"Their music is incredibly melodic," notes Mary Rodgers, referring to the work of famed songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II during a recent phone conversation from her home in New York City. "Human beings are constructed to enjoy that. We have something instinctive that needs that melodic base. And all those songs are based on wonderful stories -- they're awfully good. Puccini was awfully good in his day and Mozart in his. I think Rodgers and Hammerstein are probably the Puccini of this age."
Okay, maybe she's a little biased. After all she is composer Richard Rodgers' daughter, but she's also a composer in her own right, having written the music for 1959's Once Upon a Mattress, which returned to Broadway last year.
James Hammerstein, Oscar's son, has a similarly glowing opinion about R&H. "They represent an optimism that is totally American," explains the younger Hammerstein, whose directorial credits include numerous productions of his lyricist father's musicals, notably the 1996 Broadway premiere of State Fair, which is based on the 1945 movie musical of the same name, made when James was a teenager. Also speaking over the phone from New York, Hammerstein recalls his involvement with the recent stage version, set in 1946: "This was the first time I ever did a period piece that was my period. I saw [State Fair] as an idealization of what we would like to have gone through in the America of 1946 -- idealized but very American."
American enough to endure countless passing fads and remain remarkably popular, not unlike the rest of R&H's oeuvre. Since 1993 there have been four R&H musicals -- Carousel, The King and I, State Fair, and the revue A Grand Night for Singing -- on Broadway, with a fifth, The Sound of Music, slated to open in March. This season two post-Broadway tours featuring Rodgers' unforgettable music and Hammerstein's stirring lyrics -- plus a Hammerstein collaboration with Jerome Kern -- are headed to South Florida.
Arriving first: State Fair, which was cobbled together from the duo's movie score (which copped a Best Song Oscar for "It Might as Well Be Spring") and other R&H sources. State Fair begins a six-day run this week at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, with John Davidson reprising his Broadway role as the Iowa farmer who bets $5 that his pig will win the blue ribbon. Later: the 1996 Tony Award-winning revival of the 1951 blockbuster The King and I opens March 17 for a weeklong stint at West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for the Performing Arts; it stars Hayley Mills as the visiting English governess who rules the King of Siam's household. Finally: Hammerstein and Kern's 1927 Show Boat steams into Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center for the Performing Arts on March 28 for a monthlong engagement; director Hal Prince's 1995 revival took home several Tony Awards.
At the same time they dominate area theater schedules, R&H continue to be a force on the national entertainment scene, with their works rediscovered over and over again. For example their made-for-TV Cinderella was seen by 107 million people when it premiered with Julie Andrews in 1957, while a 1965 remake starring Lesley Ann Warren drew countless more viewers. Last month yet another version, this one with Whitney Houston and Brandy, made its successful television debut.
Meanwhile, sales from videos of R&H movies, cast recordings, and tribute albums continue to generate a fair amount of dough-re-mi. And the pair has even cracked the Internet with its own Website: http://www.rnh.com. Over the years R&H musicals have raked in thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and two Grammy Awards. Not bad for two guys who have been dead for nearly twenty years.
Ironically the men who redefined American musical comedy and glorified the nation's pioneer spirit in their first collaboration, Oklahoma! (1943), were both city slickers from New York. The grandson of a well-to-do merchant, Richard Rodgers (19021979) was only fourteen years old when he met Oscar Hammerstein (18951960), who was born into an established theatrical family. In his autobiography, Musical Stages, Rodgers recalled his brother taking him backstage at Columbia University's 1917 annual varsity show, for which Hammerstein had written lyrics and in which the pre-law student also acted. "No deathless words were exchanged at that first meeting," Rodgers wrote, "but it was an occasion that years later prompted an extended disagreement between us. Oscar insisted that I wore short pants that day while I, with equal certainty, stoutly maintained that I had already graduated to 'longies.'"
Each decided to pursue a career in the theater, establishing his own legacy over the next 25 years: Hammerstein worked with various partners to produce Rose-Marie, Desert Song, Show Boat, and Carmen Jones, while Rodgers became a Broadway and sheet music legend with lyricist Lorenz Hart, turning out Babes in Arms, On Your Toes, Pal Joey, and The Boys From Syracuse.
Despite their reputations, when Rodgers teamed with Hammerstein following Hart's death, the early buzz on the new pairing was decidedly bad. One wag who witnessed the out-of-town tryout for Oklahoma! wired newspaper columnist Walter Winchell a terse review that read, "NO GIRLS, NO LEGS, NO JOKES, NO CHANCE." And yet Oklahoma! lasted on Broadway for five years, and R&H's partnership continued right up until Hammerstein's death in 1960. Although his doctors hid the truth from him, Hammerstein was diagnosed with terminal cancer during rehearsals for 1959's The Sound of Music, and that show's wistfully nostalgic "Edelweiss" was the last song he wrote with Rodgers. After his partner's death, Rodgers helped to create five additional musicals (writing the lyrics himself or partnering with lyricists Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick, and Martin Charnin), none of which became a smash on Broadway.
Surprisingly Rodgers and Hammerstein left very few "trunk" songs -- numbers cut from productions en route to Broadway. That lack of material presented a perplexing challenge for Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli, who wrote the book for the stage version of State Fair and then had to find new R&H songs to augment the six musical numbers from the 1945 movie version. First Briggs and Mattioli added a tune that Rodgers wrote for a 1962 State Fair movie update; then they embarked on a scavenger hunt that unearthed songs excised from the final versions of Oklahoma! and Me and Juliet, while ferreting out lesser-known ditties from Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, and Allegro.
"All those [songs adapted for State Fair] are completely unknown," explains Mary Rodgers. "You have to say, 'Does it fit the piece or was it shoehorned in?'"
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While James Hammerstein is happy with the show's music, he admits to some concern about adapting State Fair's flimsy movie plot for the stage. Pointing out that the original musical was based on a book and a 1933 movie that featured Will Rogers, Hammerstein says, "It was written as a Depression piece, but in the update we feel the optimism of the postwar era. The fun thing that I think we did is, in a way, we tried to keep it as a $5 bet over a pig between an American optimist and an American pessimist. In America you don't need to have a Cadillac -- you can raise a pig, win $5, and still have a sense of accomplishment. That sounds stupid, but that was our guiding light. At least mine."
Still, even with the enlarged score and homespun story line, State Fair was not a financial success on Broadway. Despite that box-office disappointment, Bert Fink, vice president for public relations of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (which administers and promotes the copyrights of the R&H catalog), maintains that the show has a bright future. "State Fair was an example where we actually proactively resurrected a show," Fink observes. "Tom Briggs [State Fair coauthor and director of the R&H musical library] said everyone was clamoring for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein. We license about 600 productions a year of Oklahoma! in America and Canada and feel that anyone who has done Oklahoma! will want to do State Fair."
Giddy over R&H's triumphant Broadway homecomings, Fink adds, "While they never lost popularity outside New York City, there was a perception here for a while that their musicals were old-fashioned, with people saying everything [about R&H musicals] is just raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens."
Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli. Directed by Richard Sabellico. Starring John Davidson. Through December 14. Jackie Gleason Theater, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. For information call 305-673-7300 or see "Theater, Dance, & Opera.