A veteran political reporter, Purdum goes moonlighting to delightful effect in “Something Wonderful.” His journalistic skills are evident in this affectionate tribute to the team that rewrote the rules for American musical theater. “Something Wonderful” is thoroughly researched and briskly written, seamlessly blending a chronological narrative of the productions with cogent analyses of their effect on American culture.
The most distinctive aspect of Purdum’s portrait is his attention to the oddly distant relations between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, despite the united front they presented to the world. Each confessed late in life he had never really known what the other thought of him, and Purdum delineates the “careful, starchy formality” of their professional interactions. Hammerstein felt he was patronized as the team’s junior member, a journeyman wordsmith to Rodgers’s musical genius. Rodgers, by nature reserved and chilly, resented the perception that he was less lovable than his ebullient collaborator. These are interesting sidelights, although they do not change our basic understanding of a partnership forged by two theater veterans who did not want “anything that ‘looks like a good musical comedy.’ ”
Both Rodgers and Hammerstein knew all about those. Each served his theatrical apprenticeship at a time when musicals were casually assembled potpourris of songs and jokes linked by sketchy plots. With his first partner, Lorenz Hart, Rodgers had produced a raft of these delightful trifles, remembered now only for his glittering music and Hart’s witty lyrics.
Hammerstein had broken this mold as early as 1927 with his adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel “Show Boat,” a pioneering music drama featuring an interracial couple. Then he had a string of flops and a miserable stint in Hollywood before connecting in 1942 with Rodgers, who was cranking out hits but had grown increasingly frustrated by his alcoholic, erratic partner. Hart had no interest in adapting Lynn Riggs’s folksy play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” but both Rodgers and Hammerstein were excited by the challenge. “Oklahoma!” and a revolution were in the making.
Purdum sketches this necessary background in two brief chapters before diving with gusto into the oft-told story of how “Oklahoma!” transformed musical theater and launched an industry-dominating entity soon known simply as “R&H.” He reminds us it was not just the integration of dances and songs into the story line, or the use of musical numbers to develop the characters, that made the show so influential. “Oklahoma!” felt genuine, sincere and all-American, qualities important to a nation engaged in a world war.
Two years later, the darker, more psychologically complex “Carousel” struck a chord with audiences that included returning veterans, ready for more adult fare. They got more of it in “Allegro,” “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” which continued to expand the boundaries of the musical into the early 1950s. It was only with subsequent, lesser shows such as “Pipe Dream” and “Flower Drum Song” that R&H began to seem somewhat old-fashioned, a reputation cemented with their final collaboration. Adored by audiences from the moment it opened in 1959, “The Sound of Music” was disdained by critics as sanitized and treacly. “The revolution of the Forties and Fifties has lost its fire,” lamented Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times.
Hammerstein died less than a year later, and over the next few decades, the mistaken impression arose that all R&H shows were as middlebrow as “The Sound of Music” — which, as Purdum correctly points out, is also perfectly constructed and emotionally compelling. His judicious balance is evident throughout as he traces the individual production histories of all nine R&H shows and the television original “Cinderella.”
Purdum demonstrates that R&H were committed artists operating comfortably within commercial parameters. “Something Wonderful” buttresses its case with savvy reporting on the business empire built with the advice of lawyer Howard Reinheimer.Purdum is equally solid on Hammerstein’s economical scripts and lyrics, distilled through endless revisions into seemingly effortless simplicity, and on Rodgers’s rich flow of melodies, always engaging but rarely predictable.
This appreciative survey of their joint achievements might not break new ground, but it is a welcome return to theatrical territory that always rewards further exploration.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution
By Todd S. Purdum
Henry Holt. 386 pp. $32