John Wilson discusses his upcoming recording of the Rodgers & Hammerstein scores, the 2010 BBC Proms and more...
In 2010 the BBC Proms invited me to conduct a programme of Rodgers and Hammerstein to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of that great lyricist. One of the earliest decisions I made was to use the film orchestrations rather than the original theatre orchestrations as I knew these would sound terrific in such a grand space as the Royal Albert Hall. I love Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker's theatre scores and have conducted them many times; they work beautifully in the theatre and in the context of the complete performance of a show I wouldn't dream of using anything else. But this was a concert and I wanted to showcase these wonderful songs in opulent - yet theatrical - orchestrations which the composer himself had approved. Richard Rodgers was closely involved in all aspects of the films of his stage shows and had the very best arrangers in Hollywood working on the orchestral arrangements of his songs. Whilst filmic in their grandeur and often much fuller- sounding than the theatre scores, these arrangements are theatrical to the core and always manage to preserve the spirit of the original Bennett and Walker versions.
This CD is the first re-recording of many of these scores since the original movie sound stage sessions. Most scores survived - I'm deeply grateful to Bruce Pomahac and Michael Vannoni for digging them out of the vaults - but one or two had to be transcribed from the original film soundtracks and my gratitude goes to the brilliant Andrew Cottee for his assistance with these. Thanks also must go to Angus Meryon, my long- suffering copyist, who produced new orchestral parts for everything with his usual efficiency and accuracy. Without the support of EMI this record wouldn't have been made - so thank you above all to this remarkable old firm and all the inspiring people who worked with us on this project, from chief exec to tea boy. Ted Chapin, Andrew Cornall, Jonathan Allen, Tom Croxon and the ladies and gentlemen of the John Wilson Orchestra and the Maida Vale Singers - you're all marvels.
- John Wilson
The musical transformed
If nothing else, the career of composer Richard Rodgers disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated observation that ‘there are no second acts in American lives’. Rodgers had spent over 20 years working with lyricist Lorenz Hart. Between 1936 and 1940 they wrote the scripts, music and lyrics for eight musicals, seven of which were runaway hits. At a point when a smart Chevrolet cost $560, they were earning over $100,000 a year. Each so when The Theatre Guild invited the pair to make a musical version of Lynn Riggs’s play, Green Grow the Lilacs, another hit seemed in the making, even when they were joined in the work by a third collaborator whose career had so far been less than meteoric. But Hart’s alcoholism and unhappiness drove them apart.
The show Rodgers wrote with his new partner was titled Away We Go! until, at the last minute, they changed it to Oklahoma!. The third man in question was Oscar Hammerstein II. Almost 20 years later, when Noël Coward famously dismissed Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot as ‘a little like Parsifal without the jokes’, he unintentionally put his finger on something. Just as Wagner had turned often diffuse opera into a Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work), a creative team had really brought dramatic and musical integrity to the American musical. That team was Rodgers and Hammerstein – and if that claim sounds like grotesque overstatement, consider what musicals had been like before.
Originally, they weren’t even called musicals – they were musical comedies, and with good reason. Usually elaborate, wildly expensive excuses to show off vast casts of leggy chorus girls slipped in and out of idiotic love stories, they were largely peopled by characters with balloons for brains. They featured chirpy melodies, star turns, comedy skits and happy endings. Cross the world of operetta with a backstage story and you’re pretty much there. Rodgers and Hammerstein changed all that.
Hammerstein had served notice on the form 16 years before, in 1927, with Show Boat, written with Jerome Kern: the first musical to be based on a novel and one of the first to treat an important subject (racial prejudice) seriously. But it was Oklahoma! in 1943 that completely rewrote the rule-book. They replaced spectacle with specifics. In essence, what they did was kiss goodbye to vaudeville and create the ‘musical play’. Out went meaningless, interchangeable numbers and painfully obvious song cues; in came properly dramatic and coherent plots determined, crucially, by three-dimensional characters. And it was those characters’ thoughts, wishes, fears and ideas that drove the songs they sang. Rodgers welded musical styles, melodies, rhythms and tones to Hammerstein’s individually tailored, realistic yet poetic lyrics that were themselves embedded in his scripts (known as the book).
Two years into the run of Oklahoma!, the boys were back with more. Where Oklahoma! merely started the process, Carousel perfected it. Dangerous subject matter has become a musical fixture ever since West Side Story shocked audiences in 1957 by finishing a musical with a high body count. But in 1945, Carousel came as a shock: not only richer and darker than anything that had gone before, it had a unique breadth and depth of emotion. The construction of Carousel is so unobtrusive that it’s actually hard to see how radical it is. No more standard songs of regulation- length verse and chorus. Not only are the songs utterly tethered to the developing narrative and its characters, the real novelty is the finesse with which speech slips in and out of recitative and song like invisible mending. Billy’s celebrated ‘Soliloquy’ is a spectacular song of immense character and intense passion that tells us everything about the man that he’s unable to say in dialogue. Those two shows alone would have assured Rodgers and Hammerstein their place in history, but there was more, notably South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and, finally, The Sound of Music (1959). On 23 August 1960 Hammerstein died, aged just 65. Rodgers wrote five more musicals, including Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) with Hammerstein’s celebrated protégé Stephen Sondheim, but none achieved anything approaching the same artistic (or financial) success.
© DAVID BENEDICT, 2012
David Benedict is the London correspondent for Variety, and has written widely on musical theatre.