Giving the Musical a Purpose: The Enduring Gifts of Rodgers and Hammerstein

Giving the Musical a Purpose: The Enduring Gifts of Rodgers and Hammerstein

Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated elements in a powerful way to re-establish the path of musical theatre in the 1940s.  They infused psychological depth and characterization, a storyline, and dance that explored inner workings of character into works such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific.  Each musical in its own respect became a staple of musical theatre in hindsight particularly because of the organic connections Rodgers and Hammerstein created in order to develop intricate pieces of musical theatre to withstand the test of time.  The effect of the R&H contribution to musical theatre is evident in other works from the 1940s, such as One Touch of Venus.

Agnes DeMille’s “dream ballet” in Oklahoma! proved to be a defining moment for the inclusion of physical representation in a musical to represent the inner thought process of a character.  Dance, through R&H, was used as a supplement to the story—to say something that could not be said logically within the storyline, yet fit in to establish a background story and motivation for plot furthering.  The R&H musical went beyond the novelty factor and blended entertainment with serious content.  Jud Fry, the villain in the show, sings, “Lonely Room,” a humanizing piece that develops character dynamics, while, “Pore Jud is Daid” establishes Fry’s eminent physical danger from an unhinged person, paralleled by the fear of a larger World War II context.

The introduction to Oklahoma! is similar in style to that of South Pacific.  The first opens with a country woman churning butter—a small, incidental event that brings the audience in direct contact with the world of the play.  The latter opens with two Polynesian children singing, “Dites-moi,” which establishes a racial disconnect between Nellie and Emile in their exotic world.  R&H were able to take the familiar scenario of country living and the America that everyone wished to stay the same in 1943, while in 1949, able to connect the audience to an unfamiliar, foreign locale with the same intensity and goal of creating a cohesive musical world with extreme development.

Carousel explores the exotic through fantasy, while the narrative style includes dance and character development to create a relationship between Julie and Billy, similar to that of Nellie and Emile, where their material is rooted in real human content that explores values and morals.  The fluidity between dialogue and music is a characteristic of R&H productions;  the ability for characters to express themselves through different musical avenues through singing, talking, or behaving during musical interludes (as in the beginning of South Pacific when Nellie and Emile barely speak, yet drink in each others presence) creates an interpretive value of these productions that go beyond the text and into the world of reality.  Carousel explores death, South Pacific explores racial tolerance, and Oklahoma! explores drastic change.

Lane and Harburg’s Finian’s Rainbow carries the fantasy aspect of R&H’s Carousel into the musical world and links it to the everyday. Created in 1947, the fantastical element allows an expansive palate for a character to solve self-questioning problems.  Finian comes looking for gold yet becomes involved in racial intricacies and must recognize why.  There becomes a moral obligation to tell the story, and the importance of the story was established by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original contribution with Oklahoma!  The moral obligation through South Pacific comes from the side story of Cable and Liat, how Cable could have been the romantic hero, despite his reservations, yet sings, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” to inform Nellie and Emile’s storyline since Emile cannot see Nellie’s racial offense.

Through Rodgers and Hammerstein, seemingly simple storylines become complex through the inclusion of planned depth of characters and story; R&H gave the musical a purpose, while still serving a value for entertainment.

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