Full program notes:
Born: June 28, 1902, Queens, New York City
Died: December 30, 1979, New York City
Oscar Hammerstein II
Born: July 12, 1895, New York City
Died: August 23, 1960, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Giants of the Broadway stage, Rodgers and Hammerstein were equally confident striding across Hollywood’s Silver Screen. The team wrote 11 musicals in 17 years, and screen versions for eight of them still flicker and flourish today. Tonight’s program, “Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies,” is a celebration of one of the most satisfying partnerships of all time: R&H and Hollywood.
Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II didn’t like Hollywood very much—a not-very- well-kept secret. Both believed too devoutly in the sanctity of the written word, a commodity not especially prized in Tinseltown. (Not surprising, perhaps, when one considers that the first generation of movies were...silent). Both Rodgers and Hammerstein had separate, but equally frustrating, careers in Hollywood in the 1930s, where they keenly felt a hierarchy that put the writer near the bottom of the food chain.
However, when Rodgers and Hammerstein joined forces to create Oklahoma! in 1943, they inaugurated the most successful partnership in the American theater, revolutionized the genre of the American musical, and set themselves up as the biggest force on Broadway when Broadway was the biggest force in American popular entertainment.
This time, when Rodgers and Hammerstein returned to Hollywood, they returned to Hollywood on their terms. They called the shots— in some cases, literally: Rodgers and Hammerstein were the producers of the movie version of Oklahoma!, for example, an arrangement which was a rarity in their day (and unheard-of today). Throughout their Hollywood tenure, Rodgers and Hammerstein kept tight artistic control over their properties as they were carefully spun from Broadway gold to Hollywood silk.
Their newfound control over their films meant that Rodgers and Hammerstein could bring together some of the brightest talents in New York with some of the most powerful artisans in Los Angeles: Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and Joshua Logan from the East; Fred Zinnemann, Walter Lang, Ernest Lehman, Ross Hunter, Saul Chaplin and Robert Wise from the West.
The resulting films were, and remain, movie musical magic, even if a certain suspension of disbelief is warranted: from the wheat fields of Oklahoma (actually, Arizona) to the rocky shores of Maine (actually, Malibu); from the lagoons of the South Pacific (you know where this is going: Kaua’i) to the Alpine meadows of Austria (you guessed it: Bavaria).
From the opening frames of Oklahoma!—where Gordon MacRae, on horseback, croons “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”—to the immortal final scene of The Sound of Music, in which Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer lead the von Trapp brood over the Alps while a heavenly choir sings “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein movies—like their stage counterparts— will surely “bloom and grow forever.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s personal favorite, this towering work—hailed by Time magazine as the “Best Musical of the 20th Century”—was already a stage landmark when work was begun on its inevitable film version, which was released in 1956. Directed by Henry King and shot, in part, on location in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, Carousel was supposed to star Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra as the star-crossed tragic lovers Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. The casting, like the romance itself, was doomed from the start; Garland dropped out before shooting began, and Sinatra followed soon thereafter. Oklahoma! co-stars MacRae and Jones were quickly called in, and soon the Carousel was turning once again. The timeless score, sung with tremendous passion by MacRae, Jones, and such supporting stalwarts as Barbara Ruick (Carrie) and Claramae Turner (Nettie Fowler), included “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Filmed on Kaua’i, Hawaii’s breathtakingly beautiful “Garden Island,” the 1958 movie version of South Pacific managed to stand on its own even beside the iconic reputation enjoyed by its Broad- way predecessor. That milestone work, which opened in 1949, starred Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza and won every award in sight (including 10 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize). Less than a decade later, its stage director, Joshua Logan, would do the near-impossible and guide this story of war-time romance and danger from his own vision for the stage to his own concept for the screen. Mitzi Gaynor was cast as Nellie Forbush, with the broodingly handsome Rossano Brazzi as her Emile de Becque (with a little off-screen vocal crooning provided by Giorgio Tozzi). John Kerr (sung by Bill Lee) was handsome Lt. Cable, and future My Favorite Martian star Ray Walston was the ever-scheming Luther Billis. South Pacific was one of the top-grossing films of its time, and the original London screen engagement set British box office records. Half a century later, South Pacific is still “younger than springtime.”
The King and I
“More than your eyes have ever seen!” thundered the movie posters for the original release of this musical classic: “More than your heart has ever known!” Deborah Kerr (with a little vocal assist from Marni Nixon in the more challenging musical numbers) played “I,” and Yul Brynner—who had skyrocketed to fame for his performance in this musical on Broadway—played “the King” (winning an Oscar for the role that had originally earned him a Tony, and thus putting him in a very exclusive circle). Released in 1956, based on a Broadway musical that had opened five years earlier, and produced under the watchful eye of Darryl F. Zanuck, The King and I was a sensation, earning nine Academy Award nominations and winning five. Directed by Walter Lang, with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the film burst with regal reds and golds as it transported audiences to the exotic late 19th-century world of the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Siam. Jerome Robbins recreated his Broadway choreography, including the groundbreak- ing ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Terry Saunders was Lady Thiang, and the two doomed Burmese lovers, Lun Tha and Tuptim, were played by Carlos Rivas and Rita Moreno. When Kerr and Brynner whirled across the palace ballroom in “Shall We Dance?,” they practically orbited off the screen and into cinematic history.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s blue-ribbon winner was based on a novel by Phil Stong that was first turned into a non-musical 20th Century Fox film starring Will Rogers. The pair’s first—and only— musical created expressly for the big screen, State Fair was written after Oklahoma! and before Carousel, and evokes the Americana of both, but with a simpler, sunnier tone. Directed by Walter Lang, this State Fair featured Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine in a story of the Frake family and their search for love, happiness, and a few prizes at the Iowa State Fair. A 1962 remake, directed by José Ferrer, re-set in Texas, was saucier in style, and even a little hipper with its rock ‘n’ roll flair; the cast here was led by Ann-Margret, Pat Boone and Bobby Darin. Songs shared in both versions included “Our State Fair,” “A Grand Night for Singing,” and the wistfully perfect “It Might As Well Be Spring.” All the other Rodgers and Hammerstein movies were stage musicals first; State Fair made the trip in reverse. After two movie versions, State Fair became a Broadway musical in 1996, having started its trek to New York the previous August with a national tour that began, appropriately, in Des Moines during the Iowa State Fair. Blue ribbons, roller coasters and corn dogs were abundant on both sides of the footlights.
It was the team’s first musical on stage (1943), and their first to make it to the big screen (1955). Oklahoma! starred Gordon MacRae as Curly McLain, opposite a fresh-faced starlet discovered by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Shirley Jones, as the free-spirited Laurey Williams. Agnes de Mille recreated her groundbreaking Broadway choreography that delved into the subconscious with a balletic grace, and director Fred Zinnemann accomplished the monumental task of capturing all the vitality and rough-hewn American spirit of this classic folk musical in cinematic form. With a supporting cast that included the gravity-defying Gene Nelson as Will Parker and button-nose coquette Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie, Oklahoma! gave big sky, big screen treatment to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,’” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song. Mavens will note that Oklahoma! was so big, they filmed it twice: every scene was shot in a format called Todd-AO (named after innovative mogul Mike Todd) as well as in CinemaScope. Mavens with time on their hands can actually watch both versions, courtesy of the current DVD edition of the film, for a little compare-and-contrast.
I began this program note with the slightly churlish observation that Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t particularly love Hollywood. Forget that point. As the movies and music you experience today amply demonstrate, Hollywood most definitely loved Rodgers and Hammerstein.