For many people who grew up in the 1950s, Rodgers and Hammerstein represented everything we wanted to escape—not that it was easy. R&H were everywhere. Elementary school choruses sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "I Whistle a Happy Tune." Junior highs staged Oklahoma!, with the "fastest" girl in the eighth grade inevitably cast as Ado Annie. Richard Rodgers's score for Victory at Sea was virtually a national anthem. And there they were, on The Ed Sullivan Show, looking like two puffy, prosperous real-estate barons who happened to write songs. They regarded their own work with awe. I remember the solemnity with which they unveiled "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful? (Or Are You Beautiful Because I Love You?)," from Cinderella. This pious nonsense was enough to drive one to Jerry Lee Lewis—or to Stravinsky, whose Le Sacre du Printemps I happened, coincidentally, to discover after seeing a matinee of Flower Drum Song. Le Sacre, I decided on the spot, would be my ticket out of the culture of togetherness.
The buttoned-down world view of the 1950s, though, distorted the Rodgers and Hammerstein achievement. Hollywood transformed the great shows into ponderous wide-screen Technicolor waxworks. The films of Carousel (badly cast, musically truncated) and South Pacific (with its Jell-O-colored love scenes) are barely tolerable today. Schools and camps put on the shows in laundered condensations, usually stripping Oklahoma! and Carousel of the ballets that are at their cores. After The King and I, R&H produced two embarrassing flops, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream, and two even more embarrassing hits, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music. These shows, critics claimed, mechanically recycled the most effective devices of the earlier successes, though they also contained quite a few great songs.
R&H really belonged to an earlier era—before the Cold War, before McCarthy, before television. The four great R&H shows—Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951)—all appeared within less than a decade, the creations of two men who had made their marks in the 1920s and found each other in the midst of midlife crises in the early 1940s. Oscar Hammerstein's last hit had been Show Boat, in 1927. Rodgers's lyricist Lorenz Hart was drinking his way out of their great collaboration. At a dark moment in their professional lives, and in American history, Rodgers and Hammerstein, both in their forties, began new lives and created a new theatrical genre, which they called the musical play (as opposed to the musical comedy). The personal and national crises from which this project sprang became invisible in the Eisenhower era and irrelevant afterward. The worldwide celebration of the Rodgers centennial this year gives us many opportunities to rescue their work from its association with middle-brow complacency and kitsch. The best place to start is with Oklahoma! and Carousel, which defined the bright and dark sides of the musical play for half a century. Without Oklahoma! there would have been no Brigadoon, no Guys and Dolls; without Carousel no The Most Happy Fella, no West Side Story, no Passion, no Rent.
"Victim Kitsch" (September 1996)
With its pop sentimentality, Rent neutralizes avant-garde art into a form that hopeful critics take for Broadway's salvation. By Francis Davis
A musical play, even a comic one like Oklahoma!, differs from a musical comedy in a number of respects. Musical comedies never fully disguise their roots in vaudeville, where singers sang and dancers danced for the sheer pleasure of performing. In a musical play the audience feels it is watching action that follows the rules of real life, not those of vaudeville. These are characters, not performers. Realism poses obvious problems for musical theater, because most people don't spontaneously break into song. The easiest solution is to use a backstage story, as in Kiss Me, Kate or A Chorus Line. We can believe that show people break into song and dance—or, at least, that their lives are full of numbers from previous shows, as when Fred and Lilli recall "Wunderbar," an operetta number, at the opening of Kiss Me, Kate. Critics call these self-conscious numbers "prop songs." A musical play, however, also needs moments when a song is not a song but an intensified feeling that takes us inside a character, providing a psychological realism to trump our commonsense notion that emotional people do not always have an audience waiting to hear them sing.
Musical plays, unlike musical comedies, set out to teach us important lessons about life. This Sunday-sermon aspect of the form seems suspect to Pauline Kael-style critics, who believe that tinsel should just be tinsel; but it also warms the heart of the kind of critic who has proclaimed over the years that the latest musical, be it Carousel, West Side Story, or Rent, daringly unmasks the hypocrisy of the age and demands that we love one another. Shows that win editorial-page plaudits for their content may seem after just a few years to have appeared radical merely by flattering the political opinions of their audiences. South Pacific, for instance, was considered daring for its treatment of racial prejudice, especially in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." But it seems odd today that the theme appears in a show with no black characters, even though one of the original leads, Juanita Hall, who played the "Tonkinese" Bloody Mary, was African-American. To a cynic, the show plays on the liberal sentiments of the audience while safely placing the issue of race in a distant locale. Political critics who dismissed R&H shows starting in the 1960s often praised rock albums for daringly unmasking the hypocrisy of the age and demanding that we love one another.