By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
This evening's concert brings together ever fresh excerpts from the brilliant musicals of two of the most popular and successful collaborating associates in the history of American musical theater, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe. While everyone finds these engaging songs and choruses readily familiar, it is their intrinsic artistic quality and inspiration which insure their perennial freshness.
The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein and of Lerner and Loewe mark the culmination of a long evolution in American Musical Theater. Such theater finds its roots in Ballad opera imported from England. It became very popular during the 18th century in the Colonies. The first native theatrical product in the United States, however, emerged in the early 1800's as the "burlesque.” Burlesque here meant a production which parodied and caricatured existing and accepted works of serious intent. In 1828 John Poole produced a popular burlesque on Shakespeare's Hamlet. This theatrical style then evolved as a contributing factor to the popular Minstrel Show of Civil War days. The closing act or revue of such shows parodied the first two portions of the production.
Beside ballad opera, burlesque, and minstrel show, entertainment theater further developed the "extravaganza" shortly after the Civil War. Here the formative elements noted above received a quite exaggerated and caricatural treatment. By 1866 the extravaganza Black Crook foreshadowed in its successful production some of the standard procedures of later musical stage productions. Black Crook introduced techniques such as the use of chorus girls in pink tights, or clothed in diaphanous costumes, stunning stage effects, spectacle, and flamboyant dance sequences.
Up until 1930, the American operetta flourished, particularly those of Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg, to mention only the most successful. During their extended period of popularity, however, the American operetta exhibited a distinctly European personality. The musical score, the instrumentation, and the story often reflected Nineteenth Century cultural models.
The next step in the evolution of American Musical Theater involved the transformation of this operetta form into a viable medium endowed with a plot and music of distinctly American spirit, verve, drive, and locale. The transition of a quarter of a century from a success such as The Student Prince (1924) to South Pacific (1949) or The Most Happy Fella (1956) involved a transformation from highly romanticized subject matter redolent of a disappearing culture to more American subject matter incorporating native American musical influences such as ragtime and jazz.
The ongoing trend toward a greater integration of a cohesive plot with serious character delineation and adroit musical scoring found mature expression in Jerome Kern's and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat (1927). The explosion of Broadway musicals which commenced with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (1943) quickly established the American Musical as a recognized and accepted international art form, an art form approaching genuine operatic characteristics. The "Musical Play" had at last achieved a close integration between a plot, now often serious and human, and the musical and spectacular elements of the show.
Selections from four musicals of each of the famed teams constitute this evening's repertoire of solos, duets, and choruses. Their eight initial production dates range amazingly over a seventeen-year period from the earliest, Oklahoma! (1943), thru Camelot in 1960. Included also are songs from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie State Fair and the 1958 Lerner and Loewe movie Gigi.
State Fair was originally produced by Fox in 1933 featuring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor. Based on a novel of Phil Stong dealing with an Iowa family's visit to the Fair, Oscar Hammerstein elaborated the musical version and lyrics set by Rodgers. Of its two most popular songs, "It Might as Well be Spring;' a solo for heroine Margy, received top critical honors. "It's a Grand Night for Singing" for Emily and the Ensemble was likewise applauded.
Oklahoma! ran for a previously unprecedented 2212 performances between March 31, 1943 and May 29, 1948. Marking the first collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein this musical version of Lynn Rigg's novel Green Grow the Lilacs exploded on the Broadway scene offering an almost totally new approach to the musical. Reviews, uniformly laudatory, reflected its enthusiastic audience acceptance and forecast innumerable productions to come on amateur and professional stages and in cinema all over the world.
M-G-M initally rejected the dramatic possibilities in a work derived from James Michener's "Our Heroine,” one of his Tales of the South Pacific. Joshua Logan had realized its potential for a stage musical. In producing South Pacific's book, he enjoyed the lyrical genius of Hammerstein. The successful production commenced April 7, 1949, starring the great opera baritone, Ezio Pinza, and the beloved Mary Martin. Its stunning success earned for it a Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the second Musical so honored. Until My Fair Lady, South Pacific grossed the highest box office receipts ever. Stanley Green in his The World of Musical Comedy notes: "The skill with which the action flowed from the music just as smoothly as the music flowed from the action prompted some music critics to liken Rodgers' technique to that of an operatic composer. Moreover, the authors created each song to fit perfectly with the occasion and the character singing it.
The "wholesome" Sound of Music marked somewhat of a throw-back to the style of a Sigmund Romberg operetta. Its Old-World atmosphere rose out of Maria Augusta Trapp's book, The Trapp Family Singers, a group which had captivated the European and American world with its widely acclaimed and artistic choral concerts. The family-oriented atmosphere of its music was "filled with that glow and radiance, that warmth of heart, that gentleness and sweet sentimentality that we have long come to associate with Rodgers and Hammerstein:' Sound of Music was the last of Oscar Hammerstein's librettos. He died on August 23, 1960 while this musical continued its resounding success from November 6, 1959 until June 15, 1963.
Carousel had followed immediately after Oklahoma! utilizing most of that production's staff. Based on an Americanized version of the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar's tragic play Liliom, it opened on April 19, 1945 at the Majestic Theater, across the street from the St. James Theater where Oklahoma! concurrently flourished. Generally praised, Carousel did not receive the enthusiastic plaudits its predecessor had garnered, though the numbers sung in this evening's concert were singled out for praise by the critics.
Brigadoon occupied for the Lerner and Loewe collaboration a similar initial success which Oklahoma! had achieved for Rodgers and Hammerstein. After several previous attempts, the team here scored their first hit. Opening on March 13, 1947 at the Ziegfield Theater it ran for 581 performances, while in England it saw 685. Brigadoon, the story of love in a small Scottish highland town which was roused to life once a century has sustained its popularity as a favorite production for collegiate and high school theatrical endeavors. "The production won praise,” says Stanley Green, "for its atmospheric charm and its choreography by Agnes De Mille (including a sword dance, a chase through the forest and a funeral dance.)"
Paint Your Wagon followed Brigadoon in 1951. Its production staff was almost the same as for the initial production. But it achieved only half the number of performances. Walter Kerr's critique summarized the musical's impact. "Writing an integrated musical comedy - where people are believable and the songs are logically introduced - is no excuse for not being funny from time to time. But the librettist of Paint Your Wagon seems to be more interested in the authenticity of his background than in the joy of his audience:'
Lerner and Loewe next scored a tremendously smashing hit with My Fair Lady. That Lerner could attempt an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "perfect work," Pygmalion could occur only after Shaw's death in 1945. The Hungarian playwright Gabriel Pascal had alerted Lerner to the possibilities of such a transformation. Earlier on when Shaw had been approached by Pascal for permission to make an adaptation, he indignantly pointed to the music intrinsic to the words of his play and suggested that one might just as well try to improve on Mozart's Cosě fan tutte. One wonders how that old and salty dramatist and music critic would have in fact related to the verve of My Fair Lady. Lerner had anticipated in Pascal's suggestion a significant problem on "how to enlarge the play into a big musical without hurting its content. It was a big surprise - we hardly had to enlarge the plot at all. We just added what Shaw had happening off stage.” My Fair Lady, a masterly artistic stroke and a ringing financial success counted 2717 American performances on Broadway and almost 2300 in Drury Lane in London. With its scintillating variety of memorable tunes, this musical lifted the names of Lerner and Loewe to rival in fame those of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In the interval between the premiere of My Fair Lady on March 3, 1955 and that of Camelot in December, 1960, they produced in 1958 the music for the tender and whimsical movie Gigi, starring Leslie Caron.
Camelot, based on T.H. White's The Once and Future King, proved to be Lerner and Loewe's last collaboration. It almost failed, compared as it inevitably was with My Fair Lady. Plagued initially with high production costs and the delaying illness of both Lerner and the producer Hart, Camelot, after judicious overhauling, rewriting, and shortening, enjoyed almost 900 performances. Nevertheless it failed to capture the spontaneous acceptance of its forerunner and only gradually managed to catch on. Lerner himself summarized its fate in 1961. "In the jargon of Times Square a play that comes unheralded to Broadway and becomes a success is known as a 'sleeper'. Camelot was a 'waker'; exhausting, infuriating, unraveling at times; but now, twelve months later, gratifying indeed.”