How Rodgers and Hammerstein Created Modern Musical Theater
BY: JASON ROBERT BROWN
At some point in the 1950s, Rodgers and Hammerstein transformed from a pair of hardworking men in the theater into An Enterprise, and by the time I was growing up in the ’70s, that enterprise was an established brand, reliably stodgy and comforting and firmly entrenched in Eisenhower-era values and, for me, not all that interesting. How these writers went from being considered brash, hungry innovators to drab gray-flannel-suit types, and how they have been restored to their rightful position as the progenitors of virtually all modern musical theater, is the story of Todd S. Purdum’s affectionate and richly researched “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution.”
As the very avatars of middlebrow American culture in the second half of the 20th century, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have had their lives and work examined, appraised and dissected with wearying regularity. I would have been hard-pressed to come up with reasons for another book about them, and yet “Something Wonderful” offers a fresh look at the milieu and circumstances that contributed to the creation of some of the musical theater’s greatest and most enduring treasures.
As the title and subtitle suggest, Purdum approaches this oeuvre as a fan, and while he is not afraid to be critical of some of his subjects’ work, his purpose is not to interrogate or recontextualize Rodgers and Hammerstein’s extraordinary accomplishments. Rather, taking advantage of the mountain of documentation already available and some delightful firsthand interviews, he meticulously recreates the environment and the atmosphere in which these seminal works were created. Purdum’s evocations of a war-torn America discovering and embracing “Oklahoma!” succeed in making that show seem as vital and all-encompassing a phenomenon as “Hamilton” 70 years later.
After two brisk chapters introducing each of the men, Purdum brings them together in a way that suggests a certain inexorable pull; they have so many things in common (Hammerstein’s eldest children were actually delivered by Rodgers’s father!) that it seems impossible to imagine them not working together at some point. And so here they are in 1942, Hammerstein weighed down by a string of failures, and Rodgers at the end of his collaboration with the brilliant but dangerously unreliable Lorenz Hart. While most show business biographies traffic in the tale of young geniuses finding their way, here we have the surprising story of middle-aged men wrestling with redefining themselves at a moment of crisis. Sitting in an aisle seat as they bring “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” to life is enormous fun.
Purdum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is a political writer by trade, and understandably has a much easier time parsing Hammerstein’s lyrics than he does making sense of Rodgers’s music, but to his credit, he gamely offers some astute musical analysis — I particularly enjoyed the musical director Bruce Pomahac’s observation that Rodgers’s genius lay in “how many ways he could take you away from ‘do’ and then bring you back to it.” Purdum also unearths an alarming charge by Agnes de Mille that Rodgers stole the Praeludium in “The Sound of Music” from the 16th-century composer Orlando di Lasso. (My own research doesn’t confirm this, but remarks from the arrangers Trude Rittmann and Robert Russell Bennett provide considerable testimony throughout the text that Rodgers had little compunction about taking credit for others’ work.)
Certain preconceptions cling to the Rodgers and Hammerstein mythos, and Purdum doesn’t manage to shake our familiar impression of the two as an emotional odd couple: Hammerstein the warm, nurturing, sincere liberal (despite being a notorious tightwad); Rodgers the cold, controlling, inaccessible (and leering) genius. Indeed, the closest Rodgers gets to our sympathies is during the three months he spends in Payne Whitney being treated for depression after the television broadcast of “Cinderella.”
But Purdum shines when demonstrating Hammerstein’s “masterly skills as an adapter and editor” — his understanding of structure and character are on ample display in the chapters detailing the births of “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel” and “South Pacific” — and the book is cleareyed about the faults of his later librettos. In an excerpt from his essential essay “Notes on Lyrics,” Hammerstein castigates himself for the “insincerity” of his early songs, and we see in that moment that his insistence on sincerity above all other values will both bolster his genius and ultimately limit it.
After the team has their first failure, the ambitious but clumsy “Allegro” in 1947, Purdum writes, “The era of innovation was over for them. The era of empire lay ahead,” and the book likewise moves from the thrill of creation to the more quotidian details of deal making and maintenance as Rodgers and Hammerstein grow from songwriters into theatrical titans. From the shadows emerges the partners’ lawyer, Howard Reinheimer, whose tightfisted and farsighted schemes net “the boys” exceptional wealth and an unprecedented amount of control over their own work. When Joshua Logan has to beg for a writing credit on “South Pacific,” his emasculation and ultimate regret are heartbreaking to read about. (Mary Rodgers on her father’s supposed acumen: “He was an atrocious businessman. He just made a lot of money.”)
Underneath the umbrella of this mammoth partnership, many stories peek out, hinted at but untold. The collaboration and friendship between de Mille and Rittmann — two brilliant women creating their own art and vocabulary in a room run by highly privileged and entitled men — is one such tantalizing thread. Indeed, the women in the stories often make the most incisive impressions, from Diahann Carroll’s conclusion that Rodgers “was really incapable of hearing someone’s point of view without regarding that person as a potential adversary” to the revelation that Alice Hammerstein’s exhaustive research was the real engine behind her father’s lyrics in “Carousel.”
After Hammerstein’s death, the book soldiers dutifully on but the air is out of the balloon. (One moment of blissful relief: a report of Rodgers’s unfulfilled desire to make a musical out of “Arsenic and Old Lace” starring Ethel Merman and Mary Martin!) And yet, Purdum delivers a knockout climax: the rediscovery of the R & H classics that started in earnest with Nicholas Hytner’s galvanizing staging of “Carousel” at London’s Royal National Theater in 1992, the very production that — in concert with Bartlett Sher’s luminous 2008 revival of “South Pacific” — forced me to look at this astonishing body of work with fresh and newly reverent eyes. As the book comes to an end, we see the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy truly begin to take form — works of theater that not only spoke with searing directness to the times in which they were written, but that have a continual, constantly renewing connection to our hearts and spirits. In giving us access to the world that gave birth to them, Purdum’s authoritative and ultimately moving book brings these masterpieces to light with bracing clarity.