Show Boat chronicles the lives of three generations of performers from the 1880s to the 1920s, who live and work on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theatre travelling between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi River. Characters are Captain Andy, his wife Parthy and their 10-year-old daughter, Magnolia. Actors are Julie and her husband Steve plus Ellie and her husband Schultzy. Pete is the engineer.
Pete starts making unwanted advances toward Julie and after losing a fight with Steve, Pete swears revenge. When they hear Pete has gone to the sherriff, Steve cuts Julie’s hand and sucks blood from it.
The sheriff arrives and announces that Steve and Julie’s marriage is illegal as Julie is black and Steve is white. Julie admits that she is half-black. Steve tells the sheriff he has “Negro blood” in him, without telling him that’s from sucking blood from Julie’s hand. The sheriff makes no arrest, but the couple are ordered to leave the boat.
Years later, when Magnolia is 18, Gaylord Ravenal is hired as the leading man. Soon after Ravenal and Magnolia elope and baby Kim is born. The young family move to Chicago where life is challenging as Ravenal gambles and cheats on Magnolia with prostitutes. One day, about 10 years later, Magnolia is shocked to see her old friend Julie and when she returns home, she finds Ravenal gone and she never sees him again.
The story then moves to 1926. Kim has married and become a successful actress on Broadway. Her father Ravenal is long dead. News that her estranged mother has died leads Magnolia back to the show boat, where she is joined by the widowed Ellie, and decides to keep and manage the boat and gives Kim all her inheritance.
The original production of the musical Show Boat took place in 1927 with a short tour before opening on Broadway to great acclaim. The show was revived on Broadway in 1932 and again in 1946 with a revised score. Additional New York revivals were produced in 1948 and 1954. A new production in 1966 had revised orchestrations. A 1989 production sought to restore the show to the creators’ original intentions. The 1994 production was Broadway’s longest running Show Boat and went on tour to London and Melbourne.