Shows such as "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!" and "The King and I" are musical theater classics, but there's more to the musical legacy of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II than just their greatest hits.
This month, area theatergoers have a rare opportunity to experience some of the songwriters' lesser-known work, as well as music from those hit shows.
"Cinderella," the only musical Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for television, is currently receiving its area stage premiere at Olney Theatre. In addition, a touring production of "A Grand Night For Singing," the first Broadway revue of the duo's songs, begins a three-week run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on Dec. 27.
More than a half century after the debut of their first collaboration ("Oklahoma!"), why do the works of composer Rodgers and lyricist Hammerstein not only endure, but continue to enliven the musical theater stage?
"Melody and poetry," says Walter Bobbie, who conceived and directed "A Grand Night for Singing." "Hammerstein's gifts not only as a poet but as a sheer craftsman are quite astounding. It's very tricky to write simply. He was always drawn to very challenging themes, and at the base of every one of his shows is a very serious story."
Mark Waldrop, director of Olney's "Cinderella," cites their ability to engage people emotionally. "They could embody emotions in their songs that the average American resonated to in a really strong way. In a lot of our musical theater today we just have lost [that] ability."
Nor is Rodgers and Hammerstein's legacy limited to productions of their shows. There's also the unusual phenomenon of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Thirty-eight floors above New York's theater district, it operates out of Rodgers' old office and continues to be a vital presence in the industry, promoting the interests of its founders.
Hired in 1981 as the first non-family member to head the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Theodore S. Chapin, executive director, once told Variety, "I've come to respect those musicals in a way that, frankly, I didn't when I got here."
Since then, he explains, "I've seen [the musicals] done in a number of ways and wildly different qualities. There are things about them that are so basic to human emotions that don't
change. If they were passing fancies and passing fads, how on earth did they get through the '60s?"
Chapin has seen so many Rodgers and Hammerstein productions because the organization controls the production rights to all of the shows. But that's only one function of this office, whose music-publishing division also represents songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elvis Presley, and whose concert library represents film scores including "Gone with the Wind," "Star Wars" and "Batman."
"There really isn't another organization like it," Chapin says of the 40-person company, which annually licenses more than 3,000 productions in North America alone and has revenues of $10-$15 million. He admits he's never been able to come up with a simple phrase explaining what this multi-faceted organization does, but terms of his duties to its namesakes, he says, "I am here to encourage people to think about Rodgers and Hammerstein in slightly different ways."
Besides an obvious example like the stylish 1994 Tony Award-winning revival of "Carousel," some of those ways include the use of "My Favorite Things" on commercials for the Mitsubishi Gallant, "Getting to Know You" on commercials for Geo, and "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" on "CBS This Morning." Though such applications might seem a bit crass, there is precedent for them. Rodgers himself gave Clairol permission to use "I'm Going to Wash That Gray Right Outa My Hair." Despite this, Chapin says, "We do not allow them to change lyrics, even though Rodgers did it."
"A Grand Night for Singing" -- a surprise 1994 Tony nominee -- is another instance of looking at Rodgers and Hammerstein in a different light. Chapin says the show arose from conversations with the producers at Rainbow & Stars, a nightclub atop New York's Radio City that had previously staged a revue of songs by Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
"We said Rodgers and Hammerstein doesn't lend itself to tuxedos," Chapin recalls. "It tends to be more site-specific, and the challenge would be to figure out a way to make it palatable in a tuxedo world."
For director Bobbie, taking the songs out of their original context required finding an overall theme for the revue. "I thought, because we were in such a romantic spot at Rainbow & Stars, our context would be a romantic evening, and we would do only Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that had to do with relationships and falling in love and getting married and having children and the challenges and glories of enduring relationships," he says.
In turn, this required new arrangements -- by the show's musical director, Fred Wells -- to change the style in which some of the songs are sung. For example, Bobbie continues, "It was fun to take a good old cowboy song like 'Kansas City' and turn it into a sassy, close-harmony, Manhattan Transfer-type number."
It also meant getting the audience to listen to these songs in a new way.
When he heard "A Grand Night's" rendition of "Something Wonderful" (from "The King and I"), says Chapin, "I thought of Hillary Clinton, and I said to Walter [Bobbie] afterwards, 'I was listening to this song about this man and how he needs your love, and I thought of the president of the United States, and Walter said, 'Well, that was the image.' "
Another of the revue's goals was the inclusion of lesser-known material. Besides "Oklahoma!" "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King and I," "Flower Drum Song" and "South Pacific," the revue features songs from the three Rodgers and Hammerstein flops -- "Allegro," "Me and Juliet" and "Pipe Dream." In addition, it features songs from the one musical they wrote for film, "State Fair," and the one they wrote for television, "Cinderella."
Produced in 1957 as a CBS special starring Julie Andrews, "Cinderella" was created in response to the success of Mary Martin's "Peter Pan." But though "Cinderella" attracted a record-breaking audience of 107 million, it was a live presentation in the pre-videotape era, which limited it to a single performance. In 1965, CBS produced a revised version with a script by Joseph Schrank and starring Lesley Ann Warren.
"When I got to this office, there was a movement to go back to the original and look at the teleplay," Chapin says. "I read it and thought, even if directors have to make a few adjustments, better to start from what Oscar Hammerstein wrote than from what somebody else adapted."
More than 250 productions based on that version are licensed by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization in the United States and Canada, making it the fifth or sixth most popular of the team's 11 shows. ("Oklahoma!" is still the favorite.)
"It's a slim show because of its origins as a TV broadcast," Olney director Mark Waldrop points out, "but let me hasten to add that it is one of their best scores. No one here can stop humming the songs, and they have the advantage of not being over-exposed."
Waldrop also admires Hammerstein's "very modern" approach to the traditional fairy tale characters. The fairy godmother, he explains, isn't "just a fluffy fairy godmother who shows up and grants all of Cinderella's wishes. He makes her sort of a wise teacher. What she does is she makes Cinderella get very specific about what her wishes are and how they can be achieved, and then she grants them."
Despite this "Cinderella's" popularity, Chapin says CBS is now working on a new adaptation for Whitney Houston. That's just one of many future projects the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization is involved in, including the celebration of Hammerstein's centennial in 1995, which will kick off with a PBS "Great Performances" broadcast in March.
Also in the works are a TV version and accompanying album of "Oklahoma!" with country-western stars, and an animated feature film based on "The King and I" by Rankin/Bass Productions. Chapin is especially enthusiastic about an Australian stage production of "The King and I" starring Hayley Mills, which is scheduled to reach Broadway in late 1995 after a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center.
Chapin hopes these efforts will keep Rodgers and Hammerstein's work alive, and he has special faith in large-scale Broadway revivals like last season's acclaimed "Carousel" (and,
possibly, next season's "King and I"). "If there's been any stigma on our shows as [being] from another our shows as [being] from another era," he says. "I would hope this is the beginning of the end of that stigma."
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear excerpts from "A Grand Night for Singing," call Sundial, ++ The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6130 after you hear the greeting.
What: "A Grand Night for Singing"
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Dec. 27 through Jan. 15. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Audio-described performances 2 p.m. Dec. 31 and 8 p.m. Jan. 3; sign-interpreted performances 8 p.m. Jan 4 and 2 p.m. Jan. 7
Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD (410) 625-1407
Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney
When: Through Dec. 31. 2 p.m. Dec. 18; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21-23; 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 24; 1 p.m. Dec. 26-31; and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 26, 29 and 30. Sign-interpreted performance 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21; audio-described performance 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22
Tickets: $28 for adults; $14 for children 16 and under
8, Call: (301) 924-3400; TDD (301) 924-2739