Because conductor John McGlinn had wanted to have the opening chorus sung as it was originally sung ("Niggers all work on the Mississippi/Niggers all work while de white folks play"), the original chorus who was to sing the ensemble parts on the recording sent a letter to McGlinn demanding that the word 'nigger' be changed to how it is traditionally sung 'colored folks'. On opening night in 1927, the chorus was sung as 'nigger'.
Originally, Jamaican baritone Willard White had been cast as Joe and the all-black chorus was recruited from the Glyndebourne production of Porgy and Bess. White joined the chorus when they penned the letter to McGlinn. When McGlinn refused to cave to their demands, the entire chorus and White quit.
The Ambrosian Chorus was brought in as a replacement and Bruce Hubbard, who had sung the role in the Houston Grand Opera production, was cast as Joe. Hubbard discussed the use of the word with many friends, including singer Eartha Kitt, who had fought against racial predjudice all her life, agreed with the use of the word. He told the New York Times, "Eartha and I talked and agreed that Show Boat is a classic piece, and that this would be the classic recording of it. The way the word was once used is not fiction but fact. Blacks today may want to forget the past and build on the future, but we should never lose our sense of history."
This recording attempts to reconstruct the 1927 version of the show. John McGlinn had worked to reconstruct the score ever since the late 1970s. He was able to gain permission from The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to examine the orchestral parts and scripts that were found in their Queens warehouse. But he was missing orchestrations to two numbers ("It's Getting Hotter in the North" and "I Would Like to a Play a Lover's Part") which had been deleted during the show's tryout.
In 1982, the discovery of a cache of scores, scripts and orchestrations in Warner Brothers' warehouse in Secaucus, NJ yielded several boxes of material for Show Boat. But, the three estates involved and Warner Brothers (who claimed rights to the material) needed to give their permission. Edna Ferber's estate was enthusiastic, as was the Kern family. William Hammerstein, son of lyricist and bookwriter Oscar Hammerstein II, was hesitant. However, he relented and the recording was able to go ahead.
Warner Brothers, who claimed ownership of the material, was also reluctant. But Beverly Sills, who sat on the board of Warner Communications, made several phone calls and the company gave their permission.
William Hammerstein was reluctant to give permission for the recording. He told the New York Times, "It's a wonderful, moving piece of music, but it was cut for a reason. When experienced, knowledgeable people cut material from a show, it's because it's not working, and they're usually right. The well-meaning archivists who come onto the scene years later and put back these pieces of material countermand the decisions of the creators. I compliment McGlinn on the making of an historic record that serves a useful purpose by showing how a great piece of work is put together and how the process of selection works. But it must not be considered a signal for a new kind of production of Show Boat."
The New York Times wrote a lengthy article on the recording at the time of it's release. It can be read here.