Vanessa Williams sets sail with ‘Show Boat’ at Lincoln Center

The New York Philharmonic, which has offered full-orchestra concert productions of such musical theater classics as “Carousel” and “Sweeney Todd” in recent seasons, will tackle the pivotal 1927 musical “Show Boat” this week.

As unwieldy and dated as it now seems, the historical significance of “Show Boat” cannot be overstated. It combined an epic narrative with a sweeping, melodious score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and undertones of racial intolerance. Nothing so ambitious would be attempted again until “Oklahoma!” two decades later.

Vanessa Williams leads the cast as Julie, a turn of the century actress whose livelihood and safety is threatened once it is revealed that she is part African-American. We spoke with her about the musical’s continued relevance.


How did you get involved with this production?

The producers called my agent with the formal offer. My schedule was pretty much set in stone through the end of the year but we were able to work it out so that I could do it. I’m very honored to be a part of this.


How familiar were you with “Show Boat”?

I saw the Toronto production in 1994, and also growing up I had seen the movie version starring Ava Gardner.


What do you think keeps “Show Boat” such an important part of the musical theater repertory?

The melodies in the show are unforgettable and very easy to sing along to. That’s why it’s such a crowd favorite to the masses. As far as the racial content goes, it’s a good history lesson for our youth to remind them how far we’ve come as a country, where not too long ago you could be arrested for being married to your lover of a different race.


What attracts you to the role of Julie?

Julie’s two songs, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,” are musical theater classics.


How does it feel to be one of the relatively few African-American women to have played the role?

Luckily, this production is gently staged so I don’t really have to sell that I’m passing for white. But the black actresses who genuinely can should always be allowed a chance.


If you go: “Show Boat” plays at Avery Fisher Hall from Wednesday through Saturday at Lincoln Center Plaza, nyphil.org.