Rodgers and Hammerstein between the hits
From time to time I hear from my readers that they don’t buy something I said. Most of the time they are right.
Last week I reviewed the book “Flower Drum Songs” and I’ve drawn some flak from readers for an opinion in the review which at the very least I should have attributed to the author of the book, and at best should have refuted.
The statement was that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song “was something of a last chance at success for the team that had so dominated Broadway between 1943 when their Oklahoma! burst on the scene through 1951 when they had their fourth mega-hit, The King and I, with Carousel and the Pulitzer Prize winning South Pacific in between. The intervening eight years, however, had seen two disappointments (Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream) leaving their reputation as a team in tatters as possible has-beens.”
Emails and postings to discussion groups pointed out that those eight years included the release of blockbuster movies based on their musicals, highly successful touring productions of their work and the telecast of Cinderella which was reported to have gathered over a hundred million viewers to make it the most watched television show in history – hardly the mark of a team “in tatters as possible has-beens.”
My statement was an attempt to relate the position of the author of the book, David H. Lewis. He begins the first chapter with this: “Were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the reigning giants of musical theatre, washed up? Suffering through the longest drought of their legendary career, the two men who had revolutionized stage musicals, landing nearly one huge hit after another on Broadway, had not had a single success in nearly eight years.”
Whether the period between The King and I and Flower Drum Song was a “drought” or not, the two original Broadway cast albums of their shows from that period deserve consideration for the theater shelf of your collection. Both offer items that those who love the scores of the team’s big hits will find delicious.
Of the two, my favorite has to be Pipe Dream, which as it happens, was the less successful of the two. It racked up 246 performances while Me and Juliet had 358, neither up to the standard of the team’s big hits. Oklahoma! had 2,212, Carousel 890, South Pacific 1,925 and The King and I 1,246.
Of the two, Pipe Dream has the more Richard Rodgers-ish score, even though it was composed while he was undergoing horrendous treatments to battle the cancer that required the removal of half his jaw. Perhaps it was the therapeutic aspect of composing that resulted in such gems as “Everybody’s Got A Home But Me,” “The Next Time It Happens” and my personal favorite “The Man I Used To Be.” Comparing the overtures of the two shows demonstrates just how much more like Rodgers Pipe Dream sounds, but perhaps the touch of orchestrator Robert Russell Bennet who did Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I had something to do with that. Me and Juliet was orchestrated by Don Walker who also did Carousel.
The trouble with Pipe Dream wasn’t attributed to its score, but rather to the material on which it was based, John Steinbeck’s novel “Sweet Thursday.” Others might well have made a successful musical of his story of the denizens of California’s Cannery Row, but even Richard Rodgers later commented he and Hammerstein had been “seduced by the writing” of Steinbeck and hadn’t recognized “the fact that the characters were not right for Oscar and me. We shouldn’t have been dealing with prostitutes and tramps.”
I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing productions of either musical. Perhaps if I had seen Pipe Dream I could explain to you just what former opera singer Helen Traubel was doing singing “Babaloo.” Rodgers composed a lovely “Sweet Thursday” for her, however, and the team finally found a place to use the appealing brief for marital bliss, “Will You Marry Me?” which was written for South Pacific but was dropped in previews.
“All Kinds of People” is a fine example of Hammerstein’s ability to express a main theme for a musical, “All At Once You Love Her” has an honored position in Hammerstein’s collection of songs about the moment that love takes hold, and there is a wonderful joyousness about “The Party That We’re Gonna Have Tomorrow Night.”
Me and Juliet also has glories, especially in the work of Hammerstein. There are two lyrics, “The Big Black Giant” and “Intermission Talk,” that grant us a glimpse into the mind of Hammerstein, who historian Gerald Mast said “is the American musical theater” in the same way that Jerome Kerns said “Irving Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music.” This giant whose works from Rose Marie through Show Boat and Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music wrote two lyrics for this back stage musical that illustrate just how we, the audience, appear to the professional theater maker.
The description of the audience as a “Big Black Giant” comes from his decades of listening to the audience during previews to learn what would work by opening night. “That big black giant / who looks and listens / with thousands of eyes and ears / that big black mass / of love and pity / and troubles and hopes and fears / will sit out there / and rule your life / for all your living years.”
He gave voice to the personal goal that must have been a driving force in his own life when he wrote “One night it’s a laughing giant / Another night a weeping giant / One night it’s a coughing giant / Another night a sleeping giant. / Every night you fight the giant / And maybe, if you win / You send him out a nicer giant / Than he was when he came in.”
Me And Juliet
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Running time 40:45
Original Broadway Cast Recording
RCA Victor Broadway
Running time 47:55
Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t just listen to their audiences during the performances. Hammerstein added a lyric titled “Intermission Talk” that draws directly from the experience he and his fellow professionals have had trying to eavesdrop in the lobby between acts. Snippets of “I wouldn’t wait for the second act if I had someplace to go” and “It just isn’t my kind of play” are intermingled with “I don’t think its right / to be sulky all night / over one little bill from Saks!” and the oh-so-contemporary-sounding “What do I care if they balance the budget as long as they cut my tax?”
In between those two numbers is another with a view of life in the theater. “It’s Me” is a performer’s account of how the work of the authors of a show accrues to her personal benefit: “When I step on a stage and make believe I’m someone else / Quite suddenly I’m mentally and physically equipped with most unusual qualities / It says so in the script!” Rodgers composed a delightfully lilting melody for the song that harkens back to his work with Lorenz Hart, and Don Walker gave it a rousing big-band sound.
From that fateful day at Highland Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when Richard Rodgers asked Oscar Hammerstein to collaborate with him, till the opening of their last show together twenty years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t turn out any scores that don’t deserve to be included on a theater lover’s shelves. Thank goodness both Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream received original Broadway cast recordings.