Did Paul Robeson Originate the Role of Joe in Show Boat?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about musicals and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the musical urban legends featured so far.

MUSICAL URBAN LEGEND: Paul Robeson originated the role of Joe (and as a result, first sang the song “Old Man River”) in Show Boat.

One of Paul Robeson’s most famous songs is the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song, “Old Man River.”

The song is from the 1927 musical, Show Boat, by Kern and Hammerstein.

They specifically wrote the song for Robeson, and even created the character of “Joe” in the play for him.

So the song was written specifically for Robeson (it really works beautifully for his deep voice), it’s his most famous song, so naturally, people presume he performed it for the musical Showboat.

However, he did not.

You see, when it came out in 1927, Show Boat was a bit of an oddity amongst musicals. It was one of the very first musicals to stress the story aspect of the show rather than just the music. It was literally a musical PLAY.

Kern and Hammerstein audtioned the musical for famed producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who absolutely loved the musical.

In fact, he planned to have the musical open up his brand-new theater in Spring of 1927.

However, this was not only different from other musicals in its approach, but also in its scope (it was a very intricate and large set) and its tone (it was not a happy-go-lucky musical), so when it came close to the time to open the musical, Ziegfeld was both worried about the show being ready in time AND, if it WERE ready, whether he really wanted to launch his new theatre with something other than a happy musical.

So at the last moment, Ziegfeld instead decided to open the theater with a traditional Follies-style musical, Rio Ruta. The idea was that Rio Ruta would play for a little bit and then Show Boat would then step in.

Rio Ruta screwed up those plans by turning out to be a hit. So Show Boat was delayed indefinitely (it ultimately debuted at the very end of December 1927).

Robeson HAD committed to do the show, but when it was delayed indefinitely, he was forced to pull out of the show, so Jules Bledsoe originated the role on Broadway.

Robeson, though, played the role in London in 1928, and he also performed in the 1936 film adaptation…

So that association with the song that has lasted for decades has led to many folks presuming that he did the song in the play, but he did not (not at first, at least).

The legend is…

STATUS: False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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