Sunday, June 03, 2007



filmic reincarnations and The Sound of Music

It is interesting to note that, with the exception of State Fair (1945), Rodgers and Hammerstein chose to abstain from allowing any of their Broadway smash hits to be transformed into movies until the mid-1950s; a decade marred by the decline of the studio system; the loss to television of the movies’ exclusivity as mass cultural entertainment, and the decimation of audience attendance – cut to less than half of what it had been at the height of WWII.

In hindsight, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s apprehension toward the movies likely had more to do with the fact that both men were in a constant state of preoccupation on their next theatrical endeavor, rather than stemming from any lingering resentment over their early years of working in film.

Their hiatus away from Hollywood also allowed the movies to ‘catch up’ to a place where arguably live theater had been all along. Burgeoning technologies in widescreen processes and stereophonic sound afforded the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals a lushness and expansive canvas on which to explore their vast and superior themes of cultural clash.
As it had been on stage, Oklahoma! became the first certified Rodgers and Hammerstein stage classic to make its way to the big screen. In Oklahoma!’s case, the venture was expedited by master showman, Michael Todd and his newly patented Todd A-O widescreen process, meant to rival Fox’s Cinemascope. For Todd, the appeal of having a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as Todd A-O’s debut was a stroke of genius and a marketing dream. For Rodgers and Hammerstein, the appeal lay more in Todd A-O’s promise of improved image and sound quality – hence, an ideal venue for optimal presentation.

Unfortunately for all, the early Todd A-O process came with its own litany of side effects – the most obvious being that its larger format 70mm film stock precluded widespread theatrical engagements and mass distribution, since most movie houses were not equipped to show Todd A-O. Hence, Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck also ordered into production a Cinemascope version of Oklahoma! shot concurrently with Todd’s version - necessitating that each scene be photographed twice using a two camera set up.

For his part, director Fred Zinnemann brought nothing fresh or vitalizing to his rather heavy-handed execution of the dance sequences – made more stagy in Todd A-O, but ironically less obvious in Cinemascope. Despite these drawbacks, Todd road showed Oklahoma! at the Rivoli Theater in 1955 to rousing acclaim with the Cinemascope version debuting to equally strong reviews and box office simultaneously. With a cast that included Gordon MacRae, Gloria Grahame, Eddie Albert and Rod Steiger and introduced Shirley Jones, Oklahoma! translated to the big screen with much of its majesty and magic in tact.

Immediately following the film’s success, Zanuck rushed into a big screen production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

As insurance, the film reunited Oklahoma!’s stars Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones as the ill fated lovers, but opted instead to shoot the production in Fox’s newly advanced version of standard Cinemascope; rechristened Cinemascope 55. Ironically, the film process resembled Todd A-O in its initial photographing, but was then reduction printed to standard 35mm anamorphic Cinemascope, thereby mirroring standard Cinemascope during projection.

As it had proved to be on the stage, the filmic version of Carousel was not as successful as Oklahoma!’s debut though it did do respectable box office.

During these heady times in filmic activity, leading up to and including the filming of The King and I (1955) Rodgers and Hammerstein were also involved in two commercial flops on the stage; Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955). It was mutually decided that after so much successful collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein would take a brief hiatus from working together.

While Rodgers continued to be intimately involved in the handling of The King and I’s filmic incarnation, Hammerstein worked independently on a filmic version of his 1943 stage show, Carmen Jones – an all-black version of Bizet’s immortal opera – Carmen. The film was eventually directed by Otto Preminger who was – at the time – having an interracial affair with the film’s star, Dorothy Dandridge. Though Carmen Jones proved to be a powerful springboard for Dandridge’s brief career in films, it retains a very theatrical, somewhat awkward and flat presentation when viewed today.

On the whole, and as a film, The King and I fared far better; the beneficiary of personal supervision from Darryl F. Zanuck. Indeed, the play had always been Zanuck’s favorite and he carried that affinity over during the daunting task of transforming it into a film. Ernest Lehman was assigned the task of restructuring the play’s content – dropping several songs along the way even after they had already been filmed. The one song that Lehman was adamantly opposed to excising was Yul Brynner’s ‘Is A Puzzlement.’ Zanuck had initially ordered the film to be made without its inclusion, despite strenuous objections from both Lehman and Brynner. Upon surveying the completed film, Zanuck relented in his assessment, ordered cast and crew back to work to film the number, and thus it remains in the film to this day.

Zanuck further ordered an expansive and lavish outdoor set of the palace and its gardens and fountains to be built on the Fox backlot where he ordered reshoots of Tuptim and Lontar’s romantic pas deux ‘We Kissed in A Shadow.’ All these alterations met with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s approval and immensely benefited the story. But it was Yul Brynner’s central performance which captivated audiences and earned him the Academy Award as Best Actor of the year.

By 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein were in full collaboration again. They had produced a popularized version of the Cinderella story on television and were sharing a modest success on the stage with Flower Drum Song (1958) – a minor effort about romantic love in San Francisco’s Asian American community that Universal Pictures would later transform into a glossy, but decidedly vapid film in 1961.

However, for the moment, the project that was consuming most of the duos time and energies was the stage adaptation of a story that would forever become synonymous with their names; The Sound of Music. The Von Trapp Family Singers had already been the subject of two German produced films; Die Trapp Familie (1956) and Die Trapp Familie in Amerika (1958) when stage director Vincent J. Donahue recommended it as a stage vehicle for Rodgers and Hammerstein alumni, Mary Martin. Perhaps because the duo were also involved in the filmic production of South Pacific at this same juncture in their careers, the immediate possibilities inherent in retelling the Von Trapp saga were not apparent to either Rodgers or Hammerstein. However, Martin could – and would – be very persuasive. Her enthusiasm for the project grew to the point where both men agreed on The Sound of Music as their next major stage vehicle.

Premiering at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Nov. 16th 1959, and running a then record 1,443 performances, The Sound of Music on Broadway became the show to beat - breaking all previous records set and held by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Martin took home the Tony for Best Actress. Tragically, during rehearsals, Oscar Hammerstein was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. His relentless pursuit of excellence and his commitment to the theater outweighed this tragedy. His last lyric became the poignant anthem of the show – Edelweiss. On August 23, 1960 Hammerstein died at the age of 65 without ever realizing the even greater heights his last collaborative effort was destined for on the big screen.


In April of 1964, director Robert Wise and a company of 60 people descended on Austria, determined to capture Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final stage work on celluloid for posterity. By then the socio-political and artistic landscape of Hollywood had been so dramatically altered by the onset of the government Consent Decrees and the advent of television that many in the industry were pondering the longevity of film making as a commercially viable enterprise.

Indeed, nowhere more than at 20th Century-Fox was this crunch and conflict between the old studio system and the era of the new independent producer felt more dramatically. Fox had hemorrhaged funds on the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic, Cleopatra (1963) – a film which, despite overwhelming box office response, miserably failed to recoup its production costs upon its initial release. Hence, for all intensive purposes, subsequent film production at the studio had been indefinitely suspended and most of the studio’s staff laid off.

Ever conscious of the fact that Fox was expecting a mega-hit on time and under budget, director Wise worked as quickly as he could on the preparation and shooting of The Sound of Music. He was hampered in this pursuit by Austria’s temperamental climate which seemed to include thunder and rain showers two out of every three days. In fact, when it came time to photograph Julie Andrews emblematic turn high atop the Alps, Wise discovered that the only way for cast and crew to scale the mountain to the secluded spot was by ox-driven carriage.

Andrews was to discover another difficulty once the location had been reached. Every time the helicopter carrying the camera swooped in close enough for a shot, the downdraft generated from its propellers was sufficient enough to knock her senseless into the brush. Furthermore, the farm owner whose land Wise was shooting on, had a sudden change of heart mid-way through photography – demanding more money, then poking holes in the man-made stream that had been built by the film crew in an effort to sabotage their schedule when his demands were not met.

Nightly, cast and crew would unite at one of the local hotels or cozy pubs and beer gardens, soaking in the lush centuries-old atmosphere of the Vienna and indulging in the rich liqueurs and pastries. At one point, actor Christopher Plummer had to have several of his costume changes altered to account for the extra girth he had accumulated around his waist line.

Despite almost daily telegrams from his home base encouraging a more rapid shooting schedule, Wise eventually realized there was no way he was going to be able to complete the film on time and under budget. Still, what he had captured around town up till that point – the Mirabell Gardens, the exterior of Nonnberg Abbey, Winkler’s Terrace, the lush greenery and mountain exteriors of Saltzkammergut and the Mozart footbridge proved an intoxicating blend of locations that, were later seamlessly married to sets built back at 20th Century Fox.

Screen writer Ernest Lehnman’s revisions to the original show restructured much of the action into a more coherent film narrative, tempered the play’s treacle and sweetness, expanded the role of the Captain and jettisoned several of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs, but added the only song for which Richard Rodgers wrote both melody and lyric – ‘Something Good.’

Production designer Boris Levin recreated the interior of Nonnberg Abbey right down to its cobblestone courtyard, a feat of design that many believed was actual location photography, though production records clearly indicate that no access to the abbey’s interiors had been given to Wise and his film crew.

When The Sound of Music had its world premiere on March 2, 1965, few at 20th Century-Fox could have hoped for a more successful debut. Despite only slightly above average grosses on the opening weekend, word of mouth and renewed ticket sales caused the film’s weekly intake to steadily grow during the Spring and Summer. In the final analysis, The Sound of Music became the studio’s most successful film of the decade and eventually, the highest grossing motion picture in history. Today, it remains the most successful film musical of all time.


“What’s wrong with sweetness and light? They’ve been around for a long time?”Richard Rodgers

In 1962, Fox dusted off State Fair for yet another remake. Richard Rodgers was invited to write six new songs to embellish the contributions he and Hammerstein had shared from the 1945 film. A shift in locale from Iowa to Texas necessitated dropping ‘All I Owe I Owe Ioway’ – one of the earlier film’s biggest offerings, and replacing it with the largely forgettable ‘It’s The Little Things in Texas.’ Tragically, the homespun quality that had made the 45’ film such a precocious and plucky excursion was wholly absent from this recycled endeavor and it failed miserably to catch on at the box office.

Indeed, by 1962 musicals in general were fast becoming a relic from the old studio days. Though many a yesteryear Broadway show continued with great frequency to become a ‘new’ big budget musical offering from the studios throughout the decade (and more than a handful would also go on to win accolades and Oscars), by 1969 it was clear that the cycle and spark fueling interest in the genre – the essential optimism that had driven Oscar Hammerstein’s librettos for all of their shows and had made Rodgers and Hammerstein legendary trademarked celebrities in their own time - had given way to a more cynical repertoire of film makers and audience expectations.

“I believe that not all of life is good,” Hammerstein once relayed in an interview shortly before his death, “but so much of it is. My inclination is to emphasize that side of life…and it’s natural. It’s not something I’ve developed.”

The Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue is a unique legacy steeped in that philosophy of goodness and light. It continues to radiate appeal and resonate within the inherent greatness of high artistic achievements. That Richard Rodgers attempts at subsequent musical collaborations following Hammerstein’s death failed to reach the artistic heights held during his association with Hammerstein is perhaps a forgivable footnote – for he and Oscar did give themselves an impossible act to follow.

But in the final analysis, theirs’ was a legacy in song immeasurably blessed by a willingness to believe that art and life should – and might – run those high-minded parallel courses. It is that expectation of idealism in all things that continues to resonate with audiences today. We are forever blessed with their masterworks – endlessly revisited on the stage and revived on both the big and small screens.

When Richard Rodgers died on Dec. 30th, 1979 he put a period to what more great ideas and melodies lay within that highly developed sense of style. But he did not leave us barren of the moments, the memories and the lifetime of exemplary works that will continue to captivate, enthrall and encourage young minds for as long as musicals and that intangible magical quality they spawn endure. @Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).