Sunday, March 31, 2013

This Day in Theater History (‘Oklahoma!’ Starts Rodgers on Partnership With Hammerstein)

March 31, 1943—With Oklahoma premiering at the St. James Theatre, composer Richard Rodgers did more than gain the greatest success of his career to date. He also gained a partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, whose lyrics might not have exuded the wit and sophistication of his prior collaborator, but whose reliability and adaptability enabled the pair to rewrite the rules of American musical theater.

On the night of his greatest triumph, Rodgers met a specter of his recent past, his gnomish, tortured, now former, partner. Instead of seething with jealousy, however, Lorenz Hart demonstrated the generosity of spirit that enabled so many people to put up with him for so long, despite his often maddening irresponsibility. “This show of yours will run forever,” he congratulated Rodgers at Sardi's restaurant.

He was not far off: the musical comedy ended up running for 2,212-performances, the longest-running musical in Broadway history by the time it closed. It ended up being revived another four times on Broadway, as well as being played in regional theaters and high schools all across the nation, and even the world. (For an example of the latter, see my prior post--my real-life "Glee" or "High School Musical," if you will on my own experience as a cast member of the show.)

It could have all been Hart’s, but he had demurred on adapting Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs when Rodgers had brought it up. The alcoholic Hart refused to go into a sanitarium to become clean and sober; he was on his way to Mexico. At this point, Rodgers brought up his ace in the hole. If Hart couldn’t do it, he had someone else in mind for the job. Who? Hart asked. Oscar Hammerstein, said Rodgers.

“There’s no better man for the job,” Hart said. “I don’t know how you put up with me all these years. The best thing would be for you to forget about me.”

I was reminded of this turning point in the lives and careers of both men in Robert Gottlieb's article in the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic Monthly on their "Dysfunctional Partnership." It resembles Stefan Kanfer's equally fine assessment of Rodgers in City Journal several years ago in that it doesn't disclose many new biographical details, but it does a good job in analyzing what is already known about them.

Rodgers was saddened that his quarter-century association with Hart, another alum of Columbia University, was coming to an end, but also more than a bit relieved. For all the worldly brilliance he brought to his lyrics, Hart also brought endless aggravation, requiring constant rescue from binges when  he needed to work on a show. Two decades later, speaking to the star of a musical he worked on alone, No Strings, Rodgers told its star, Diahann Carroll: “You can't imagine how wonderful it feels to have written this score and not have to search all over the globe for that drunken little fag.''

If the nastiness in that comment was immense, so was the frustration. Rodgers would display little of that in his relationship with Hammerstein. The latter, the lyricist behind the landmark musical Show Boat (1927), was in an immense dry spell—no major hit in over a decade—and he could be slow at times, but he could be found and he was dependable.

Hart’s lyrics sprang from his own mordantly funny personality; he was, in a sense, best fitted for the Roaring Twenties. Hammerstein, though from a wealthier background than Hart’s, also came from one considerably less raffish, making him ideally suited to take on all manner of characters, including for "cowboy musical' subject matter that Hart couldn't abide. (See my prior post on the death--and, more important, the life--of Hammerstein.) He is often declared to be the best librettist in the history of Broadway musicals: he wrote the “book” for the musicals himself, and knew which dialogue cues could be turned into song. And, as demonstrated in Show Boat, with its unprecedented integration of music and plot, he was unafraid to break with convention.

And so it proved in this case, too. Most obviously, Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated a ballet by Agnes de Mille into the action. But even from the beginning of the show, they signaled that they were after something quite different from anything seen before: “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” dispensed with the usual opening chorus line to feature a lone cowboy, the hero Curly McLane.

The creation of the song illustrated Hammerstein’s method. The lyricist had originally written, “The corn is as high as a cow pony’s eye,” until a walk in a cornfield showed him that the stalks were far higher. Quickly, he turned it into “as high as an elephant’s eye.” 

Finally, Hammerstein was passionately liberal, a man who celebrated Americana even as he reminded the nation of its unfinished business with prejudice (e.g., "Carefully Taught," from South Pacific). The musicals he created with Rodgers over the next 16 years would prove an ideal cultural export from a country whose liberal humanitarian virtues were about to triumph in one major war and would be trumpeted against another totalitarian adversary in another, "cold" one.

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