Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics), Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (book, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener) South Pacific / New York, Majestic Theatre, August 7, 1949
Whenever I think of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals other than the early and more energized Oklahoma! (see My Year 2003) I feel slightly claustrophobic, as if their often sugary, sweet songs and sensibilities had stuck to my skin. Certainly I recognize Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I as great musicals, and I’ve watched the movie versions of these works countless times; but by the time of the megahit The Sound of Music (a musical I endured for several weeks of rehearsal and performances in the role of Max in high school) I could scarcely tolerate their work (I have seen the Julie Andrews movie only twice!); their Chinese-American travesty, Flower Drum Song, seems to me an embarrassment!
While Nelly tries to convince herself that the irrationality of racism is somehow natural and innate, Joe recognizes it is something learned, a thing “carefully taught,” which he expresses in one of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s most politically aware songs of their career, which for me washes away some of that sticky residue of their sentimental songs better than Nelly is able to wash her would-be lover “out of her hair.”
A hundred and one pounds of fun,
That’s my little Honey Bun.
Get a load of Honey Bun tonight.
New York, May 10, 2008
If in my statements above I sound highly critical of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, I should assert that my feelings about their work were not always so ambivalent. As a child I was quite enthusiastic about their early musicals. In 1956, for example, my parents took me, without my six-year-old brother and three-year-old sister, to a drive-in movie showing of Carousel. Despite what I thought—even at nine years of age—was a rather kitch-ladden opening scene—with Billy Bigelow shining up the stars of heaven—I loved the movie, particularly since it presented a tragic viewpoint rather than a primarily comic one. Although I had difficulties imagining how a petty thief who commits suicide had gotten through the pearly gates, I recognized in his early “Soliloquy,” that Billy basically was a loving, well-meaning being who simply wound up in the wrong company. What I didn’t know then was that in the original Molnar play, Liliom—upon which Carousel was based—Billy was condemned to Hell for slapping his daughter, even though, as in the musical version, she claims that the slap felt like a kiss.
Los Angeles, August 4, 2008