Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Todd Purdum's Something Wonderful


my review of Something Wonderful from the Weekend Australian...


In early 1942 Richard Rodgers, the composer, realised that he might have a problem on his hands, when, one night after dinner, he watched his lyricist, Lorenz Hart, drink 14 whiskies in a row. Rodgers was clearly in need of a new partner for the musical he was cooking up about the Oklahoma territory. Rodgers and Hart, two Jewish boys from Harlem had been so successful they had appeared on the cover of Time magazine but a series of flops and Hart’s alcoholism could have meant the end of Rodgers’ dreams of reinventing American musical theatre.
            Into the breach stepped Oscar Hammerstein another gifted Jewish kid from the neighbourhood (he lived literally round the corner from Hart and Rodgers) who had had some moderate Broadway hits of his own.
            The partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein would last from 1943’s Oklahoma! to 1959’s The Sound of Music. The pair would dominate Broadway for twenty years, win thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
            Todd S. Purdum’s well written and very well researched Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution unpacks not just the personalities of Rodgers and Hammerstein but also what made the musicals themselves tick and how and why they were so ground-breaking.
            Before Oklahoma! Broadway shows had talky bits and singy bits that didn’t really gel together. Oklahoma! was a complete musical vision with unity of book, score, ballet and performance that would set the template of how to do musical theatre until 2015’s Hamilton sort of changed the game again.
            Something Wonderful will cure you of the notion that tunes are somehow composed in the ether and simply written down on sheet music. Oscar Hammerstein worked from dawn to midnight on the book and lyrics for his shows and Rodgers, who had a gift for melody, would trim, re-arrange and brutally cut songs and interludes that failed to connect with the audience. Just how much blood, sweat, tears, cutting and editing went into these productions is astonishing.
            Oklahoma! was followed by Carousel which was followed by State Fair, South Pacific and The King and I. Every one of them was a winner. Housewives, factory workers, presidents and kings found themselves ‘Whistling A Happy Tune’ or singing ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’. By the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein were a musical producing factory who had become such a juggernaut that even their flops became hits. Who now remembers Allegro,  or Me and Juliet? Yet both of those pulled the punters in in their tens of thousands.
            Both men had happy marriages to women called Dorothy who were interior decorators. Hammerstein’s Dorothy was from Tasmania and he seems to have spent a surprising amount of time relaxing in Melbourne.
            But, into each life some rain must fall (not a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein alas) and this would be a dull book if it was a merely a record of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s upward trajectory of triumphs. Pipe Dream, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, is the first of their flops to actually flop and it’s fun to read about Henry Fonda ghastly croak of a voice and Hammerstein’s starchy and confused attempt to write a musical set in a brothel but not actually set it in a brothel.
            After the failure of Pipe Dream and the moderate hit Flower Drum Song the final collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein is the undeniably brilliant The Sound of Music which has hit tune after hit tune, a charming book, witty lyrics and just enough darkness (the Anschluss) to leaven the pudding.
            Hammerstein was diagnosed with stomach cancer and did not live to see the superb film version starring Julie Andrews. He died surrounded by his family (including sort-of adopted son Stephen Sondheim) at the top of his game.
            Sometimes it’s best to know when to leave the stage. Purdum points out that Richard Rodgers lived long enough to see his work considered to be ‘middlebrow’ and ‘unsophisticated’ and sadly Rodgers seems to have been believed some of these criticisms and he too began drinking heavily like his ex partner Lorenz Hart. He died in 1979 a man baffled and out of touch with his times.
            Today, however, the work keeps going strong. Five thousand Rodgers and Hammerstein productions take place each year and it’s a good bet that someone somewhere is singing ‘Edelweiss’ or ‘Happy Talk’ on a stage as you read this. Purdum isn’t interested in literary criticism or Marxist deconstruction or semiotics (thank goodness) he just wants to tell the story of the plays and the personalities and he does this with breeziness, cheerfulness and aplomb. Something Wonderful is one of the most enjoyable books this reviewer has read in a rather depressing year for non fiction and that, surely, is something to sing about.