By Ted Chapin
President of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, New York City
Rodgers and Hammerstein were late to the party. In the 1950s they were the undisputed kings of Broadway – while their musicals written during the mid-1950s (Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream) hadn’t matched the success of their earlier collaborations (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I), they were still at the top of their game. ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein’ had become a brand name, associated with a new kind of musical in which all elements of production merged into a unified artistic whole. Their shows were still touring the United States, their songs were sung on the radio and on records, they were on the cover of magazines, they were the focus of various television specials, and they were celebrated around the world as productions of their musicals provided a cultural calling card to places that may never even had heard about Broadway.
Their friends, playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and Broadway star Mary Martin, approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II about contributing to a Broadway show they were assembling based on the life story of Maria von Trapp. All that was asked for initially was a song or two to go along with the madrigals and chorales that would be used in the show – songs that the Trapp Family Singers had been using in their concerts. One thing was clear: Broadway star Mary Martin would play Maria von Trapp. And since Rodgers and Hammerstein had done very well by Mary Martin in South Pacific, the show they wrote specifically for her, everyone felt they were the perfect songwriters to provide a little theatricality to the musical department of this new play with music.
But Rodgers and Hammerstein had other ideas. They saw in the project the basis of a bona fide musical, not just a play interspersed with songs. So they asked everyone if the project could wait while they completed the musical they were writing, Flower Drum Song. The notion of a new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was sufficiently enticing to the rest of the group that it was agreed to hold off for a year. The Mary Martin/Maria von Trapp story would now be a full fledged musical with a libretto by Lindsay and Crouse and a score by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It would ultimately be known as The Sound of Music, a title invented by composer Richard Rodgers. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It may be hard for us to imagine today the power of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the Broadway of the 1940s and 1950s. They were as powerful as anyone – throughout their 17 year collaboration, they contributed a total of 11 scores for nine Broadway shows, one movie and one original musical for television. The average was a show every other year – remarkable by any standards, but quite overwhelming when you realise the staying power of those shows. Five are as popular today as any classic musicals: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. Their Cinderella, created as an original musical for television starring Julie Andrews, has an amazing life today, and Flower Drum Song and a stage adaptation of their film State Fair are performed often. Somehow they were always able to cut to the emotional heart of their characters and situations and create works of theatre that were popular in their day and have proven to be timeless to audiences ever since. The constant among the farmers and cowboys of Oklahoma!, the members of the court of Siam in The King and I, the Americans fighting World War II in South Pacific, the New England carnival barker of Carousel, and the Austrian family of The Sound of Music - to mention but a few – is the genius of the single-minded output of composer Richard Rodgers collaborating with the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II.
The men who sat down to write the score for The Sound of Music were 63 and 56 – and in the case of Hammerstein, the older of the two, not in great health. In fact, the show proved to be Hammerstein’s last, as he died the summer following its autumn opening on Broadway. Rodgers was to have 20 more active years in him, but it is remarkable that these two experienced men were able to write a score with such a youthful joy and energy. The score of The Sound of Music is full of what are now considered standards: ‘My Favorite Things’, ‘Edelweiss’, ‘Do-Re-Mi’, ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’, ‘The Lonely Goatherd’, ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ and, of course, the title song. From John Coltrane to Gwen Stefani, these songs have been interpreted by artists covering the entire spectrum of musical styles. And there turned out, probably unwittingly, to be a nice sense of lyric ‘bookends’ since the first song of their first show contains the lyric ‘all the sounds of the earth are like music.’ (Oklahoma!) and the first song of their last show proclaims ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music’.
Today, at the office in New York that I have the privilege to run, the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein is as alive as ever. Although the shows are still produced around the world, this Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian production is very special indeed. Rarely are we able to place a Rodgers and Hammerstein show in the hands of a producer who has as much affection for – and knowledge of, I might add – the works of these two men as does Andrew Lloyd Webber. The history of the musical theatre is one of passing torches, prior generations influencing present ones, and learning from the past to make the future possible. Were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II here today, I feel certain they would be thrilled to see what Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian and their collaborators have mounted so lovingly at the London Palladium. The legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein continues.
© 2006 The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Reprinted by permission
All Photographs Courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization