The Sound of Music. Music, Richard Rodgers, Lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein II; Book, Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse. Based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers
A national touring company production appeared at the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for Performing Arts in early January.
The original Broadway production opened in November 1959. It was the last collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein who died in August 1960. It may be the most popular musical in the world. Between countless live productions, both professional and non-professional, and the 1965 film with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, it may have been seen by more people than any other musical. While the popularity continues unabated, the critical reception usually calls it lower-drawer R&H. In I’ll Eat You Last, produced by the Springfield Contemporary Theatre in its Solo Festival in January, the Hollywood super agent Sue Mengers in her description of her family’s escape from Nazi Germany says, “It was all pretty much like the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music, only without dreamy Christopher Plummer and all those not-up-to-their usual standard Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein had revolutionized the American musical in 1943 with the production of their Oklahoma!. Earlier with separate creative partners each man had been working toward a more integrated musical: a strong story with well defined characters that were developed through dialogue and music. Dialogue and song moved smoothly one into the other. Story and character moved from Point A at the beginning of the song to Point B by the end. The dramatic action was continuous and not stalled by songs and production numbers. Oklahoma! is a piece of Americana, the territorial controversy between the cowman and farmer in the territory of Oklahoma. By the end of the musical Oklahoma has become a state.
Rouben Mamoulian, the director, was a given a contract like no other, that gave him the entire control over the production in all its details. A single vision would guide the production. The choreographer Agnes de Mille lifted dance into a dramatic partnership equal with the words and music. Oklahoma! became the most successful and, for its time, the longest running musical in Broadway history. Nothing succeeds like success. Everyone wanted to be like Oklahoma! The American musical had been changed.
Eight more Broadway musicals by R&H were to follow, a couple of masterpieces and other weaker ones. The Sound of Music is overly sentimental and more sugar than birthday cake from the bakery. It is, however, a prime example of a totally integrated musical. Lindsay and Crouse created a strong story line about the need of the von Trapp children for a mother. Maria, a novice nun, is sent to the family as a governess. She and Captain von Trapp fall in love and marry. With the rise of Nazism he is being pressured into accepting service in the Germany navy. Surreptitiously and leaving all belongings behind them, the family escapes from Austria.
It is a simple story about the family and its escape. It does not require complex music and has no place for production numbers. The dialogue and songs glide smoothly one into the other. The songs develop the story, characters, emotions and feelings. It is a unified whole with all the pieces fitting together tightly.
West Side Story. Music, Leonard Bernstein, lyrics, Sstephen Sondheim; book, Arthur Laurents; conceived by Jerome Robbins, director and choreographer.
It was produced by Springfield Little Theatre at the Landers in February 2018.
West Side Story updates the story of Romeo and Juliet to the 1950s and transfers it to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen area. It is now the story of the enmity and warfare between two ethnic gangs. The Jets are white Americans, mostly of Italian descent; the Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants. Italian Tony meets Puerto Rican Maria, and they fall in love. They are doomed.
West Side Story is the organic musical at its highest development and full flowering. All of its elements fitted together, merging one into the other smoothly and supporting each other. Agnes de Mille had showed how dance could be integrated into the whole with Ohlahoma!. In West Side Story Jerome Robbins used dance but also all movement as an equal partner with the other elements. In that original production no one ever “just walked” on or off stage—maybe the policemen did. Movement and dance became expressive of character, emotions and feelings. Actors acted, sang and danced. Singers sang, acted and danced. Dancers danced, acted and sang.
All the creators of West Side Story were taken to inspirational heights. It may be the greatest music ever written for an American musical. It is flowing, lyrical, dissonant and jazz driven couched in all the intelligence and creativity that Bernstein could muster. The songs are alive, vital and highly expressive. The music is pulsating and unrelenting.
It was Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway musical, and the lyrics are superb, appropriate for story, character, emotion and mood. Sondheim himself, however, holds reservation about some of the lyrics. In an article for The Dramatists Guild Quarterly he expressed the opinion that the lyrics for “I Feel Pretty” are inappropriate for the character. “So I had this undereducated Puerto Rican girl singing, ‘It’s alarming, how charming I feel’…. I immediately went back to the drawing board and wrote a simplified version of the lyric which nobody connected with the show would accept; so there it is embarrassing me every time it’s sung, because it’s full of mistakes like that. Well, when rhyme goes against character, out it should go, and rhyme always implies education and mind working, and the more rhymes the sharper the mind.”
Above all it was Jerome Robbins’ choreography that lifted the show above all others. These were inarticulate individuals who were not used to expressing themselves through language. Body language and movement would be the means for them to express their desires and emotions. Bernstein composed music for 12 dance sequences, some of the greatest dance music ever given to a musical cast.
Arthur Laurents’ book held all the elements together allowing room for song and dance to surge to dramatic heights. The parallels to Romeo and Juliet are skillfully updated to the present and totally appropriate to the story.
The production opened on Broadway in September 1957. The critical response was generally positive. The box office was strong but not overwhelming. One big boost for ticket sales came from the appearance by the cast on the national televised Ed Sullivan Show. Eisenhower was half way through his second term as president and a sense of contentment and optimism spread throughout the nation. Perhaps the public was not ready for the dark and bleak views presented in West Side Story. It is a true musical tragedy. Bernardo, Riff, and Tony are all killed. As Tony lies at her feet, Maria picks up the gun that killed him and says: “How many bullets are left, Chino? Enough for you? And You? All of you? WE ALL KILLED HIM; and my brother and Riff.” Maria holds out her hand to the gang members standing around her. Members of both gangs move forward to lift the body of Tony to form a procession that exits off stage with Maria leading. The Company sings: “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there/ Hold my hand and I’ll take you there,/ Someday,/ Somehow.”
Meredith Wilson’s nostalgic view of Americana in The Music Man that opened in the same season was more to the public’s liking. It swept the major prizes at the Tony Awards except for choreography.
In nature’s cycle a seed falls on the ground, establishes roots, send up a plant, reaches full flowering, declines, regenerates seeds and the cycle starts again. Art forms have somewhat the same pattern, but new forms need hybridization to develop. Following West Side Story the art cycle seemed to stall. That cross-fertilization did not happen. The American musical lost its source of energy and creativity. The decade of the 1970s was dominated by the musicals of Stephen Sondheim but he was sui generis. Isolated excellent examples occurred during in the last quarter of the 20th century, but that needed drive and energy could not be found. The breakthrough to a new path came in 1996 with Rent, but it was slow in developing
RAGTIME, the musical. Music, Stephen Flaherty; lyrics Lynn Ahrens; book, Terrence McNally. Based on the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Springfield Contemporary Theatre presented Ragtime at the end of February and early March.
Ragtime, opened in Toronto in 1996, then played in Los Angeles and finally arrived on Broadway in January 1998 where it played for two years. It is a superb musical, but everything about Ragtime looks back. Its story is laid in the early years of the 20th century. It has three groups of people: the affluent white family in New Rochelle, the Harlem pianist Coalhouse Walker and family (black), Jewish Latvian immigrant Tateh and his daughter. Each family grouping has its extended circle. Terrence McNally follows and develops individual characters in each group. They all cross and crisscross and assimilate. It is a sweeping epic story of America in the first 20 years of the century. It harkens back to the sweeping epic of Show Boat (1927). The racial and ethnic relationships trace back to Show Boat, South Pacific and West Side Story. The energy and sound come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include marches, cakewalks, gospel, ballads, but predominantly ragtime—that music born in the brothels of New Orleans, spread northward by Scott Joplin, and then made respectable by Irving Berlin.
At the conclusion of the musical McNally, Ahrens and Flaherty present a view of a hopeful future for the melding pot of America. Father (white) from New Rochelle dies when the Lusitania is torpedoed. Mother (white) raises their Son and the son (black) of Coalhouse Walker. She marries Tateh, Jewish immigrant from Latvia, who has a daughter. These three children grow up in harmony. They move to California where Tateh becomes a filmmaker. He explains to the audience: “One afternoon, watching his children play, Tateh had an idea for a movie: a bunch of children, white, black, Christian, Jew, rich, poor—all kinds—a gang, a crazy gang getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, but together despite their differences. He was sure it would make a wonderful movie—a dream of what this country could be. He would be the first in line to see it.” Tateh picks up Little Coalhouse, and the Company sings: “Well, when he is old enough/ I will show him America/ And he will ride/ Our son will ride/ On the wheels of a dream.”
Ragtime (1996) ends with a dream of a harmonious blending of ethnicities colors, religions and social strata. The Company sings, “On the wheels of a dream.” At the end of the 20th century perhaps a hope for a melding of American Society could be conceived. In the first 18 years of the 21st century, that hope has deteriorated. We seem now to have reverted closer to the end of the 19th century than any new acceptance of an inclusive Society. Maybe we can find inspiration in West Side Story, “Someday/ Somehow.”