Tuesday, December 01, 2015

my rodgers & hammerstein dilemma

I've something of a love-hate relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein - mostly love, of course. Who couldn't love their melodies?


As is true with most of R&H's shows, the glorious songs are the point, the only point. But are we really expected to forget the deadly dull stretches and arch dialogue that invariably come in between? Some people do.

Most people, unfortunately.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein collaborated on one original screen musical ("State Fair"), one musical conceived directly for television ("Cinderella") and nine stage musicals, six of which have been filmed. The shows that never made it to the big screen are "Allegro," "Me and Juliet" and "Pipe Dream."

For the record, the two "State Fair" films (1945 and 1962), "Carousel" (1956), "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" (1965) were all produced by 20th Century-Fox, while the films of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and "South Pacific" (1958) were produced independently by Rodgers and Hammerstein's own Magna Corporation - but released by Fox.

Only "Flower Drum Song" (1961) was made by another studio, Universal, and for me, it's the most durable of the Rodgers and Hammerstein films.


The fact is, as grand as they may seem on the surface, just about every one of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals comes with a nagging sense of déjà vu. This is something that's particularly evident on film because of the camera's relentless knack for picking up every flaw.

I call it The Rodgers & Hammerstein Formula.
"Oklahoma!" successfully introduced this formula, something that Rodgers and Hammerstein would slavishly rework and rehash for the rest of their careers together - namely, the confrontation between an innocent but headstrong young heroine (gingham-clad Laurie, in the case of "Oklahoma!") and an incorrigible sexist (cowboy Curly, in the same piece).

This basic theme would resurface between lovelorn Julie Jordan and petty criminal Billy Bigelow in "Carousel"; between hayseed Nellie Forbush and shady Emil De Becque in "South Pacific," and between the title characters in "The King and I." Even the modern, jazzy "Flower Drum Song" was affected by this by-the-numbers plotting, initially pairing sweet Mei Li with swinging Sammy Fong.

If "The King and I," based on a true story, seems slightly more progressive than the team's musicals that preceded it, it's because at least its heroine, Anna Leonowens, is drawn as a mature, intelligent woman who's as savvy as the King - and knows it. She doesn't take any guff from him; she doesn't back down. The battle of the sexes - something on which Rodgers and Hammerstein commented with some regularity - is much more evenly executed in "The King and I."

As the show was a huge family success, both on stage and film, it's little wonder that, toward the end of their united careers, when they were in desperate need of a hit, the team did something shameless:

They ripped off "The King and I."

"The Sound of Music" may be based on a true story of its own, but it is a virtual clone of "The King and I," what with its story line about a man with a lot of children and the feisty woman who invades his household as the children's teacher. Along the way, she teaches the man something, too.

The similarities are striking, right down to the heroine-sings-with-the-kids novelty numbers - "Getting To Know You" in "The King and I" and "Do-Re-Mi" in "The Sound of Music." Oddly enough, "The Sound of Music," a show not considered top-notch Rodgers and Hammerstein when it opened on Broadway, has managed to surpass its inspiration in terms of popularity. The masses just can't get enough of it.

Just as the use of children in "The King and I" revitalized Rodgers and Hammerstein's schtick, the addition of nuns and Nazis in "The Sound of Music" somehow made their formula even more irresistible to the public.

Nuns!  Nazis!  Kids!


This formula, of course, doesn't stop with their plotting or characters. If their heroes and heroines are interchange-able from show to show, so are the big dramatic numbers - the songs with a message, if you will - that are always belted across by a secondary - and older - female character.

Usually at the top of the second act.

In "Carousel," this big inspirational number is "You'll Never Walk Alone"; in "South Pacific," it's "Bali Hai"; in "The King and I," it's "Something Wonderful"; in "Flower Drum Song," it's "Love Look Away"; and in "The Sound of Music," it's "Climb E'vry Mountain." Not to diminish any of these songs - they're all genuinely beautiful, after all - but there's something gnawingly familiar in the way that they are all utilized.

Still, the assembly line quality of these songs is much less offensive than Rodgers and Hammerstein's penchant for always finding new ways to slip a wildly sexist song - one that denigrates women - into their shows.

At least, "The King and I" avoided this.

We all know about "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" in "South Pacific," but in the same show, Nellie Forbush also gets to sing about what a silly little "Cockeyed Optimist" she is. It's a shrewd conceit about Rodgers and Hammerstein shows - having women sing sexist things about themselves.

In "Flower Drum Song," for example, just about every condescending female stereotype is dragged out for Linda Low's "I Enjoy Being a Girl." In "Oklahoma!" Ado Annie sings that she's just "A Girl Who Can't Say No." During the big wedding scene in "The Sound of Music," the nun chorus does a reprise of "Maria": "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"


Why you marry her off, of course.

And don't get me started on "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

Even worse is Julie Jordan's "What's the Use of Wondrin'?" in "Carousel," in which all you women out there are advised to put up with grief and abuse from some guy because "he's your man and you love him so."

The topper, however, came in a song that was added to the 1962 remake of "State Fair" for musical veteran Alice Faye (making a comeback) to sing to her screen daughter, Pamela Tiffin. It's called "Never Say No." 

Here's how it goes:

"Never say "no' to a man
Simply avoid saying "yes' to him
That leaves the ultimate guess to him
Darling, don't ever say 'no'!"

How's that for a musical invitation to date rape? (The makers of the constantly touring stage version of "State Fair" have wisely elected to pass on this particular song for its current incarnation. And not to denigrate Hammerstein, Rodgers wrote this one by himself after Oscar passed.)

There were never any equivalent songs for Rodgers and Hammerstein's male characters to address questionable things about themselves. Never.

With the exception of "The Sound of Music," all of Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage musicals have been filmed with some fidelity to the originals (although "Carousel" and "The King and I" both had numbers deleted after their previews). In the case of "The Sound of Music," however, scenarist Ernest Lehman revamped the material with the active cooperation of Richard Rodgers. Hammerstein was deceased by the time this 1965 Oscar-winner (!) was made.
The changes that Lehman made didn't improve "The Sound of Music"; they only Disney-fied it. While the stage play had a certain rumpled maturity about it, the movie is all sun and sugar, moving Pauline Kael to called it "The Sound of Mucous."  Christopher Plummer was also widely quoted with this quip, although lately, he's come around.  He's now a fan of the film.

For the movie, Rodgers was encouraged to drop three of the lesser known stage songs and replace them with new two ones, for which he wrote the music and lyrics - and both new songs proved to be wildly mediocre.

The cynical "There's No Way To Stop It," one of the original songs to be eliminated from the film, is excellent and "How Can Love Survive" is the one (the only) truly adult song in the original score.

And the sturdy "An Ordinary Couple" is a far, far better song than the one that replaced it, the terminally inane "Something Good." Julie Andrews has noted how she and Plummer had a difficult time with "Something Good."

"We kept getting the giggles," she's reminisced.

One can understand why, Julie. The song is ... unsingable.


Sally said...

I see your point(s) but I still love their stuff!!!

Brian Lucas said...

Actually, the giggling during "Something Good" came because arc lights which were supposed to light Andrews' and Plummer's faces would let out random rasberry sounds at precisely the moments the scene was supposed to be most romantic. Finally, director Robert Wise lost his patience and had the lights turned off. That's what created the magical silhouette feel of the scene. It's easy to rearrange history to fit a thesis, but like most feminist criticism, this rewrites it a bit more than needed. However, I fully respect the main point - those films are hilariously sexist.

Play 'em again.

Sharon said...

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals? I love them all – and did not notice the similarities in the songs you detail. As for the stories, well, that’s just the clothesline on which the music is hung. Musicals require a willingness to disbelieve in order to fully appreciate them.