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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews

 
SOMETHING WONDERFUL: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S BROADWAY REVOLUTION

TITANS OF THEIR TIME
By MATT WINDMAN


The last 25 years have been very good for the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, the agency that controls the rights and licensing to the finest musicals by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (Oklahoma!CarouselSouth PacificThe King and I) as well as their most lucrative and kid-friendly works (The Sound of MusicCinderella) and their lesser-known, problematic curiosities (AllegroPipe DreamMe and JulietFlower Drum Song). Under the direction of chief creative officer Ted Chapin (a smart and pleasant individual who is frequently spotted at the theater), these musicals have earned new and continued admiration among both musical theater fans and everyday Americans. This can be seen in the 25-year wave of artistically ambitious and financially successful Broadway and West End revivals (Nicholas Hytner’s Carousel, Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma!, Christopher Renshaw’s The King and I, Bartlett Sher’s South Pacific), interesting explorations of the minor works (a rewritten Flower Drum Song, a two-disc, starry, studio recording of Allegro) and television enterprises that have brought their most popular musicals back to main street (Cinderella on ABC in 1996, The Sound of Music on NBC in 2013).

But as Todd S. Purdum points out in this sharp, engrossing, and valuable new book Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, it was not so long ago (namely in the 1980s, right after Rodgers’ death) that the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein had seemed to lose their luster and commercial appeal. “As the decades wore on, and the tumult of the 1960s upended American society, it was a paradox of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s success that the musicals that had once been hailed as pioneering and daring would come to be seen in some critics’ eyes as conventional, conformist, patronizing, paternalistic, and retrograde,” Purdum writes. Among other factors, Purdum blames the disappointing movie adaptations, the overwhelming success of The Sound of Music (which seemed to overshadow everything else), star-driven road productions (such as with Yul Brynner, John Raitt and Robert Goulet), an insistence that new productions replicate the original choreography and staging, and the birth of the nonlinear Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince concept musical. Of the Carousel film, Purdum writes that it “would in the long run help to cement Rodgers and Hammerstein’s reputation as purveyors of safe, sickly sweet, middle-of-the-road fare.”

In Something Wonderful, Purdum performs a vital service in making a persuasive argument as to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s artistic and commercial innovations, which forever changed musical theater craft and Broadway as an industry. “This was the team that had revolutionized American musical theater, integrating song, story and dance as never before with their blockbuster Oklahoma! ...Oklahoma! was as radical in its way as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop, genre-bending Hamilton would be more than 70 years later.” In Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three practices that had each been done separately but not all together in a single work: integrating dance into the storytelling, ignoring traditional conventions of musical comedy, and delving into serious social issues. How was it that Rodgers and Hammerstein were the ones smart enough to take advantage of these existing trends? As Purdum notes, they “combined lifetimes of consummate theatrical knowledge, taste and skill.” They were also in sync with American culture and sensibility of the time. “In their prime, the partners seemed to stand for the best of America: forward-looking, liberal, innovative, internationalist, progressive both artistically and ideologically.”

There has been a lot of noteworthy musical theater scholarship in recent years (Ethan Mordden’s decade-by-decade histories, Scott Miller’s dramaturgical essays, Stacy Wolf’s feminist criticism, Andrea Most’s Jewish studies criticism), but relatively little attention has been paid to Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is not surprising since they have come to represent the old guard. The most substantial Rodgers and Hammerstein books included Richard Rodgers’ autobiography Musical Stages (which was ghostwritten by musical theater historian Stanley Green, as noted by Purdum) and a photo-heavy coffee table book by Mordden. 

Purdum opens the book with a description of the hugely popular television broadcast of Cinderella in 1957, capturing Rodgers and Hammerstein as “two of the most influential producers of mass popular entertainment in Eisenhower-era America.” He then provides chapters on the life and achievements of each man before a meeting in the early 1940s that would lead to Oklahoma!

Purdum paints each with exacting detail and provides surprising facts and little-known anecdotes. Permit me to provide some examples. Rodgers was a womanizer and an alcoholic who spent several months in the 1950s in a psychiatric hospital due to depression. Hammerstein was “surly and hypercompetitive with his own children” and had an affair with a showgirl. Mary Martin (the original star of South Pacific and The Sound of Music) was “apparently sexually ambidextrous” and had a long affair with Janet Gaynor. Had she not suddenly died, Gertrude Lawrence might have been fired from The King and I due to her increasingly poor singing. Trude Rittman (who wrote dance and vocal arrangements) made significant contributions to the Rodgers and Hammerstein scores that have not been fully acknowledged. Richard Nixon would stay up late in the White House listening to Rodgers’ score of Victory at Sea. Yul Brynner opted not to sing “A Puzzlement” during numerous performances of The King and I. Purdum also explains the genesis of the notorious color filters in the film version of South Pacific and a misconception on the part of director Joshua Logan about the filmmaking process that doomed any chance of ever removing the color filters from the film negative.

Purdum also pays attention to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ultra-successful commercial endeavors: creating their own publishing house, producing their own musicals (in addition to plays and musicals written by others, including Annie Get Your Gun and I Remember Mama), holding weekly casting calls, seizing merchandising opportunities, refusing to share copyright and royalties, and frequently heeding the advice of an attorney (Howard Reinheimer). As Purdum sees it, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s time together can be divided into two phases: an “era of innovation” and a post-Allegro “era of empire.” Purdum describes Allegro as perhaps “the only show in Broadway history whose creators set out to make it deliberately uncommercial.”

The book comes out at an interesting moment in Rodgers and Hammerstein history. The extended period of prestigious Broadway revivals of the R&H canon has ended and been replaced by a more forceful and experimental wave, as seen in Jack O’Brien’s Carousel (which incorporated brutal and extensive cuts to the original script and score) and Daniel Fish’s stripped-down, rough-edged, intimate revamp of Oklahoma!, which recently played St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and is set to transfer to Broadway. On another level, it has never been easier for a public school to put on a production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (including condensed, kiddie-friendly versions), but high schools (with students who live by the scores of Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen) today are more likely to put on Sweeney ToddUrinetownLegally Blonde or a Disney title. Nevertheless, the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterworks will surely live on in the 21st century, and Purdum’s book does a fine job in explaining why.

 


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