It’s fitting that as musical theatre buffs currently celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of Oklahoma!, two delectable books about the making of Broadway musicals have recently hatched: Todd S. Purdum’s Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir Unmasked. While one expects a book about the legendary R&H to be rewarding—and this one is—the surprise is that Lloyd Webber’s account of his own career, which landed him a 2018 special Tony Award for lifetime achievement, is equally gratifying.
Compiling only the most captivating information about composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II—the prolific duo who launched their partnership with the game-changing 1943 musical with an exclamation point in its title—Purdum keeps his well-researched book zipping along in concise, crystalline prose. Its tightly written summaries, well-selected anecdotes, and illustrative quotes are drawn mainly from published biographies, research attributed to a range of musical-theatre aficionados and scholars, and correspondence housed in manuscript collections. The accomplishments of R&H have in fact been widely deliberated, and Purdum’s volume brings no new perspectives to the discourse—it’s informational as opposed to interpretive, which is perhaps a reflection of the author’s background as a journalist more than a historian.
Purdum’s two big ideas concerning the “revolutionary” quality of R&H are set out in a prologue. Hypothesizing about why Oklahoma! proved so radical, he writes, “The reason was simple: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s combined lifetimes of consummate theatrical knowledge, taste, and skill.” If that statement feels vague and almost contradictory, Purdum supports it with details of many specific artistic decisions the pair wrestled with in the making of their shows. It is left to the reader, though, to connect the dots, as Purdum doesn’t always underline the radical-ness of the result.
The author’s second big idea is that, while R&H musicals were trailblazing in their era (the 1940s and ’50s), by the 1960s they had come to be seen as old-fashioned—yet, some 50 years later, they have been reevaluated and newly appreciated. Purdum characterizes this as a “paradox,” but it is actually quite the norm for revolutionary works, many of which begin to feel dated as cultural climates change, only to reemerge and find fresh relevance to later generations.
Purdum’s smartly structured book opens with two chapters that synthesize the men’s lives and career highlights before they became writing partners, identifying some (probably not terribly meaningful) similarities in their backgrounds: Both were born in New York City, were raised in their maternal grandparents’ households, attended Columbia University, and had interior-decorator wives named Dorothy. More important is the reminder that prior to teaming with Rodgers, Hammerstein collaborated successfully with other composers, including Sigmund Romberg, with whom he wrote operettas, and Jerome Kern, with whom he wrote Show Boat (1927).
What distinguished Hammerstein as a great lyricist? He understood, Purdum says, that a lyric’s power is inextricably linked to music. As opposed to his peers—wordsmiths like Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, who called attention to their lyrics—Hammerstein kept his words as simple as possible to allow room for the music to do its work.
In explaining why Rodgers was considered such a gifted composer—his pre-Hammerstein work with Hart spawned Broadway scores featuring such hit songs as “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered)”—Purdum quotes an array of opinions from scholars and critics. The most persuasive of these is Winthrop Sargeant, who rates Rodgers’s melodic invention above that of any other Broadway composer, and claiming, “Time and again, you think you can guess what Rodgers is going to do next, only to find him doing something else entirely.” Successes notwithstanding, by the early 1940s Hammerstein’s career was on the decline, and Rodgers’s ability to work productively with Hart was ending due to the lyricist’s losing battle with alcoholism.
Having thoroughly readied the reader for the impending launch of the R&H partnership, Purdum devotes an entire chapter to retelling familiar tales about the making of Oklahoma!. Groundbreaking in manifold ways, the show explored serious themes, integrated dance into the storytelling, and opened not with a high-energy singing-dancing ensemble number but with an old woman alone onstage churning butter while a cowboy is heard singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” off in the distance. Hammerstein worked painstakingly for three weeks on the lyric for that song, then sent it to Rodgers, who wrote the melody in 10 minutes. That first song, Purdum postulates, “set the tone for the whole of their collaboration, combining fidelity to the source material with a novelty, simplicity, and directness of expression that seemed so fresh as to be shocking.”
The first question everyone asks when digging into the creative process of a songwriting is: Which comes first, the music or the lyrics? Purdum gratifyingly addresses that early on in his book. Following the convention of the time, derived from the widespread importation of European operettas that had to be refitted with English lyrics matching pre-existing tunes, Hammerstein had typically let the music come first, but the order was reversed when he began to work with Rodgers. With only a few exceptions (notably “People Will Say We’re in Love”), Hammerstein crafted the lyrics first, then sent them to Rodgers, who wrote the music, usually with remarkable speed. Always defensive about his work appearing to be so easy, Rodgers liked to explain that he wrote music quickly only after extended periods of discussion and mulling. He estimates that he wrote the entire Oklahoma! score in about five hours, spread out over months of planning.
R&H always put forth a united front publicly, but they were not social friends; they rarely worked physically together, more often toiling alone in their Manhattan apartments, or with Rodgers at his residence in Connecticut and Hammerstein at his farm in Doylestown, Pa.
In analyzing the phenomenal success of Oklahoma!, Purdum doesn’t underestimate the importance of the patriotic, World War II-era social climate, when audiences embraced the show as a symbol of the values American servicemen were purportedly fighting for overseas. And he goes on to situate the rest of the R&H oeuvre—their nine Broadway musicals, including Carousel (1945) and The King and I (1951)—within the larger context of commercial theatre. We learn how concerned both men were with making money from their collaborations, and how this often soured their relationships with other members of their shows’ creative teams.
While theatre aficionados may feel that Purdum’s reportage is traversing well-trod terrain, the book serves as an excellent reminder of the startling ways in which these classic musicals were boundary-pushing. It was 1949, remember, when South Pacific featured an interracial couple and the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which attacked widely held prejudices head-on. As early as 1947, with their problematic Allegro, Rodgers and Hammerstein were experimenting with techniques practiced by the makers of “concept musicals” some 25 years later. And though critics found their final collaboration, 1959’s The Sound of Music, outmoded, audiences loved it; sales of its original cast album (a practice Oklahoma! made standard), combined with the movie soundtrack, made The Sound of Music the best-selling Broadway score of all time.
Whether or not Rodgers “ranks as the most-played composer of any kind of music, ever”—a claim made by radio host Jonathan Schwartz—he is indisputably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hero. The composer of such pulsating yet lusciously melodic Broadway scores as Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Evita (1979), Cats (1982), and The Phantom of the Opera (1987), Lloyd Webber goes even further than Winthrop Sargeant, deeming Rodgers “the greatest melodist of the 20th century.”
In his tickling memoir, Lloyd Webber reveals that his admiration for Rodgers—which began when, as a kid, he saw his dad moved to tears by a recording of “Some Enchanted Evening”—got him teased as a young Londoner in the 1950s. “It’s hard to understand today just how low the reputation of Rodgers and Hammerstein had sunk in the eyes of the British intelligentsia,” he writes. When Lloyd Webber got a chance to meet Rodgers in 1971, he was eager to grill the American composer on the differences between working with Hart and Hammerstein, but Rodgers preferred to discuss whether the future of the Broadway musical was through-sung, and if the day of the book musical was over.
At 500-plus pages, Lloyd Webber’s tome is not a “slice of my life” kind of memoir but rather a full-on autobiography (albeit one that covers only the first 40 of its author’s 70 years), complete with context typically not supplied by memoirists. Even readers who are not Lloyd Webber fans, or who find his sarcasm and flippant tone off-putting, will appreciate the fascinating information he shares on unexpected topics. The book taught me a great deal about violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, the history of 1960s pop music, how songwriters’ royalties are calculated, and how volume levels affect the amount of music it is possible to record on a vinyl album.
Lloyd Webber spices his writing with humor, even if he employs some British vernacular that may confound American readers. While there were many times that I had no idea what he meant by certain words or references, I just as often found myself laughing out loud. Tech rehearsals, he opines, “redefine watching paint dry.” We theatre critics are characterized as “pissy aisle scribblers.”
It is disappointing that he shares so little about how he actually composes music. While he elaborates a bit on his orchestrating methods and walks us through the creation of each of his shows (ending with the London premiere of Phantom), the focus is mainly on the mounting of the productions rather than the creation of the music.
In a hasty epilogue that summarizes the last 30 years of his life, Lloyd Webber makes a point of noting that in 2017, with School of Rock, Phantom, and revivals of Cats and Sunset Boulevard, he had four shows playing on Broadway—“equaling,” he writes, “the 1953 record set by my heroes Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Lisa Jo Sagolla, the author of The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken, is currently working on a book about the influence of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County on U.S. musical theatre.
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