Sunday, May 27, 2018

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution by Todd. S. Purdue (2018)

I’ve read about Rodgers and Hammerstein before, so I did not come into this book a complete tabula rasa on the subject of their life and works.  Not in recent memory though. This was a fun book and some of it was quite fascinating - some stories stuck out, and are worth saving for future reference.  For example, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the producers of Annie Get Your Gun - I did not know that, or if I did, I had forgotten the fact.  This is actually an Irving Berlin story. In Purdum’s own words:  “At one story conference in Oscar [Hammerstein] ‘s East Side town house as the show was taking final shape, Josh Logan [the director] whispered to Oscar that he thought there should be a second-act duet fro Frank and Annie, who had not sung together since their big first-act love song, “The Say It’s Wonderful.”  In a flash, Berlin was at their side from across the room. “Listen, everybody,” he insisted. “Josh wants another song. Josh, where do you see this song?” When Logan suggested the second act, Berlin demanded, “If they’re not talking to each other in the second act, how can they sing together?” At this point, [Richard] Rodgers piped up.  “Could they have a quarrel song or a challenge song?” “Challenge!” Berlin exclaimed. “Of course! Meeting over. I’ve got to go home and write a challenge song.” The meeting broke up and Logan took a taxi back to his own nearby apartment. When he walked in the door, the phone was ringing. It was Berliner, who began singing “Anything you can do, I can do better…” “That’s perfect!” Logan shouted.  “When in the hell did you write that?” “In the taxicab,” Berlin replied. “I had to, didn’t I?”

Why did this story resonate with me?  For starters, genius is attractive and interesting, particularly creative genius.  Irving Berlin came up with one of those most famous show tunes in the history of Broadway - certainly from that time period - in just a few minutes.  The creative process is another thing I find interesting - this back and forth between these creative artists, the talking and arguing and coming together sparks ideas.  Not all of these ideas come to fruition, but the energy created by this discussion is what mattered in this instant. Also, the idea of having to do it. Sometimes traps can be dead ends to creativity, but sometimes they can spur greatness decisions and true genius.  

Another:  The Sound of Music was panned by the critics but audiences loved it.  Audiences made the soundtrack remain a bestseller for 276 weeks, “almost long enough to share space with the soundtrack of the film version, which would itself stay on the charts for another four and a half years.”  

Another:  Mary Martin and her husband Richard Hallliday were persuaded by their accountant to sell their 25 percent share in The Sound of Music fo ra onetime capital gain, a decision “that deprived them of participation in what would prove to be the vast profits from the film version.”  Mistakes were made! When selling the show to Hollywood, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, the most famous Hollywood agent of the time, cannily “added a provision that no one thought mattered much at the time: the stage producers would receive 10 percent of the gross box-office receipts after the movie made a profit of $12 million.  After all, what movie had ever made such a profit?” Rodgers and Hammerstein and writers Lindsay and Crouse - and their heirs - have made money hand over foot since then, as the movie is one of the highest grossing of all time.

Richard Rodgers was a functioning alcoholic that suffered from several bouts of debilitating depression, ending up committed at one point.

Rodgers and Hammerstein never really connected personally, and Richard Rodgers later said that he wasn’t even sure if Oscar Hammerstein liked him. Richard Rodgers doesn’t really sound like a likable person anyway.   

Mary Rodgers and her father had a show on Broadway at the same time (The Sound of Music and Once Upon A Mattress).

On a single spring evening in 2014, in the United States alone, there were 11 productions of Carousel, 17 of The King and I, 26 of South Pacific, 64 of Oklahoma!, and 106 of The Sound of Music.


Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway RevolutionSomething Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps a book best consumed by musical theater nerds (and Lord, am I in that number). When midnight chimes in the New Year, this book will have numbered among my favorite things for 2018. Sharp, strong writing brought each man and each show to life. There is much to Rodgers and Hammerstein, enough to fill many books, but Purdum chose all the write bits and pieces and cogs and bells and whistles to fill this book to the brim without overflowing. Even those who aren’t as enamored of musical theater as myself may find some strong takeaways, especially on the creative process (there is a terrific story about Irving Berlin writing one of his most famous songs in a taxi that I had never heard before), the ups and downs of failure and success (Hammerstein was in a multi year doldrums when he paired with Rodgers) and mental health (Rodgers suffered from crushing depression and untreated but tamed alcoholism). As interesting as the two men are, the story of each show was the highlight of this book. From Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music, each show (the hits and the flops) gets behind the scenes treatment that was pure magic to read.

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