Among those interviewed on tonight's Rodgers and Hammerstein PBS special is Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary. She recalls that when she was a child, she would sometimes hear her father playing his songs on the piano for friends in the middle of the night. "I used to get up and dance," alone in her room, she says. It's an inarguably logical reaction.
Everybody can get up and dance tonight, or hum along from something as appropriate as an easy chair, in harmony with "Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of American Music," at 9 on Channel 26. The special, made up of film clips and interviews that bring back the Rodgers and Hammerstein era in all its insistent innocence, makes this a grand night for singing as well as getting up and dancing. Those who cannot be entertained by this show can probably be certified un-entertainable.
To borrow a few of Oscar Hammerstein II's words, their work may have been as corny as Kansas in August, yet it can still get you as high as an elephant's eye.
Though not as comprehensive, nor indeed as long, as it ought to be, the special, cunningly dangled in viewers' faces as part of another mercilessly massive fund-raising assault, certainly succeeds at evoking the R&H apple-pie mystique and the alluring charms of another time. Like Frank Capra movies, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals represent an era that can only be recalled, never fully recaptured. Hearing even mere snippets of some of their songs tonight, those who lived through the '40s and '50s are likely to think of them as the best years of their lives. Naturally the impression is misleading, but disarmingly so. In the hands of Rodgers and Hammerstein, one is being misled by experts.
Most of the clips used to illustrate the Rodgers and Hammerstein hits (the flops are ignored) are from the movie versions of the shows. These look fine in polished-up Technicolor and sound good in solid Hollywood hi-fi, but it's the black-and-white video clips on the program that are the most charismatically transporting, in part because they best approximate the magical properties of illustrious live theatrical performance. One of the best of these is a section of what's called "The Bench Scene," incorporating the romantic ballad "If I Loved You," re-created for TV by the stars of the original "Carousel" stage production, John Raitt and Jan Clayton. Those who remember Clayton as the first mother on the "Lassie" series may be startled to hear her singing in a rich soprano.
Later there are clips of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza reprising their starring roles from "South Pacific." In this case there was no comparison between those who played the parts (of Nellie and Emile) on the stage and their lackluster replacements in the overstated film version, Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. What a big face Ezio Pinza had! He looks as radiant as Martin does. This really is legend preserved, and it's a crucial error of this show that the producers opted for the slick color footage over the more authentic black-and-white television clips. Most of the films were in CinemaScope, anyway, so no matter how handsome the prints, a viewer is seeing a distortion of the original movie.
Many of those associated with the Rodgers and Hammerstein years are heard from, most often engagingly. Rouben Mamoulian, who directed "Oklahoma!" on the stage, recalls that "everybody thought that this was a big flop" after it opened in New Haven as "Away We Go," a title derived from square dance instructions. The title song, and the title, were added, and the big flop became a seminal smash.
Martin, who acts as host of the program, reminisces with Joshua Logan, who directed "South Pacific" on the stage and, with much less distinction, on the screen. Martin recalls that during the run of the show, she had to wash her hair on stage 28 times a week with -- what else? -- Liquid Prell. The best clip of all, the one most bursting with life, is Martin singing "A Wonderful Guy" while Rodgers accompanies her on the piano. Later, in new footage, Martin coaxes Theodore Bikel, her original costar in "The Sound of Music," to sing "Edelweiss" with her again.
Others contributing include James A. Michener, the widows of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Shirley Jones, Alfred Drake, Gordon MacRae, Yul Brynner, Celeste Holm and Agnes de Mille. Since the program was produced in cooperation with the Rodgers and Hammerstein heirs, de Mille does not repeat any of the anecdotes she told Dick Cavett about what a pair of tightwads the songwriters were. And Andrew Lloyd Webber says of Rodgers that he was "one of the world's greatest melodists."
For all this, the program is not as exhaustive or exhilarating as the Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion production "America Salutes Richard Rodgers: The Sound of Music," which CBS broadcast during the Bicentennial year and again in 1978. Some of the omissions are puzzling -- nothing from either television production of "Cinderella," the only R&H show written for TV, and nothing from "State Fair," their only original movie musical. The opening and closing montages of clips to music are badly edited, but fairly easily forgiven considering the wealth of memories and pop history contained within the program. JoAnn Young wrote and produced it, and John Musilli was the executive producer. They had some goofy priorities and the program has its lapses, but I'd be flabbergasted to meet anyone tomorrow who'd claim to be sorry to have seen it.