Todd S. Purdum ‘s well researched book will be best enjoyed by diehard musical theater fans. It covers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s collective oeuvre – success and failure, including film, television, and Rodgers’ output after his partner’s untimely death; offers reason and anatomy of selected lyrics (including some that were cut), production politics and personal beliefs, out of town and casting stories. Nineteen year-old Shirley Jones was the only actor ever put under personal contract – despite being unsuccessfully chased around a desk by Rodgers. The description of Yul Brynner’s audition is evocative. Memories from people who worked with the gentlemen would’ve added color.
Purdum is nonjudgmental where Rodgers’ alcohol and severe depression are concerned, painting a bend-over-backwards fair picture of both men.
By the time The Theatre Guild proposed successful collaborators Richard Rodgers and Lorenz/Larry Hart adapt Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs, Hart’s alcoholism made work impossible. Oscar Hammerstein II, who turned Rodgers down while Hart was still functional, stepped in, creating one of the most iconic teams in musical theater history. Nontraditional billing at Rodgers instigation was, he rationalized, afforded to his then considerably more successful career.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein did not set out to break the usual Broadway conventions so much as they decided it would be impossible to adhere to them and do justice to the tale.” Oklahoma! opened not with a production number, but starkly with Aunt Ellen and Curly (offstage). Choreographer Agnes de Mille created full out ballets against all conventions.
Ferenc Molnar’s Lilliom “seven scenes and a prologue” was also recommended as a vehicle by The Guild. Hammerstein’s librettos are astonishingly original considering original stories, yet he’s commended only for lyrics. When location was changed to New England, he dove into vernacular and specifics, including the famous clam bake. Frank Sinatra almost played Billy Bigalow in Carousel.
Tales of The South Pacific, emerged from nineteen loosely linked stories, especially “Fo’Dolla,” the passionate interracial romance between a Tonkonese native and a Main Line Philadelphia Lieutenant. Author James A. Michener, a navy veteran working as a text book editor, couldn’t have been more surprised. Rodgers and Hammerstein were adamant about honestly depicting prejudice despite critical flack.
The collaborators were excellent businessmen. They negotiated increasingly more ownership/control than predecessors and bought back rights, securing the futures of families and estates. The two worked apart in separate homes or suites (on the road) and were uncharacteristically shy about publicly praising one another.
Anna and The King of Siam, a 1946 film (after the book) became The King and I. Out of town most of the children got sick as did Gertrude Lawrence. This was the first time the partners had written for a particular star. Lawrence was demanding, but it was Yul Brynner’s imperious behavior that made them crazy. The ‘king’ left out “Puzzlement” whenever he was feeling fatigued.
One critic called Flower Drum Song “skillful retrograde entertainment” anticipating taste change. Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to cast as many Chinese and Japanese actors as possible. “The show was a mash-up of pentatonic, Oriental-sounding numbers, hot American show tunes, and nightclub pastiche…”
The Sound of Music derived from a 1956 German film, Die Trapp Familie. Mary Martin was instrumental in actually creating Maria through her enduring friendship with a Dominican nun. Hammerstein, who knew he was ill, did not write the book, leaving him free to concentrate on lyrics. Simplicity and high craft go hand in hand. Three hundred children auditioned for the seven.
Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) died of stomach cancer shortly after the opening of The Sound of Music. Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) suffered the blow of deep loss and went on to write a number of shows with other collaborators. He died at 77, having survived cancer of the jaw, a heart attack, and a laryngectomy. The lights of Broadway were dimmed for both passings.
“Today the sound of Dick and Oscar’s music is as ubiquitous as ever,” Purdum says in his epilogue. And so it should be.
All quotes are Todd S. Purdum
Opening Photo: The book and Todd S. Purdum
Photos Courtesy of the publisher
Author Todd S. Purdum is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a senior writer at Politico, having previously worked at The New York Times.