Something Wonderful: A book review by Bob Morris

Something Wonderful: Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution
Todd S. Purdum
Henry Holt and Company (April 2018)

A collaboration unsurpassed by any other in the history of musical theatre throughout the 20th century

From Oklahoma! in 1943 until The Sound of Music in 1959, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II collaborated on eleven musicals, almost all of which were great critical and commercial successes. Most were made into a film; The King and I was based on Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King of Siam (1944).

Their collaboration was guided and informed by prior influences. Fo example, Hammerstein had integrated dance with drama previously in Show Boat (1927) with Jerome Kern as had Rodgers with John O’Hara in Pal Joey (1940).  So many innovations naturally evolved. Another of the dominant characteristics of the Rogers and Hammerstein collaborations was the examination of one or more dark themes. Consider the third verse from “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” in South Pacific:

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

The title of Purdum’s book was also the title of one of the loveliest songs in The King and I (1951). Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, celebrates his efforts to cope with a world he does not understand. Later, in that great musical, “Hello, Young Lovers” is juxtaposed with the King’s refusal to reconsider the plight of Tuptim, the Burmese slave girl. Bittersweet is definitely among the dominant flavors in human experience. Hammerstein’s lyrics acknowledge that reality in most of the musicals with which he and Rodgers were associated.

Just as great films can be seen almost anytime, anywhere, great musicals “live on” in the films based on them or in live performances and especially through individual songs that become “classics” — out of context — such as “The Carousel Waltz” and “My Favorite Things.” Purdum observes, “Today, the sound of Dick and Oscar’s music is as ubiquitous as ever, generating tens of millions of dollars in annual revenues. On a single spring evening in 2014, in the United States alone, there were 11 productions of Carousel, 17 of The King and I, 26 of South Pacifiic, 64 of Oklahoma!, and 106 of The Sound of Music.”

Those who read this book are reassured that “many a new day will dawn, many a red sun will set, many a blue moon will shine” before the “compelling dramatic stories” created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein begin to lose — if they ever do — their power to enchant and to illuminate.

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