To 1920s America, the America of the jazz age, of the Ziegfeld Follies and the operettas of Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern's Show Boat arrived like a bath of cold water. Show Boat, based on the daring Edna Ferber novel, spoke of failed marriages, racial discrimination, and even miscegenation. It disdained superficial song and dance numbers, and offered instead a portrait of real human beings, both black and white. It traced their lives over 50 years -- after the flush of young love, "after the ball," and after disillusionment -- as they keep living and hoping for something better. The show's main themes are perfectly reflected in two of its most memorable songs: "Ol' Man River," sung by the African-American dockworker Joe, borrows the feel of Negro work songs and portrays the relentless progress of life, and "Bill" captures the completely ordinary yet overpowering romance that so many people know.
The song "Bill" did not actually begin as a part of Show Boat. Kern originally wrote the song for the earlier show "Oh Lady! Lady!" The satirical novelist P.G. Wodehouse (creator of the character Jeeves the butler) wrote its lyrics. "Bill" was omitted from the earlier show, however, and imported into the second act of Kern and Hammerstein's 1927 premiere of Show Boat. Wodehouse's lyrics found an instant home in Show Boat's verismo portrait; the very opening begins with "I used to dream that I would discover/the perfect lover/someday." But instead of the godlike champion she imagined, the singer got Bill, "an ordinary guy." He's not particularly good-looking, he can't play sports or sing, his brain isn't something to write home about. Yet for the singer, Bill is the one man in the world who is wonderful, who thrills her, who makes her feel at home. They're average people in love.
In the musical, "Bill" is sung by Julie. She lost her first job on the riverboat show when a jealous lover revealed her half-Negro heritage, yet she persisted in her marriage and in her show business career. When she sings the song, she is eking out an existence singing in the Trocadero Theatre, drinking too much and being bullied by a demanding boss. Yet she stands and sings the simple ballad, pressing on as all the musical's women do. "Bill" is also often sung outside of the dramatic context, as a light solo number.