Hammerstein II (1895-1960) wrote 10 musical plays (9 for the stage,
and 1 for television) in the 1940s and 1950s. The concepts that they
introduced changed the face of American musical theatre, and are still
highly influential today. Starting with 'Oklahoma' (1943) and ending
with 'Sound of Music' (1959), they pulled together all the aspects of
acting, singing, and dancing into a coherent whole, while imparting a
philosophy of optimism and tolerance toward people of all races and
walks of life.
Prior to joining Rodgers, Hammerstein had written operettas, many of
them characterized by creaky plots and sentimental songs. His better
shows included 'Rose-Marie'in 1924 (with music by Friml), 'The Desert
Song' in 1926 (with music by Romberg), and the extraordinary classic
'Show Boat' in 1927 (with music by Kern). Rodgers had written for a
hipper audience that valued clever lyrics and tunes with a lively beat.
With lyricist Lorenz Hart, Rodgers supplied scores for such shows as
'A Connecticut Yankee' (1927), 'Babes in Arms' (1937), and 'Pal Joey'
(1940). In 1942, with Hart too ill to work, Rodgers asked Hammerstein
to be his new collaborator.
'Oklahoma' was based on Lynn Riggs' play 'Green Grow the Lilacs,'
which painted a warm, affectionate portrait of settlers in the Indian
Territory just before admission to the United States as Oklahoma in
1907. Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted 'Oklahoma' to be a different
kind of show, one in which all the elements (acting, dancing, singing,
etc.) were tightly integrated with each other. However clever a song
or dance number might be, if it didn't advance the plot or give
definition to the character singing it, it was gone. Some of the
differences were apparent from the first entrance in the first scene.
The curtain goes up on a bare stage, empty except for a woman churning
butter. Backstage, a young cowboy named Curly (played by Alfred Drake)
can be heard singing a waltz tune called 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.'
Not a typical opening for a musical, but as Curly sings, the audience
can imagine the beautiful golden haze, and the corn so tall it almost
reaches the sky. Curly has come to see Laurey (Joan Roberts). His next
song tells about 'The Surrey with the fringe on top' which he would
like to share with Laurey. This song has a Western flavour, with a
tempo that suggests the 'clip-clop' of horses' hooves. In the third
verse, Curley waxes poetic with descriptions of larks in the meadow
and the sun 'swimming on the rim of a hill.' When the dancers make
their first entrance, halfway through the first act, they are not
wearing the skimpy outfits typical of early-40's musicals, but rather
long skirts that fit the show's period and locale. And in the song
'Out of my Dreams,' they seem to be dancing ballet, thanks to
choreography by Agnes DeMill. There is humor, too, most notably in
the songs 'Kansas City,' 'The Farmer and the Cowman,' and 'I Cain't
Say no'-but it is always used in the service of character development.
If audiences of the early 1940s perceived a weakness in 'Oklahoma!,'
that weakness lay in the plot: nothing more consequential happened
than two fellows (Curley, and a farmhand named Jud Fry-played by
Howard da Silva) competing for the right to take Laurie to a box
social. A secondary plot revolved around Ado Annie's (Celeste Holm)
comical inability to stay faithful to Will Parker (Lee Dixon).
However, audiences did not seem troubled by the relative lack of plot.
Indeed, they left the theater whistling the rousing title song.
'Oklahoma!' scored with the New York critics as well, reversing the
dismissive 'No legs, no jokes, no chance' verdict rendered in
pre-Broadway performances. (Some reviews did fault the show for
a 'monotonous' beginning, though.) The show went on to tour 150
American cities and many foreign countries. It also won a special
Pulitzer prize in 1944. Looking back on that era, we might wonder
at the magnitude of the show's success. However, In the war-torn
world of 1943, where people seemed to hate and distrust each other,
'Oklahoma' was a safe haven where even those adversaries the
farmer and the cowman could be friends. The idea of cowboys
(and cowgirls) doing ballet numbers, while unconventional on
the Broadway stage, was a logical extension of Aaron Copland's
ballet 'Rodeo,' which had premiered in New York not long before.
In 1947, 'Oklahoma' became the first Broadway musical to run
more than 2,000 performances, eventually topping out at 2,212.
In its film version (1955), it won Oscars for best musical
score and best sound. The stage version has had numerous
revivals, including a highly successful one in London in
1998 and 1999.
The Theater Guild, which had played a crucial role in getting
'Oklahoma!' off the ground, came to Rodgers and Hammerstein
with the idea of remaking Ferenc Molnar's play 'Liliom' as a
musical. Rodgers and Hammerstein were skeptical at first, but
warmed to the idea once they conceived of changing the play's
locale from Budapest to the New England coast, and creating a
more hopeful ending. Molnar's title character was given a more
American-sounding name ('Billy Bigelow,' played by John Raitt),
and the occupation of barker for a carousel. In lieu of an
overture, the show opens with 'The Carousel Waltz,' while
dancers stage a pantomime carousel. As the music dies away, a
young mill worker named Julie Jordan (Jan Clayton) is told to
stay away from Billy by the Carousel's owner, Mrs. Mullin.
Billy Bigelow rises to Julie's defense and loses his job, thus
starting a chain reaction that will change their lives. Spending
the night on the beach, Billy and Julie find it hard to articulate
their feelings (the song 'If I Loved You'). Julie's best friend,
Carrie Pipperidge (Jean Darling), sings about her upcoming
nuptials ('When I Marry Mister Snow'), ending with a concise
summary of her beloved's many fine attributes: 'That YOUNG,
sea-farin', BOLD and darin', BIG, be-whiskered, O-verbearin',
DAR-ling,' with each capitalized word a step higher than the
one before, as if to signal Carrie's growing excitement and
love. Perhaps the pivotal scene is the one in which Billy,
having learned that Julie is pregnant, sorts out his conflicting
feelings about becoming a father (the song 'Soliloquy').
Moving from brashness ('I bet he'll think I can lick every
other feller's father. Well, I can!'), to openmindedness about
the child's career options, to paternal solicitude ('I can give
him...pointers...on the way to get round any girl'), he soon
realizes that the child might be a girl. A father and son might
happily share many activities, but 'You've got to be a father
to a girl.' Rising to the occasion, Billy sings tenderly about
'my little girl,' and finally turns to thoughts of panic when
he realizes that raising children requires money. Unable to do
anything except bark at carousels (and lately not able to do
even that), Billy goes to a friend (Jigger Craigin, played by
Murvyn Vye) to offer help in a robbery. The robbery goes awry,
Billy dies by falling on his own knife, and Julie is left to
raise the child alone, supported by her kindly cousin Nettie
Fowler (Christine Johnson). Fifteen years pass. Billy's
destiny in the afterlife is governed by The Starmaker, who
gives him one chance to redeem himself enough to enter Heaven.
Upon being sent back to earth , Billy tries to comfort his
troubled daughter Louise by offering her a star, but he slaps
her when she refuses it. At her graduation later that day, Billy
urges her to take to heart the hopeful sentiments in the song
'You'll Never Walk Alone.'
'Carousel' received good reviews, and had a respectable run of
890 performances, but it was not the runaway success that '
Oklahoma' had been. Songs like 'June is Bustin' out All Over'
and 'This was a Real Nice Clambake,' reflecting the happier
moments in the show, became hits, along with the more serious
'If I Loved You' and 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' One element
that some audiences had trouble with was the spousal abuse
issue in Billy and Julie's relationship. This issue was
downplayed in the 1956 film version, but has received more
emphasis in recent stage revivals. In 1999, Time Magazine
rated 'Carousel' the best musical of the 20th century.
Rodgers himself admitted that it was his favourite.
'SOUTH PACIFIC,' 1949
In 1948, Joshua Logan called Rodgers' attention to a short
story ('Fo' Dolla') in James Michener's book 'Tales of the
South Pacific.' Rodgers and Hammerstein secured dramatic
rights to the whole book, and spliced 'Fo' Dolla' together
with two other stories from the collection to create the
musical 'South Pacific.'
The stories are interwoven in the following way: Nellie
Forbush (Mary Martin) is an American nurse from Arkansas
who falls in love with Emile De Becque (Ezio Pinza) while
stationed in Tonga during World War Two. Nellie's
characteristic optimism (expressed in the song 'Cockeyed
Optimist') is shaken somewhat when she learns that the
impulsive De Becque (the song 'Some Enchanted Evening')
has fathered children by a nonwhite mother. Meanwhile, an
American naval officer named Joe Cable (William Tabbert)
has fallen in love with a native girl named Liat. He sings
'Younger Than Springtime' to her. Liat's mother, Bloody Mary
(Juanita Hall) is a wheeler-dealer who is alternatively
charming (the G.I.'s teasingly sing 'Bloody Mary is the
Girl I Love' to her) and threatening (when Joe resists
her order to stay on the island if he marries Liat).
Meanwhile, Nellie has decided to dump De Becque ('Gonna
Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair') and focus her attention
on an upcoming show with the amusing Luther Billis (Myron
McCormick), to whom she sings 'Honey Bun.' Joe, realizing
his own limitations ('Carefully Taught'), resolves to work
out his relationship with Liat and Mary, but dies while
on a surveillance mission with De Becque. Nellie, worried
that De Becque has died, works her way through to a happy
reconciliation with him when he returns to her.
'South Pacific' was well-received by virtually everyone.
The cast of well-known and talented actors, together with
the highly topical theme (winning the recent war), helped
pave the way for a Pulitzer Prize and a five-year run on
Broadway (1925 performances). Virtually all the songs became
hits. A movie version was released in 1958.
'THE KING AND I,' 1951
Early in 1950, R and H received a call from representatives of
Gertrude Lawrence, a successful actress-singer on the British
musical stage. Miss Lawrence wanted to know if R and H could
be persuaded to adapt Margaret Landon's book 'Anna and the
King of Siam' as a musical.
The story of 'Anna' was certainly a tempting one. Based on the
memoirs of Anna Leonowens (originally Leon Owens), it concerned a
proper Victorian woman who left Britain with her son to teach the
princes and princesses of Siam (now known as 'Thailand') in the
1860s. Anna faced many challenges as a teacher. As she got to
know King Mongkut, she gained influence in his affairs. The
dramatic possibilities of such a story were great: the clash of
Eastern and Western cultures, the interplay of two strong-willed
individuals, the exotic ceremonial style of an Asian court. There
were also some drawbacks, the most notable being a need for songs
that could accommodate Miss Lawrence's modest singing capabilities
while making use of her great acting skills.
Almost as significant was the problem of finding the right actor
to play King Mongkut. Rex Harrison, who had played the role in the
nonmusical 1946 film version, declined to attempt a musical version.
Alfred Drake also declined: he was busy with other projects.
Then a dynamic young Russian actor named Yul Brynner came along,
and R and H had their king. Brynner was to become identified
with this role, enhancing film and stage revival prospects for
the rest of his life. Unfortunately, his performances were not
well received by officials in Thailand itself.
Despite the necessity of keeping Anna's songs within a modest
vocal range, R and H turned out several song hits, such as
'Getting to know you,' 'Shall we dance,' and 'Hello, young
lovers.' An instrumental piece called 'March of the Siamese
Children' also achieved some fame, as did the song 'We Kiss in
a Shadow,' which described the illicit love affair between the
King's Burmese wife (Tuptim, played by Doretta Morrow) and the
ambassador from Burma (Lun Tha, played by Larry Douglas).
Note: Burma is now known as Myanmar.
Although well received by New York audiences and theater critics
alike, the greatest enthusiasm for 'The King and I' was shown
by critics in London. Interestingly enough, the least favourable
response was that of the Thai government, which banned all
performances of the show in Thailand, on the grounds that it
showed disrespect for Thailand's monarchy. For more information, see
'The King and I' ran for 1,246 performances in its initial New
York run, and 926 performances in London. A film version was
released in 1956. Since then, there have been numerous revivals.
A recent recording starring Ben Kingsley and Julie Andrews was
critically well received. Other adaptations of the original story
have also appeared since R and H's time.
As R and H's play 'Pipe Dream' was approaching the end of its
meager run in 1956, another show was beginning a much longer
run: 'My Fair Lady,' written by Alan Lerner and Fredrick Loewe,
and starring a young actress named Julie Andrews.
Richard Rodgers received a call from Miss Andrews' agent in late
summer. Would R and H be interested in writing a television
musical based on the fairy tale 'Cinderella,' with Miss Andrews
in the title role? R and H quickly agreed, and began work on
the show, which was to be broadcast live by CBS on March 31, 1957.
Because there was only one shot at getting the show right,
R and H declined to make big changes in the basic story. The
stepsisters, played by Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley, were
presented as more comic than evil. The Fairy Godmother was
portrayed as a young and beautiful woman, with Edie Adams
chosen for the part.
As usual in any R and H production, the songs helped tell the
story and define the characters. 'In my own Little Corner'
describes the life Cinderella dreams of having. 'Impossible'
is the Fairy Godmother's song about the 'zanies and fools'
who achieve impossible goals by 'building up impossible hopes.'
Two particularly lovely songs are sung by the prince (played by
Jon Cypher): 'Ten minutes ago,' about his first reaction to
Cinderella, and 'Do I Love you Because you're Beautiful,'
in which he wonders if his love for her has made him imagine
that she is more beautiful than she really is.
An estimated 107 million viewers saw 'Cinderella' in its one
live performance. Stage versions were subsequently presented
in London, Cleveland, and St. Louis. Then, in 1965, there was
a television remake with a new cast. It was recorded on
videotape, so it could be rebroadcast. Finally, a third remake
was presented in 2000.
'FLOWER DRUM SONG,' 1958
For the most part, R and H's shows after 'The King
and I' did not fare very well. 'Cinderella' was the
happy exception, but now it was a memory as well.
Enter Joseph Fields, whose father and uncle had
collaborated with Rodgers on various projects. When
Fields proposed that R and H help him adapt C Y. Lee's
novel 'Flower Drum Song' for the musical stage,
the answer was an enthusiastic 'yes.'
Set in San Francisco in the 1950s, 'Flower Drum Song'
tells the story of Mei Li (played by Miyoshi Umeki), a
'picture bride' who leaves China to become the wife of
a night-club owner named Sammy Fong (Larry Blyden).
Fong, however, loves Linda Low (Pat Suzuki), one of
the strippers in his club. Fong suggests that his friend
Wang Ta (Ed Kenney) woo Mei Li instead.
There were a number of dramatic possibilities in the
story. First, there was the culture clash between Chinese-
born parents and their American-born children (explored
in the song, 'The Other Generation.') Second, there was
the musical contrast between Mei Li's simple, poetic songs
('100 Million Miracles,' 'I am Going to Like it Here')
and the brashly American music of Linda Low ('I Enjoy
Being a Girl,' 'Sunday, Sweet Sunday"). Other musical
treats include Wang Ta's 'You are Beautiful,' which
expresses his romantic vision of love, and 'Don't Marry me,'
in which Sammy humorously tries to explain that he is not
the right man for Mei Li.
'Flower Drum Song' was warmly received in New York,
running for 600 performances. It then ran almost as long
in London, and was made into a film in 1961. Though not
a titanic hit like 'Oklahoma' or 'South Pacific,' the
film version of 'Flower Drum Song' has continued to
entertain audiences with its sly wit and colorful
performances on videocassette.
'SOUND OF MUSIC,' 1959
When R and H were first approached about contributing
material to the production that was to become 'The
Sound of Music,' the goal was decidedly modest:
to tell how the Trapp Family Singers were formed,
using the group's favorite songs plus one or two
original songs to be written by R&H. The libretto
would be written by Howard Lindsay and Russel
Crouse. R and H replied that were busy with 'Flower
Drum Song' at the time. Moreover, they doubted that
mixing music by different composers would work very
well. Given the precarious state of Oscar
Hammerstein's health, R&H could live with the idea
of letting Lindsay & Crouse write the libretto.
A year later, when R and H were available for work,
they were given free rein over the music and lyrics.
Rodgers even wrote his own version of Catholic
liturgical music for the opening scene in Nonnberg
Abbey.The tranquility of this first scene gives way
to a different kind of music on the mountainside
nearby, where postulant Maria Rainer (Mary Martin)
is listening to 'The Sound of music' all around her.
Waiting for Maria to return, the nuns at the Abbey
wonder 'How do you solve a problem like Maria.'
Next morning, the mother abbess (Patricia Neway)
attempts to solve the problem by sending Maria to
be governess for seven motherless children at the
home of their father, Captain George Von Trapp
(Theodore Bikel). Maria bonds with the children,
teaching them music ('Do re mi'), helping young
Liesl (Lauri Peters) with her first love affair ('Sixteen
going on seventeen'), and even comforting them
during storms ('Lonely goatherd'). Maria also finds
herself falling in love with Captain Von Trapp.
She asks the mother abbess for guidance, and is
told to 'Climb Every Mountain.' The children's
musical proficiency has grown so much by now that
they entertain house guests during parties ('So
Long, Farewell'). After Maria and the Captain are
married, the Captain receives an order from the
Germans (who now control Austria) to serve in
the Navy. The Von Trapps perform at a local music
festival ('Edelweiss'), and then flee across the
mountains to Switzerland.
The opening-night reviews for 'Sound of Music' were
mixed. John Chapman (New York Daily News)
thought the show had '...much that is admirable,
stunning and exciting,' but Brooks Atkinson
(New York Times) said, 'It is disappointing
to see the American musical stage succumbing
to the cliches of operetta. The revolution of the
forties and fifties has lost its fire.' Audiences
were more forgiving. 'Sound of Music' ran for 1,443
performances in New York, and 2,385 in London.
The London run was especially impressive because
in its last two years it was competing with the very
popular film version starring Julie Andrews and
Christopher Plummer. The film version (1965) has been
seen by an estimated 142,000,000 people to date,
putting it among the 3 most-watched movies of all
time. (As of 8/16/2000. This figure, taken from the
'New York Times Almanac,' counts ticket sales
in movie theaters.)
RODGERS WITHOUT HAMMERSTEIN
Oscar Hammerstein's death in 1960 was a sad one for
musical theatre fans, because it deprived Richard Rodgers
of the best collaborator that he would ever have. Rodgers
had 19 years of life remaining, during which he would
write shows with collaborators such as Martin Charnin,
Stephen Sondheim, and Alan J. Lerner. None of these
shows lasted very long on Broadway. Only one ('No
Strings') was made into a movie. Although there is
no guarantee that he would have fared much better
had Hammerstein lived a decade longer, it is hard
to imagine how Rodgers could have done worse.
THE LEGACY OF RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN
Musical theatre itself survived Hammerstein's death. It
has reinvented itself on a regular basis, welcoming new
talent and making adjustments for new technologies such
as video. When Hollywood cut back on its production of
movie musicals in the 1980s, musical shows adapted by
ramping up the sophistication of their sets. When rock
took over the airwaves, the rock musical made a none-
In view of all these changes, it is reasonable to wonder
if the R and H shows are still able to connect with today's
audiences. Judging by the record of revivals during
the 1990s, the verdict is 'Yes' for almost all the R and H
shows profiled here. 'Oklahoma!' completed a very successful
London revival in 1999. 'Carousel' was revived on Broadway
in 1994. 'South Pacific' was adapted for a television
performance in March of 2001. 'The King and I' was revived
on Broadway in 1996, and appeared as an animated film in
1999. Even 'The Sound of Music' has been revived in London
(1995) and on Broadway (1998 ). Additionally, All 5 shows
are performed with some regularity by amateur theater groups
and schools. 'Flower Drum Song' has travelled a less illustrious
road. One hears that there have been attempts to modernize
it, but the verdict is not yet in. 'Cinderella' has been
revived for television twice since the 1950s, the most
recent revival having been broadcast in 2000.
It is probably hazardous to predict the future of anything,
let alone an art form as complex as musical theatre.
Nevertheless, there is still much gold to be gleaned
from the major R and H shows, ensuring that new artists
will attempt new interpretations for some time to come.
Trying to imagine a future without Rodgers and Hammerstein
continues to be a futile task.
"Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book," Lynn Farol Pub., c1980.
"Musical Stages," by Richard Rodgers, Random House, c1975.