 1951 version has extensive choreography as the show boat approaches the town levee. The whole troupe cast is dancing and hanging over the railings and playing tambourines with wind blown ribbons and waving their arms. The townspeople are shown streaming in to the levee from an aerial crane shot. A cut shows part of the gaily dressed assemblage of the troupe paying homage to the gathered townspeople in advance of Captain Andy's enthusiastic appearance in flamboyant style. The choreography in the sample acts, like Ellie and Frank's, is more elaborate and acrobatic than in the 1936 version.
While the lyrics remain the same in all three versions mentioned here--thus setting up character development and conflict to the same extent and in the same vein--the changes in choreography affect the themes and the traits of the characters somewhat. For instance, the most pronounced demonstration of the physical and moral segregation theme is seen in the 1936 film version, while the Prince stage production shows less of what Prince suggests was stereotypical thematic material:
"I was committed to eliminate any inadvertent stereotype in the original material ... [yet] I was determined not to re-write history." (Hal Prince, Director's Notes, RNH.com)
An example of the effect upon the traits of the characters is that Ellie is much more robust and forward in the 1951 film version than in the 1937 one. This is initially shown, then later confirmed elsewhere, through the robust acrobatic choreography accompanying "Cotton Blossom."
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