Rodgers and Hammerstein – at last

It seems to me that Rodgers and Hammerstein are rather under-rated these days.  People tend to pass their shows off as trite, dated, old-fashioned or twee.  Well, either that or assume they wrote everything from Anything Goes to Fiddler on the Roof, and only gave up when Andrew Lloyd Webber came on the scene and wrote all the new shows.  Both views are, in my considered opinion, absolute rubbish.

The second is the easiest to refute.  They were responsible for some of the world’s most famous musicals, but they weren’t quite as prolific as some people assume.  Before they teamed up, each of them had a successful career, contributing to such gems as Show Boat and Pal Joey, and they were also successful producers, enabling other people’s shows (including Annie Get Your Gun) to reach the Broadway stage.  But in their period of collaboration (fifteen or so years), they wrote only eleven musicals.  First there are the big five, which everyone knows and which amateur societies recycle endlessly – Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music.  Then the two screen musicals – State Fair for Hollywood and Cinderella for the television.  And finally the less well-known stage shows – Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream and Flower Drum Song.  At some point, I plan to post about some of the obscure ones in more detail, but it’s quite obvious that their body of work, while very impressive, is not quite so all-encompassing as people often assume.

The more important misapprehension about Rodgers and Hammerstein is the first one, that their shows are past their sell-by-date, old-fashioned and irrelevant.  Any show is only as good as the productions of it that people have seen, so I suppose that a number of very bad productions may have given rise to this point of view, but I’m afraid it just seems absurd to me.  Just looking at the music, a lot of it still has immense power.  The opening Waltz in Carousel is one of the most glorious pieces of instrumental music written for the theatre, ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ from State Fair is a perfect little song that truly deserved its Oscar, and South Pacific‘s rousing ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’ has an undeniable power which drags singers and hearers along on a way of joy and excitement.  And there’s much more.  The score of Carousel is one of the most incredible written for theatre in my opinion, and many of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs are incredibly well-known outside of their original context.  ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’, ‘Edelweiss’, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ are so much a part of life in Western society that it’s hard to imagine a time before they existed.

However, songs are only a part of the equation in musical theatre.  A very important part, but not to the exclusion of the other elements.  And Oscar Hammerstein was actually a rather good dramatist, creating characters who were interesting and flawed.  Curly’s attitude to Jud in Oklahoma! is reprehensible, and Billy from Carousel is hardly a great role model, yet we understand and sympathise with these characters.  The shows also deal with issues of class, racism, societal pressure and the like.  South Pacific, particularly, has a very strong anti-racism theme which is brought out most strongly in Joe Cable’s rant ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’.  There’s a reason that show won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, I think.  However, there’s also a very good reason why The King and I was banned in Thailand, and some aspects of that script are a tad embarrassing.

Hollywood must bear some of the blame for the image of Rodgers and Hammerstein as being sickly-sweet and sentimental, largely due to The Sound of Music.  The film of this, the last R&H show, is far more saccharine than the stage version, which has a stronger take of the theme of conforming (or not) to what society expects of us.  And State Fair is a load a hokum.  Great fun, but very little weight.

There may be some truth in the assumptions which people make about Rodgers and Hammerstein, but for me the music and scripts of their shows stand up to modern scrutiny far better than the majority of their contemporaries.  Complex characters, serious themes, songs which everyone from granny to grandchild knows, a Pulitzer prize.  All of these contribute to my belief that they have been under-rated.  Some musical theatre historians would go as far as to say that they invented the ‘integrated’ musical with Oklahoma!, the sort of musical where script, songs and dance all combine in a unity, to forward the story, where song and dance do more than decorate the plot, and where plot does more than serve as an excuse for musical numbers.  I don’t believe this is true, but I do believe they helped to popularise this style, and made it the norm rather than the exception.  Their contribution to musical theatre history (and indeed popular music history, given the number of people who recorded their songs) should be undeniable.  I, for one, feel that they have been underrated, and I both hope and believe that their shows and songs will still be going strong when I’m too old to belt out ‘If I Loved You’.  Surely the hills will always be alive with the sound of their music.

  1. At last, the long awaited post! Very informative.

    Who do you think did invent the ‘integrated’ musical?

    I’d like to see the stage version of The Sound of Music, but it would probably help me to spot the differences if I actually watch the full film version first (or second)! Must do that…and Carousel, and the rest, if I get the time!

  2. Well, David, I love Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, mostly. But I have to take issue with one of your statements, and that is regarding the scoring of Carousel. I’m an old orchestral player, and I have played in the pit for almost every R & H musical, and I am here to say that their scoring is boring as heck if you happen to be a person playing one of the inner voices. Frankly, we all know that basses and violas are capable of a lot more than Oom pah and Oom pah pah, but you would never know that if all you ever played was those musicals.

    That being said, their music is beautiful and amazing and catches the listener up emotionally. Great tunes.

  3. Oh yes, and I think that Oklahoma! is one of the all time best musicals ever written bar none hands down.

  4. Don’t blame R&H for the orchestral parts. Richard Rodgers didn’t do the orchestration (very few Broadway composers did, whether or not they were capable of it, due to the time restraints). By score, I didn’t really mean the orchestration (which I tend to view as something else entirely), which in the case of Carousel was by Don Walker. I just feel that there is very little in musical theatre which even comes close to the amazing artistry of the ‘Bench Scene’ (the ten-minute-plus musical section which includes ‘If I Loved You) and the like.

    Orchestrations and vocal arrangements in musical theatre are fascinating things. If I knew more of the proper musical language, I’d write a post or two on the subject.

    As for who invented the ‘integrated musical’, I’m not entirely sure, but there are definitely candidates before 1943 (the year of Oklahoma!). Show Boat (Kern and Hammerstein, 1927) certainly could make a good case for being a show of this kind, and other potential candidates include Lady in the Dark (Weill, Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart, 1941) and Of Thee I Sing (The Gershwins and friends, 1931). I think it was a gradual move, and just as there is no clear dividing line between operetta and musical comedy, there’s no clear cut ‘first’ integrated musical.

    Hmm, and I also think the film version of Carousel is slightly disapponting compared to the stage version, but as someone who treads the boards, I’m quite likely to think that!

  5. I say, my school’s doing Anything Goes this year. And I know, that had nothing to do with Rogers and Hammerstein, but I saw the title…

  6. Anything Goes is terrific fun. I’m not sure that it really works as drama, but it certainly works as entertainment, with fun characters and absolutely top-notch songs.

  7. Oo oo, I liked the Bench Scene but Laurie’s Dream in Oklahoma is amazing and it is fun to play too. Of course, I’m a sucker for dance numbers. They usually do not include the danger of a screeching soprano or a train wreck in the ensemble because someone didn’t come in right.

    It would be interesting to contemplate what solo number is the best song ever. We’d have to limit it to musicals because if you allowed classical in there Puccini would walk away with the first place for La Boheme. Or maybe that would be Verdi for La Traviata, or possibly the Habanera from Carmen.

    Truly great songs: If I Loved You, definitely. But I really like There Were Bells (from The Music Man), and Ado Annie’s song in Oklahoma I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No, and who can forget This Is a Man Who THinks with His Heart from the King and I. Love to see your post on this subject. . . you probably know tunes I have forgotten.

  8. ‘There Were Bells’ is actually called ‘Til There Was You’ and is indeed a wonderful number (from The Music Man, by Meredith Willson). Did you know that it was the only show tune that the Beatles ever covered?

    Hmm, isn’t it interesting how arias from opera are almost always known by their first lines (I rather like E Lucevan Le Stelle from Tosca), whereas songs from musicals often have titles which are from elsewhere in the song?

    Dance numbers for me include the danger of falling over and doing myself an injury!

  9. The danger of falling over and doing myself an injury is one of the main reasons that I never became a performer. When you are sitting neatly in your chair in the pit you are unlikely to do that, although it “has” happened. And if you do fall over, or your ear starts bleeding because of the piccolo playing into it all night, or you get stabbed by your partner’s bow during a quick page turn, no one in the audience can see. There is safety in numbers. . .

    Have you ever read Berlioz’s “Evenings With the Orchestra?” He has such an amazing way of critiquing things: “All sing out of tune fit to give a toothache to a hippopotamus. The organist knows nothing of harmoney; he mixes with every phrase little worm-like ornaments in the most hideous style.” After reading some of his analyses of operas being performed at the time, I would absolutely have loved it if he had lived to critique musical theatre. Of course, Berlioz is one of my very favorite characters in all music history, so I’m very prejudiced.

  10. And why did the Beatles, early in their recorded career decide to cover “Till There Was You”?

    Because Paul heard Peggy Lee sing it and fell in love and decided to “cover” it, since it was so beautiful. Which is still is.

  1. December 7th, 2006
    Trackback from : Larry Hart « Music Man

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