Out of Our Dreams

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! and Carousel, a model comedy and a model tragedy, created a new theatrical genre

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.

From the archives:

"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.

Enter the Brits and, bless them, their Masterpiece Theatre mentality. The 1992 Royal National Theatre revival of Carousel, directed by Nicholas Hytner, may one day stand as a musical rediscovery to rank with Mendelssohn's conducting of the Saint Matthew Passion. The same theater company recently brought a newly masterpieced Oklahoma! back to Broadway. To their great credit, these British resuscitations, unlike too many American stagings, do not rewrite the books or present these musical plays as operas. They reaffirm the originals and send us back to the original-cast recordings, where we suddenly encounter what all the fuss was about. Both shows are darker and raunchier than you may remember, and make short work of critical resistance. These shows had, and can now have again, the emotional power and erotic content of the most intense dreams. And that was their aim: for dream visions, ballets, are their defining moments. Both shows are about dreams, good and bad. Oklahoma! is an Edenic dream about the Dust Bowl, though it is set thirty years earlier; Carousel is a nightmare, an infernal ride from which there is no exit.

Ethnic division, or its moral equivalent, is an issue in most R&H musicals, and this device became a virtual necessity in shows such as Brigadoon (Gaels and Yanks), Guys and Dolls (soul-savers and sinners), The Pajama Game (management and labor), and, of course, West Side Story (Jets and Sharks). There are a number of ways to look at this surprisingly anxious element in works that spring from a comic tradition. They are all, for instance, enactments of intermarriage and assimilation, reflecting the Americanization of their Jewish-American authors and audiences.

Ethnic diversity of a different kind had informed the evolution of theater music a decade earlier. In creating the genre of the musical play, Rodgers and Hammerstein followed two great examples, Show Boat and Porgy and Bess (1935), which present racial conflict between blacks and whites as the issue in American history and culture. Both shows portray racism in action, but they also celebrate African-American music as the basis of a cultural synthesis leading beyond the racial divide. In the 1920s Jerome Kern and, even more so, George Gershwin produced a new kind of theater song, based on the blues and jazz.

From 1935 on, jazz—now called swing, and dominated by white performers such as Benny Goodman, whose broadcast from the Palomar that year launched the Swing Era; Artie Shaw; and the Dorsey brothers—became synonymous with popular music. The mass of white Americans, who had previously thought of jazz as "jungle music," now embraced it as their own. Among some left-wing thinkers this was not progress. Any commercial music was the opiate of the masses, as Marc Blitzstein showed in his parody pop tunes "Croon Spoon" and "Honolulu," in The Cradle Will Rock (1937). In the early years of the Depression the Composers' Collective, a circle that included Blitzstein and Aaron Copland, tried to develop an alternative music for the masses. This effort initially took the form of songs in a simplified modernist style but soon made use of a new cultural weapon: folk music, as revivified by the songs of Woody Guthrie. Aaron Copland heard "Old Paint" and other cowboy songs performed in the original 1931 production of his friend Lynn Riggs's play Green Grow the Lilacs, the source for Oklahoma!; in 1938 he used these same songs in his first cowboy ballet, Billy the Kid. This score was certainly American-sounding, but unlike Gershwin's music, it was American without being African-American. Copland continued this stylistic direction in his next cowboy ballet, Rodeo (1942), choreographed by Agnes de Mille, who would soon create the innovative dance sequences for Oklahoma!

In turning Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical play, Rodgers and Hammerstein severed American musical theater from its African-American sources by replacing jazz with folk melody. This direction required a change in both collaborators. Hammerstein, who had written lyrics for European-style operettas by Rudolf Friml (Rose Marie) and Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song), had to make his lyrics more American. He threw out the sophisticated wordplay of Broadway lyrics—Irving Berlin's ragged rhymes, Ira Gershwin's puns, Lorenz Hart's triple rhymes—and replaced it with simple but memorable imagery, the bright golden haze on the "medder," that linked characters and setting. In the song "Many a New Day" there is a typical Hammerstein touch in the line "many a red sun will set," which turns a cliché into a picture. (The same song contains a fleeting Hartism that leaps out in its new incongruity: "Never've I asked an August sky, / 'Where has last July gone?' / Never've I wandered through the rye [very Hammerstein] / Wonderin' where has some guy gone [very Hart].")

Rodgers, whose songs with Lorenz Hart defined Manhattan sophistication, had to change his tune, literally. The jazz-inflected idiom of "The Girl Friend," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and "Johnny One Note" had to go. The action of Oklahoma! takes place just before jazz, in the ragtime era, as we find out from Will Parker when he brings some rag back from up-to-date Kansas City. The score is dominated by pre-jazz rhythms: waltzes, schottisches, one-steps, and even the cancan (for the title song). The new style appears right at the start, with "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," a cowboy waltz as far from the manner of Tin Pan Alley as could be imagined. It is not a folk song but a faux folk song.

The musical play changed the nature and function of theater songs. In earlier shows most songs were performer-based, serving the talents of the star rather than the story. With Oklahoma! songs became both windows onto characters and crucial steps in the action. The new technique appears in all its glory in "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," the second song in Oklahoma! It's a song we all know by heart, but if you go back to the show, you realize that it is less a song than a scene, which moves from dialogue to an introductory tune or verse ("When I take you out tonight with me") to the main tune (or chorus), and then in and out of these three components several times. The song sets up the plot premise of the show: Who will take Laurey to the box social? It reveals Curly as a cowboy poet whose verbal prowess takes Laurey and the audience through an imaginary enchanted evening. The song brings Curly and Laurey together romantically, and when Aunt Eller sings a second verse, it gives them her blessing as well. It's pure magic, but also a theatrical set-up: after all Curly's sweet talk—he even talks to the birds—Laurey sticks a pin in his bright balloon. She wants more than pretty words. And so the course of the drama is set in song.

Few critics have noticed that the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, perhaps reflecting a change in audience demographics during and after the war, are all women's shows—not in the feminist sense, perhaps, but in the Mildred Pierce, Stella Dallas, three-handkerchief style. Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I put their heroines' fears and choices at the center of the action, and the first three place an Earth Mother (Aunt Eller, Cousin Nettie, Bloody Mary) at her side to help her along. (Anna in The King and I seems to be Earth Mother and heroine at once.) In Oklahoma!, Laurey's psyche stands, literally, at the center of the show, a dream ballet that closes Act I. Actually it's not ballet but modern dance—an important distinction, especially for choreographers. Working in the wake of Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille created a new dance idiom; her female dancers are no longer weightless sylphs but women rooted in the soil, whose motions grow from everyday female activities such as brushing hair and tightening corsets.

After the box social Oklahoma! reaches its resolution awkwardly, with Jud Fry, the menacing farmhand who would be Curly's rival, falling on his own knife in a fight after threatening Curly and Laurey at their post-nuptial shivaree. A speedy trial acquits Curly of any guilt in Jud's death (it was self-defense), and the newlyweds ride off into the rising sun. It's a messy completion but necessary to the social vision of the play. The marriages of Curly and Laurey and Will Parker and Ado Annie, even the shotgun wedding of the peddler Ali Hakim and the latest farmer's daughter, reconfirm the social union of farmers and ranchers (and peddlers) that is the basis of the new society. The farmers and ranchers are like capitalists and workers in a post-New Deal liberal view—interest groups with a common stake in a prosperous society and with differences that can be negotiated. The state can include all elements except those that are incurably evil. Jud is given one moment to prove himself otherwise—the song "Lonely Room," too often omitted, where he vents his social resentment and his rage at the Curlys of this world, who look down on him. Society made me, Jud claims. But the show disagrees. Remember, it's 1943: Jud is not just the snake in paradise; he's Hitler. We can understand some of the sources of his perverse evil, but finally it is an evil that cannot be accommodated and must be destroyed.

Given its opening in April of 1945, Carousel might be expected to confirm Oklahoma!'s optimism; but the opposite is true. Carousel is Oklahoma!'s dark twin. Oklahoma! is about making good choices; in Carousel the choices go from bad to worse.

Based on Ferenc Molnár's 1921 play Liliom, Carousel also borrows a lot of elements from Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938), which seemed at the time to be the Great American Play. We remember two aspects of the show and then may have trouble remembering how they connect. There's the tragic story of the abusive marriage of Billy Bigelow, the carousel barker in a Maine mill town, and Julie Jordan, a "queer" young girl who has worked at the mill, which ends with Billy's death in a botched robbery attempt. And then there's the supernatural element—the Starkeeper, who allows Billy to return to earth from his astral purgatory for one day, the day his daughter, Louise, who was born after he died, graduates from high school (shades of Our Town). The link between the realistic and metaphysical levels is provided by an Agnes de Mille ballet, in which Billy and the audience watch Louise growing up very much in the image of the father she has never known.

Once again psychological and political issues are interwoven. Although the Down East accents of the lyrics are a Hammerstein contrivance, the setting is harshly realistic in ways we tend to forget, perhaps because we usually think of Maine as a scenic travel destination. In the first scene Billy and Julie both lose their jobs, and the stark consequences of unemployment are made clear: dependency on handouts (from Julie's cousin Nettie) or crime, soon to be followed by wife-beating. Both characters are more obviously damaged by their circumstances than were Laurey (who appears to be an orphan) and Curly (whose only possessions are his horse, his saddle, and his gun), though it takes a while to hear their real voices against the intentionally misleading musical glitter of the carousel waltzes. Their words are often at odds with the music. We remember "If I Loved You" as a great love song, but what are the lovers saying? If I loved you, I wouldn't be able to tell you, and you would leave me. They know they are doomed before they start. And then things really go downhill.

Nature is a lot harsher in Carousel than in Oklahoma!, but again, we notice only when we aren't being seduced by the music. "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," an anthem in the same cancan rhythm as "Oklahoma!," is a raunchy bacchanale, a celebration of the drive to reproduce, but it retrospectively turns ironic when Julie tells Billy she's pregnant. "A Real Nice Clambake," a waltz that sounds like another squeaky fairgrounds tune, is a wonderful picture of excess, as the whole town groans from over-indulging in one of the few feasts that life affords it. Nature, too, is a carousel that never stops.

The clambake points to a leap in musical integration. In Oklahoma! songs gave us character and became scenes. In Carousel songs connect to one another either melodically or thematically, so that they become extended sequences. One song sets up the next. The high spirits of "A Real Nice Clambake" get out of hand when Jigger, Billy's partner in crime, tries to seduce Julie's friend Carrie. When Enoch Snow, Carrie's all too upstanding fiancé, then calls Carrie loose, reducing her to tears, Jigger and the chorus sing the mock-moralizing "Stonecutters Cut It on Stone." The scene builds to its true goal with Julie's "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?"—the song in which she defines her "queer" nature in terms of her unquestioning love for Billy. In three songs we move from comedy to tragedy.

If Oklahoma! reflects the home-front anxieties of World War II, Carousel, despite its later date, seems to be working out the lingering consequences of the Depression. Its unconcealed critique of capitalism demands some kind of answer, and once more the answer is psychological. We tend to think that the whole business of the Starkeeper is religious, but it is given no religious context (though originally his function was assigned to a Mr. and Mrs. God). Instead the Starkeeper turns out to be the village doctor, who delivered all the children and addresses them at the high school graduation. Whose dream is the ballet, then? I would say that it is Louise's, and that Billy's brief return from the dead is also her fantasy. In the dream she realizes that she is like her father. Then she imagines that he returns, only to visit upon her the physical abuse he gave her mother. Like Julie, Louise feels trapped, but then comes the Starkeeper/doctor's valedictory speech, which is carefully and surprisingly worded. He doesn't praise God and country, and he doesn't tell the graduates to appreciate all the things their parents have done for them. He's too wise for that. Instead he gives a simple, therapeutic (neo-Freudian, Erich Frommian) message: It doesn't matter what your parents did; you create your own life.

Oklahoma! is naive and politically incorrect; Carousel is preachy. No matter. A model comedy and a model tragedy, they are the core of a tradition that extends from Show Boat to Passion. I would call it American opera, with the caveat that it be kept as far from the opera house as possible. Opera is high art enjoying its highness. American opera, or the musical play as R&H perfected it, moves back and forth seamlessly between speech and song because singing is just doing what comes naturally. It is a grand illusion, easy to confuse with lack of artistic sophistication.

In the 1940s Kurt Weill regarded Richard Rodgers as his only rival, and followed the new musical plays closely. (In a letter Lotte Lenya reassured Weill that Oklahoma! was a "Hillbilly show.") Weill was a superbly trained classical composer driven to Broadway by a mixture of political events, idealism, and opportunism. In his self-conscious attempt to renovate musical theater, he had many things in common with R&H. His Street Scene opened two years after Carousel, and certainly matches it for social realism. Yet there's a telling contrast between the big number "Somehow I Never Could Believe," sung by Anna Maurrant, and Billy's soliloquy—and the contrast shows how Rodgers made a virtue out of his relative lack of musical technique. Weill sees his number as an aria: Anna pours out the story of her life's endless frustrations, pleading for our understanding. The music is full of operas past, Tristan here, Porgy there, reminding us of the composer's erudition but shedding no light on Mrs. Maurrant. It's a lot of kvetching, all the more annoying because its demand on our sympathies is so obvious. Billy Bigelow has never heard an opera. He doesn't turn to the audience. He sings to himself, as if half remembering songs he has heard before. Instead of begging for our sympathy he drives himself to a decision, a desperate decision to rob for the sake of his child. We watch him trap himself fatally as the music and words place us within his reality. It's too good to be opera.