Sunday, June 03, 2007

THEIR SONGS IN OUR HEARTS


The enduring musical legacy of

RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN

At once, the word ‘prolific’ seems both fittingly appropriate, yet grossly inadequate in summating the masterworks of Rodgers and Hammerstein. For although both men were well established in their respective crafts by the time they collaborated on their seminal work, Oklahoma! arguably, their most stunning contributions to American theater were yet ahead of them.

It has often been said that good musical partnerships are very much like the ideal marriage. Certainly, that seems to have been the case for both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, whose symbiotic union generated a creative flurry of muse-like activity into one of the most acute and socially aware trend-setting collaborations in the history of American musical theater – and later, of course, in films.

Throughout their creative endeavors, Hammerstein would often wax jokingly to the press of how he toiled for weeks on a lyric, only to have Rodgers sit as his piano and perfectly realize in musical notes his efforts in several days time. In point of fact, it is rumored that Rodgers wrote ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ for Carousel in the time it took his wife and daughter to attend a Saturday matinee.

Rodgers always protested the insinuation that the musical portion of their songs came easily to him, citing that by the time he actually sat in front of his piano to tickle the ivories, several months of intense discussion about character design and motivation between he and Hammerstein had facilitated a good solid backdrop from which he, Rodgers, understood what was expected of the mood, tempo and pacing of the moment.

“I think the moment of creation should be a spontaneous one,” Rodgers would clarify years later in an interview, “But I have to do an awful lot of thinking for an awful lot of time before I actually do a few notes.”

Together, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote a staggering nine musical shows (five; Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music now considered legendary)– a tally made even more impressive when one stops to consider that from 1943 to 1959 they produced a new hit musical on Broadway every other season and, in between, managed to pen a memorable film score for the 1945 version of State Fair, and, create a musical for television; Cinderella starring, then relative unknown, Julie Andrews. Cumulatively, these efforts earned the duo 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards and a pair of Pulitzers, Grammy and Emmy Awards; a formidable tally of accolades by any stretch of critical assessment.

Savvy businessmen as well as syncopated creative colleagues, from the onset Rodgers and Hammerstein were attuned to the need for complete creative control; a legacy achieved only after they became their own producers and established their own music publishing apparatus, responsible for producing their own, as well as other hit shows.

The impact that Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics had on Richard Rodgers prowess in composition cannot be overestimated. For, just as Rodgers collaborations with composer Lorenzo Hart (1895-1943) had had a particular light cadence; exemplified by a quick pleasant tempo or melodic lilt with overtones of the popular form of music of its time, so did Rodgers musical contribution to the R&H shows acquire a distinct, almost polar opposite mantel of more weighty quality under the aegis of Hammerstein’s introspective librettos.

After Hammerstein’s death from cancer in 1960, Rodgers attempts to ‘link up’ with other talents, but these associations proved less than stellar, despite such luminaries as Stephen Sondheim and Alan Jay Lerner. Simply stated; the post-Hammerstein works from Rodgers lack that spark that invigorated all their shows, and, in hindsight, attests to the importance of – call it kismet or chemistry – that unique and illusive creative zeitgeist that can truly be said to have been 50/50 between Rodgers and Hammerstein; an organic fruition, the longevity of which it is highly unlikely the American musical theater will ever see again.

Born on June 28, 1902 in New York, Richard Charles Rodgers (whose real family name of ‘Rojazinsky’ was shortened and Americanized by his father in the 1880s), began his prolific career writing variety and charity shows along side Lorenzo Hart (right) while the two were still students at Columbia University. In 1919, the team of Rodgers and Hart had their big break with ‘Any Old Place With You’ a song purchased and inserted into the 1919 Broadway musical, A Lonely Romeo.

Though popular enough, the team struggled for the next few years to find their niche, finally launching a hit single with ‘Manhattan’ which debuted in The Garrick Gaities (1925). At the height of their popularity, Rodgers and Hart were writing four shows a year – an energy and output not lost on the fledgling motion picture business, and by 1930 the two men made the move to Hollywood. Though the tenure proved superficially successful, Rodgers did not care for the constant meddling of producers and studio heads which, in later years, he would reflect upon as both stifling and crippling to his creative side.


A scant five years later, Rodgers and Hart left films for Broadway impresario Billy Rose (right) circus spectacular, Jumbo (1935) contributing that show’s most lyrical love ballads; the sublime, My Romance, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, and Little Girl Blue.

It was the beginning of an unprecedented run on Broadway for this creative team. Each show seemed to top its predecessor, and from 1936 to 1943, the music of Rodgers and Hart was heard and beloved everywhere. But in 1943 their 25 year association came to a sudden end when Lorenzo Hart became ill and tragically died, leaving Rodgers momentarily without a partner for future collaborations. The stalemate, however, did not last long.

Throughout this same tenure, Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II (foreshortened to Oscar Hammerstein) had managed a minor artistic coup by revitalizing, Americanizing and re-popularizing the operetta on the Broadway stage. Affixing his rising star to already established composers in the stage-bound firmament; Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg and Vincent Youman, Hammerstein pursued and contributed to a series of hit shows including The Desert Song, New Moon and Rose-Marie, culminating with the best known and most enduring of the pre-Rodgers’ shows with Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (1927). A self professed cockeyed optimist, Hammerstein’s lyrics were all about extolling the strengths and attributes of mankind – a belief in humanity that he carried over into his partnership with Richard Rodgers.


THE PLAY IS THE THING

the enduring stage works of Rodgers & Hammerstein

The first of many seminal works to emerge from Rodgers and Hammerstein; Oklahoma! had its Broadway debut on March 31, 1943. With its instantly recognizable score, stirring choreography by Agnes De Mille and effortless integration of music and plot, the play was an instant critical and financial success, disembarking from the conventional Broadway show format and shattering both audiences’ and the critics’ preconceived notions about what musical theater could be.

Based on Lynn Rigg’s play, Green Grows the Lilac – and original titled by R&H as Away We Go! Oklahoma! – the play’s most notable departure from then standard musical theater was its first act finale – a lavish dream sequence stemming from the lead female protagonist’s longing for clarity in her romantic choices.

In Hollywood, Oklahoma!’s overwhelming success did not go unnoticed. 20th Century-Fox studio mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck (left) had for some time been contemplating a musical remake of one of the studio’s biggest moneymakers of the 1930s; State Fair (1933). The novel by Philip Stong had translated into a winning drama for Will Rogers and then, Fox ingénue Janet Gaynor. The remake would add a lush score to the folksy ornamentation that was the film’s coup de grace.

Though Rodgers and Hammerstein had not yet been established as a team, Zanuck felt strongly about employing them to write the score for his new film. With their previous less than stellar experiences in Hollywood behind them, neither Rodgers nor Hammerstein were particularly keen on returning to film work. However, after screening the 1933 film in New York, both felt that the story and endearing characters warranted a second glance. A deal was struck whereby the duo could remain in New York while they wrote the score. Zanuck agreed.

Jeanne Crain (left), who had initially been discovered by Orson Welles while he had been in preparation on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), had since become a Fox contract player with modest success in non-musical offerings. Zanuck cast Crain in a non-speaking role in The Gang’s All Here (1943) and then, as the lead protagonist in a poor cousin horse-racing drama to MGM’s National Velvet entitled Home in Indiana (1944).

As State Fair’s central protagonist, Margie Frake, Crain presented an initial quandary for the studio in that the actress could not sing a note. A professional singer, Louanne Hogan (left) was hired to dub in Crain’s vocals – a move that proved so successful, Crain went on to have a lucrative ‘singing’ career at Fox with Hogan dubbing virtually all of her vocals in subsequent ventures.

The rest of the cast was rounded out by a stellar compendium of popular talent. Radio crooner extraordinaire, Dick Haymes (left) was provided with the plumb role of Margie’s brother Wayne; veteran Fox contract player Dana Andrews (who actually had come to Hollywood in the early years to sing opera), was cast as Margie’s romantic interest, Pat Gilbert. The studio knew nothing of either Andrews’ ambitions or talent and hired an extra to dub his vocals instead. For his part, Andrews kept his abilities a secret from Fox, ignobly opting to provide the extra hired to dub in his vocals with a steady paycheck.

Vivian Blaine (right) – then seen as a successor to Fox’s most popular leading lady, Alice Faye – assumed the role of Emily Edwards; a big band singer who breaks Wayne’s heart. Curiously enough, the character of Emily in Stong’s novel has no last name. In the 1931 film she is named Emily Joyce; then Emily Porter in the 1962 filmic remake and finally, Emily Arden in the 1995 stage incarnation.

In writing the lyrics for the songs in State Fair, Oscar Hammerstein was briefly befuddled by his choice of love ballad for Margie. Initially, Hammerstein had desired to write a lyric about a girl suffering from Spring fever, hence her inability to be able to enjoy or even relate to the things and people she once cherished and found so amusing in her home life. The concept was solid, except that Hammerstein was quickly to discover that state fairs are held only during the autumn months.

With a bit of imagination in tow, Hammerstein revisited his initial concept with a slight alteration; the result – the Oscar-winning classic ‘It Might As Well Be Spring.’

“I wrote it all out first,” Hammerstein would muse affectionately years later, “It took me several weeks. Then I gave it to him (Rodgers) and two hours later he called me up and said, ‘I’ve got it.’ I could have thrown a brick through the phone.”

But perhaps Hammerstein’s most astonishing contribution to State Fair was ‘All I Owe I Owe Ioway’ – a breezy compendium of all that rural America is and has to offer (and transformed into a lavish full blown production number in the film), made all the more miraculous when one stops to consider that Hammerstein had been raised – and had remained – a city boy at heart. When the film was released theatrically, it proved a very popular hit. Though some critics were quick to mis-judge the score as not living up to the standards of Broadway’s Oklahoma! most were laudatory with their praise for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contribution.

With all the folksy charm of both Broadway’s Oklahoma! and Fox’s State Fair under their creative belts, one might have expected a continuation into more of the same for their next collaborative effort. Instead, the duo turned their attentions to a dark fantasy by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. Liliom was the story of an abusive lover who, after failing to secure happiness and security for his wife and young child, unrepentantly commits suicide. He is afforded one opportunity to return to earth and make peace, but badly ruins this chance at redemption and is exiled into purgatory instead.

Initially, Hammerstein had brought the property to Rodgers attention. He was met with less than overwhelming enthusiasm for the project which Rodgers considered oddly perverse and gruesomely tragic. His opinion of Molnar’s work was confirmed after screening the 1934 European film starring Charles Boyer. Furthermore, Rodgers was quick to remind his partner that fantasy rarely translated well to the stage. Nevertheless, Rodgers did begin the creative process by loosely suggesting to Hammerstein that the mood of the piece might be lightened with a change of locale from Budapest in the original to Maine for their version.


With a name change to Carousel, the protagonist of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show – renamed Billie Bigalow – would not be an unredeemable reprobate, but a tragic figure who, in his desire to secure a future for his family, makes a grievous decision that inadvertently costs him his life. He time travels to earth, makes a mends for his past indiscretions and returns to heaven, knowing that his family will weather the storm without him.

In essence, Carousel is a morality tale, it’s note of optimism and hope at the end not clearly defined as the anticipated conventional ‘happy ending’ but rather instilling a premise that is both genuine and human – encapsulating the vast rawness and passionately emotional arch of Liliom while infusing a sense of the miraculous in the everyday, and even, within the tragic.

This was mainly Hammerstein’s contribution to the project – instilled by a faith that, as the librettist commented years later, “…we should all have in ourselves and one another…illuminated in these words (from the most poignant and best remembered song in the score) – when you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm is a golden sky and the sweet silver song of the Lord. Walk on through the wind. Walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.”

Reportedly, upon debuting Carousel on Broadway, Molnar was complimentary to Rodgers and Hammerstein, supposedly confiding to the latter that he wished he had thought of their ending as his own. Years later, Rodgers concurred with Molnar’s assessment. “Oscar never wrote more meaningful or more moving lyrics and to me, my score is more satisfying than any I’ve ever written…it affects me deeply every time I see it performed.”

Though not the overwhelming critical or financial success that Oklahoma! had been, Carousel nevertheless did respectable business. Unfortunately, it would be followed by one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most forgettable efforts; Allegro – a meandering, somewhat speculative piece with socially conscious underpinnings of the folly in big business and married to the rather convivial story of everyman, Joseph Taylor – a doctor who, upon discovering that his wife is having an affair, departs the big city for a life of humanitarian work and more meaningful romance with his nurse, Emily West. Premiering at the Majestic Theater on October 10, 1947, Allegro ran for a disappointing 315 performances – disregarded by audiences and much maligned by the critics.

If many were quick to contemplate the future of Rodgers and Hammerstein then, their snap analyses were laid to rest with the debut of the duos next iconic effort; South Pacific (1949). James Michener’s (right) frank, yet occasionally somewhat romanticized recanting of war stories in Tales of the South Pacific had first been considered box office poison by Hollywood studios, an opinion that inadvertently placed the novel on the market where theater director Joshua Logan first discovered it. Unable to shake the notion that the novel would make a great play, Logan passed it on to Rodgers and Hammerstein, both of whom found the social and political statements made by Michener in the novel in line with their moral consciousness.

Crafting themes of racial prejudice and ambiguity around the characters of an American nurse, Nellie Forbush (Mary Martin) whose love for French plantation owner, Emile DeBecque (Ezio Pinza) are brought into question after she discovers he has Polynesian children from a previous marriage, Rodgers and Hammerstein concocted their most politically charged stage work – a critique of perceived American superiority made humble by the realization that ‘people are just people – no matter where one goes.’

What made the Broadway premiere of South Pacific particularly satisfying for the duo was that it was their first independent stage venture as solo producers. Instantly heralded as another masterwork by the team, South Pacific reinstated and enforced the popular opinion that when it came to Broadway musicals – there was little to compete with the progressiveness of Rodgers and Hammerstein. For their next project, the duo would be matched by two enigmatic talents as formidable in poise, polish and stature as themselves; one a veteran actress; the other, an actor on the cusp of immortality.

AN AUDIENCE WITH THE KING


In 1946, 20th Century-Fox debuted the film, Anna and the King of Siam; a fictionalized recanting of the real life exploits of a British governess, Anna Leonowens and her dealings with the volatile King of Siam (now Thailand) while acting as tutor to his many children. The film was based loosely on Anna’s published diaries and a novel written 50 years later by Margaret Landon. Enthralled with the film was one of the stage’s most legendary leading ladies; Gertrude Lawrence (left and below).

An intercontinental sensation and luminous star of the first magnitude, whose recent glowing success in Lady in the Dark had embodied the height of chic sophistication, and, who was almost as famous for her after hours carousing and over-the-top lifestyle as she was for her stage efforts, Gertrude Lawrence was determined to play Anna on the stage. Purchasing the rights from Fox, the actress approached Rodgers and Hammerstein who immediately recognized the story’s potential as their next project; the first they would be writing exclusively for a particular star.

As the legend goes; Rodgers and Hammerstein began the project – renamed The King and I - in earnest, only to discover much to their chagrin that they knew of no actor who could play the male protagonist on par with the overpowering presence of Gertrude Lawrence. It was at this impasse that long time friend and occasional collaborator, Mary Martin came to their rescue. Martin had worked with a little know actor named Yul Brynner in Lute Song.

So the story goes, Rodgers and Hammerstein went to audition several actors for the part of the king. Brynner came out from behind a curtain, sat cross-legged before them on the edge of a stage with guitar in hand and gave his instrument a mighty whack while letting out a primitive yelp.

Instantly, he convinced the duo he was the embodiment of their fictional Siamese ruler. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s faith in Brynner was further solidified when the production’s costume designer, Irene Shariff convinced the already viral Brynner – who seemed to radiate a savage sexuality – to shave his head completely bald. The results were startling, sensual and instantly iconic.


While the first half of the play belonged primarily to Gertrude Lawrence – and her sparing with the king - the last act was undoubtedly a tour de force in support of the secondary flawed romance featuring slave girl, Tuptim’s galvanic ballet recreation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Rodgers and Hammerstein were somewhat perplexed during tryouts when they arrived for a rehearsal of the ballet, only to discover that choreographer Jerome Robbins had been trying rather awkwardly to maintain authentic Oriental dance steps. It was only after Rodgers confided in Robbins that authenticity is a commodity best left in the eyes of the beholder that Robbins agreed to toss out virtually everything that the company had rehearsed up until that point and restage the number from scratch.

After tryouts in New Haven and Boston, The King and I premiered on Broadway on March 29th, 1951. It was an immediate and overwhelming success – winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Actress (Lawrence), Featured Actor (Brynner), Costume and Scenic Design. However, after playing Broadway for a year and 1,246 performances Gertrude Lawrence suddenly fell ill.

She finished a performance during the Wednesday matinee in September 1952 and checked herself into the hospital for what she believed was going to be a brief rest and recuperation from jaundice. Instead, doctors informed the actress that she was fatally stricken with liver cancer. That Saturday, Sept. 6, Lawrence died of her ailment. She was only 54 years old, leaving Brynner and her understudy to take The King and I on the road.