History of The Musical Stage
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Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had known each other since they worked on varsity shows at Columbia University. Since then, both had deferred to songwriting collaborators who preferred to have the music written before the lyric. They now set out to prove that a "lyrics first" approach would make it easier to integrate songs into a libretto. (British giants Gilbert and Sullivan had done this long before, but in the 1940s it was considered a daring idea for Broadway songwriters.)
Rodgers and Hammerstein felt that the unsuccessful play Green Grow the Lilacs needed something other than the standard musical comedy treatment. The plot involved an Oklahoma Territory farm girl of the early 1900s (Laurie) deciding whether she will go to a dance with the farmhand she fears (Jeeter in the play; Judd in the musical) or the cowboy she loves (Curly). This story takes a jarring turn when the farmhand proves to be a psychopathic murderer who the heroic cowboy is forced to kill in self defense. Murder in a musical? Another sticking point was that Hollywood had turned singing cowboys into a cliché. Could this story sing on Broadway?
The new collaborators began with a painstaking assessment of what made the characters tick, where songs would fit and what the style and content of each number should be. They also visualized possibilities for casting, set design, lighting and staging. Once they had agreed on these points, each headed home -- Rodgers to his farm in upstate New York, Hammerstein to his farm in Pennsylvania. Oscar fashioned the book and lyrics with great care, laboring for weeks over certain phrases and rhymes. He then either telegraphed or phoned in the results to Rodgers, who had been mulling over melodic options and would sometimes have a completed tune on paper in a matter of minutes.
Despite strong comic material ("I Cain’t Say No") and a healthy dose of romance ("People Will Say We’re In Love," "Out of My Dreams") this show was neither a typical musical comedy nor an operetta. This was something new, a fully rounded musical play, with every element dedicated to organically moving the story forward. Hammerstein had tried something similar in his libretto to Show Boat (1927), but many of those characters were two dimensional and the plot relied on melodramatic devices. This time around, he was taking things much farther.
Hoping to boost ticket sales, the Guild wanted a well-known star like Shirley Temple, but R&H insisted on casting lesser-known actors suited to the material. To direct, R&H chose the tempestuous Rouben Mamoulian, whose work on stage (Porgy and Bess) and screen (Love Me Tonight) was always innovative but not always profitable. Since the characters in this story would be dealing with emotions that might sound awkward if verbalized by cowboys and farm girls, Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to use dance as an integral element in the story-telling process. The Theatre Guild suggested modern dance choreographer Agnes DeMille. R&H were uneasy about DeMille's insistence on selecting trained modern dancers in place of the standard chorus kids, but the resulting personality-rich ensemble was a key factor in the show's eventual fate.
All these high-minded choices made Away We Go (as the musical was initially named) a tough sell to investors. Rodgers and Hammerstein spent months auditioning the material for potential backers, and the Theatre Guild had to sell off its beloved theater to satisfy anxious debtors.
Out of Town: "No Chance!"
When Away We Go opened for previews in New Haven in March 1943, Variety gave it a poor review and columnist Walter Winchell reported his secretary's cold dismissal (which would eventually be attributed to at least a dozen other sources) "No gags, no girls, no chance."
A few investors panicked and sold off their shares in the show, but many at that first performance realized that this unusual musical had potential. R&H made extensive revisions while the show played Boston. At the suggestion of an ensemble member, a minor number was re-set as a choral piece. When DeMille staged the revised song with the chorus coming down to the footlights in a V formation singing "O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma! Yeeeow!," the rousing number left audiences cheering and gave the show a new title. The creative team continued tinkering until one night an exhausted Rodgers put his foot down, saying, "You know what's wrong with this show? Nothing! Now everybody pipe down and let's go to bed."
As the brash but loveable Curly, baritone Alfred Drake began his reign as Broadway's top male musical star and as the playful Ado Annie, Celeste Holm earned the stardom she would retain on stage and screen into the next century. The reviews were almost unanimous raves, and block-long lines formed at the box office the next day.
Wartime audiences embraced this reassuring, all-American show, and the skeptics who had scoffed in New Haven pretended that they always knew "Dick and Oscar" were a sure-fire combination. Oklahoma became a cultural phenomenon, setting a new long-run record for Broadway musicals. It also ran for three years in London, toured the U.S. for seven years and made its millions of dollars. By the time the run ended, backers saw an astounding 2,500% return on their investment.
In fact, everything in a musical now had to serve a dramatic purpose. The diverting dance routines of the past were replaced by choreography that helped tell the show's story. Any number of earlier shows had attempted a book-driven approach, but they showcased particular performers in songs and scenes that did not always serve the story. For example, the original Show Boat gave Captain Andy excuses to clown around, and Lady in the Dark gave both Danny Kaye and Gertrude Lawrence star turns that had nothing to do with the plot. Oklahoma rejected such high jinks, tossing out anything which did not fit the plot or bring characters into sharper focus.
Old-style formula musical comedies like No, No, Nanette and Anything Goes can be very entertaining, but their one-dimensional characters are like comic book figures, eliciting little sympathy. When Oklahoma's Laurie and Curly admit their love by singing "Let People Say We're In Love," audiences become a sea of smiles and moist eyes. This same holds true for the other classic musicals by R&H and their successors the major characters are believable individuals that we can empathize with. Rodgers and Hammerstein often dealt with serious themes, but they knew that the first duty of theatre (musical or otherwise) is to tell interesting stories about fascinating characters.
While Rodgers and Hammerstein were not saints, they had genuine faith in the qualities espoused in their shows goodness, fairness, romance, etc. Now dismissed as cornball or "hokey," such things meant a great deal in the mid-20th Century, and they keep the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein popular today. Rodgers had his own view, as expressed in his autobiography
Record producer Jack Kapp came up with the idea of having the Broadway team preserve the full score as it was heard in performance. A few productions had released partial recordings beginning with the 1932 revival of Show Boat, but Oklahoma was the first Broadway musical to have every major number recorded by the original cast and orchestra.
In 1943, sets of 78's were packaged in book-like packs that looked like family photo albums. After long playing records were introduced in the late 1940s, the phrase "album" stuck. Musicals and those who love them owe Kapp a debt of gratitude for inventing the original cast album, a format that preserved hundreds of musicals which might otherwise have fallen silent with their final performances.
But Hart was soon drinking again, and he showed up for Yankee's opening night falling-down drunk. During the second act, he started singing along from the rear of the theatre and was ejected. After spending the night on his brother's sofa, Larry disappeared, and was found the next night sitting coatless on a Manhattan curbside in an icy November downpour. Weakened by years of alcohol addiction, Hart succumbed to pneumonia and died three days later. He was 48 years old.
Hart's death signified the end of an era. The musical comedy had been a prime Broadway product since the late 1800s. Rodgers & Hart had created some of the finest expressions of that genre. In the wake of artistic upheaval unleashed by Oklahoma, the Broadway musical entered a new golden commercial and artistic age -- with Rodgers and Hammerstein serving as the first true masters of the new integrated musical play.