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The problem with Rodgers and Hammerstein

August 19, 2010

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How many songs by musical theatre partnership Rodgers and Hammerstein can you think of? It’s tough one. I can think of only a handful of songs. And the straw poll I conducted in the office this afternoon confirmed my theory. Their names are big. But audiences don’t necessarily marry up the song title with the composer and lyricist.

I know. It’s hardly empirical evidence. But it does underpin the strange theory I have on the partnership. Rodgers and Hammerstein are famous not necessarily for their output but for one particular film – The Sound of Music – and even where that’s concerned, the film’s success is rooted firmly in it’s leading lady Julie Andrews, her singing ability and the picture postcard views of the 1963 movie.

My musical education began with Rodgers and Hammerstein and with specifically with the movie soundtrack. Being the predictably over-dramatic queen I sometimes can be, I quickly identified with Maria singing “I have confidence in me” very early on. I always refer to it in those “needy” moments every now and again.

The curtain raiser – the one which really appealed to my inner performer – was undoubtedly Do-Re-Mi. The combination of raw enthusiasm from Julie Andrews combined with the first tentative then later unbridled joy from the seven Von Trapp children made for an uplifting number. Fairytale shots of Salzburg – a yesteryear view soon to be ravaged by the Nazis – make watching the film a borderline bitterwseet experience.

And that popularity is perhaps that’s one of the reasons that ‘Do-re-mi’ was chosen as the track for this crowd-sourced dance number in Antwerp Station last year.

‘Do-re-mi’ – the first three notes of a major scale – is the foundation of western musical training, the first thing anyone learning to play a musical instrument will learn. It’s the easiest thing to learn because there aren’t very many leaps in between either. Three notes, one after another and very close to each other.

But the Sound of Music soundtrack eclipses all the other Rodgers and Hammerstein works just as the film eclipses the stage version of the show. Sure ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning‘ from Oklahoma is rowsing as it is simple melodically, but I’ve never watched the film the whole way through – is that a statement on the depth of the music itself?

And what about South Pacific? The songs might be on a par with those in the Sound of Music, but did the strange cinematography (not to mention the odd miming by actors who clearly hadn’t sung in the soundtrack – take a look at ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’ below) mean the popularity of the score failed to reach the heights of the Sound of Music completed 10 years later?

And although South Pacific fairs better in terms of popularity the often tirelessly balanced simplicity of the melodic lines leaves a saccharin taste in the mouth. Younger than Springtime – brilliantly performed here by Mandy Pantankin – gives an illustration.

Patinkin’s rendition of Younger than Springtime was part of an 80s re-recording of the score featuring Kiri Te Kanawa and tenor Jose Carreras. The finished production undoubtedly gave the work more seriousness casting a shadow on the view of the musical as a formulaic creation. There were fine performances and a cracking orchestral arrangement too.

Ultimately however, this isn’t a damning conclusion of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work. The popularity of their output is reflected in the protectiveness of the estate over its prized asset. Sound of Music movie clips aren’t available on YouTube for example, a clear indication that copyright infringement of this key work is a big deal for distributors keen to capitalise on the accessibility of the musical partnership’s output.

Rodgers and Hammerstein guaranteed a good feeling at the end (if not during) most if not all of their songs. And that translates into a very valuable revenue stream.

John Wilson conducts the John Wilson Orchestra in a special Rodgers and Hammerstein concert at the BBC Proms on Sunday 22 August 2010.

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  1. kingouf permalink

    Most interesting, and thought-provoking. My favourite R&H shows betray the fact that I am somewhat older than you – ‘The King and I’ and ‘Carousel’ were the LPs from my parents’ collection that got played most often during my childhood. ‘The Sound of Music’, on the other hand, was a ‘johnny-come-lately’, and I’ve always felt the music was not quite up to the standard of the earlier works: simpler, more carefully aimed at the obvious targets – what we might these days call ‘dumbing down’ perhaps.

    In my 20s and 30s I went through a period of musical snobbery – as many do – and shunned these childhood favourites: only more recently have I grown up enough to recognise their true worth. I shall be there on Sunday afternoon (with my godson, his wife and his mother) to sit back and listen in wonder to some of the country’s finest orchestral musicians lavishing their skills on music some might still consider unworthy of the attention. Which makes me think: how sad that when a Prom like this can show the benefit of doing such things ‘properly’, most of the time we have to put up with cut-down theatre bands, electronic substitutes and reduced orhestrations. Thank God this hasn’t happened to Classical music yet – crumbs! We might have to put up with Wagner on a pipe organ (or a ukulele band)!

  2. Karen permalink

    Really great post. I was just trying to think today of the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows I could name while debating whether to brave the Prom queue tomorrow. I came up with Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I, and Cinderella right away. “Carousel is probably them” I thought, even though I don’t believe I know much (if any) of the music. Then I hopped on Wikipedia and was stunned to learn Sound of Music was R&H. And I consider myself a devoted musical theatre fan! So I think you are very right that audiences know the songs and they know the names, but for some reason the two don’t connect.

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