America

Flipping channels, I come across a program on Oscar Hammerstein. It’s on PBS, so it’s well done. I’m not sure about Matthew Morrison’s presence or significance in the program (seems lightweight compared to the content), but everything else is close to perfect. The commentary by Stephen Sondheim, Hammerstein’s children and stepdaughter, and Hammerstein himself illuminates his creative process and gives the flavor of who he was. There is a wonderful moment when his daughter Alice, now older than he was when he died, remembers that when she was struggling with something, she would talk it out with him, and would come out of that talk feeling lighter. She said that his optimism was contagious, but contained a dose of reality.

That comes through in his lyrics. I learned that his partnership with Rodgers allowed him to work the way he preferred – he would write the lyrics first, and then Rodgers would write the music. His lyrics were deceptively simple.

The PBS program had excerpts from Hammerstein’s musicals: Show Boat (written before he started working with Rodgers) – Paul Robeson sounding so powerful and distinct that no one else can sing “Ol’ Man River” and register in the same way. Then “Oklahoma”, “Carousel” and “South Pacific”. The musical as a window to an America struggling with issues, injustices, but valiantly embracing the right thing at the end. The pre pessimistic America.

I didn’t realize that Hammerstein mentored Sondheim when Sondheim was a teen. He was like a surrogate father to him. Now I can see how “America” from West Side Story builds on the kind of lyric that Hammerstein loved – simple but not simple-minded, witty and poignant.

I’ve always loved Oklahoma. Maybe because it’s the first musical I saw on stage. A year after we came to Canada, my mom, sister and I went to New York to visit relatives and friends. Somehow we ended with tickets to see a revival of Oklahoma at the Lincoln Center. It was a magical experience. I don’t know if the production we saw was good, but I didn’t want it to end. Bruce Yarnell was Curly and his baritone had warmth and playful power. The Agnes De Mille choreography was wonderful. The long dream scene with dancers portraying Laurey, Curly and Jud brought a realistic darkness to Hammerstein’s and Rodgers’ visions, showing struggles within. The end is positive – a union – Oklahoma becoming a state, Curly and Laurey together (and Will and Annie). But the dangers of misunderstanding and dissent remain.

I missed a very good production of South Pacific that was here a couple of years ago. Nice to know that Hammerstein was not a flash in the pan…

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