Book Review: ‘Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution’

April 16, 2018 4:14 pm Last Updated: April 23, 2018 8:58 pm

It should be noted that Todd S. Purdum’s “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution” is not about composer Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) per se. Rather, it’s about what happened when the two men teamed up and the theatrical magic that ensued. Yet despite all the enjoyable nuggets provided in this tome’s well-researched pages, perhaps the most interesting aspect is that for all their time together professionally, the two men never really knew each other well on a personal level.

Already well known in the field of music, both Rodgers and Hammerstein were each at a critical juncture when they decided to work together. Rodgers was coming to the end of a highly successful but increasingly tumultuous working relationship with Larry Hart. And Hammerstein, despite numerous past triumphs, had endured more than a decade of misfires, with some wondering if he had lost his touch.

Each was looking for a story with substance for their next project. This they found in Lynn Riggs’s play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which became the basis for their first joint effort, the 1943 Broadway musical “Oklahoma!”

While perhaps not deliberately setting out to reinvent musical theater, with “Oklahoma!” Rodgers and Hammerstein did just that. They seamlessly integrated music and songs into the story to move the plot along, chose to begin the show without an overture, and incorporated dance as a central part of the plot. “Oklahoma!” wasn’t the first stage work to make use of these techniques, but, as the book points out, it was the first show to use them all.

(Henry Holt and Company)

Purdum covers the entire “Oklahoma!” gestation period, paying particular attention to the processes by which each man would create and then modify his various musical contributions. The creative process for the lyrics and libretto is covered more extensively for each of the Rodgers and Hammerstein projects, as the mechanics of composing don’t work as well in a written narrative (though Purdum does do a good job describing how Rodgers found bits of inspiration for his scores).

After two initial chapters, respectively chronicling each man’s career prior to working together, the succeeding pages detail their various projects as a team. For example, the two often explored controversial subjects in their work: among them, spousal abuse for “Carousel” (Rodgers’s personal favorite of all the shows he worked on), cultural differences for “The King and I” and “Flower Drum Song,” and interracial romance for “South Pacific.” Purdum notes that the duo’s solution to these topics doesn’t always wear well in the #MeToo era.

The author is also quick to avoid laying the entire credit for their successes directly at Rodgers and Hammerstein’s feet. The contributions made by other members of each show’s creative team—from Agnes de Mille to Joshua Logan—and the professional ups and down with each are all carefully explored.

Just as fascinating are the sections devoted to the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that did not do as well as the team had hoped. “Allegro” was a work Hammerstein always thought deserved another chance. The show’s main character, a young doctor, finds he has so many demands on his time that he can no longer practice medicine.

This issue resonated with the men, for as their successes snowballed, neither seemed to have time to do what they loved. In the wake of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel,” Rodgers noted that “there was just no letup. … Every day required an unending stream of decisions,” from business and marketing concerns to casting problems, which left little time for the actual creative process.

And both deeply distrusted Hollywood. Due to their often hands-off approach when it came to the filming of their stage works (other than “Oklahoma!” with which they were intimately involved), the film frequently ended up a pale imitation of the stage version. Coupled with this was the fact that by the time their final collaboration, “The Sound of Music,” opened on Broadway in November of 1959, critics were beginning to see Rodgers and Hammerstein as old-fashioned and increasingly out of step with the world. Rodgers would battle this perception in the years after Hammerstein’s death, in his subsequent works with other collaborators.

Yet existing as a sort of through-line in the book is an examination of the Rodgers and Hammerstein relationship, and the lack of one. The two apparently decided early on to present a united front in public. This is why no record exists of any disputes between them, at least as presented in the book. Their good front to the world went so far as giving no explanation for a nearly yearlong split in the early 1950s, and similarly, no reason for their reconciliation.

It’s also why, when evidence of hurt feelings actually did come to light, it seemed that much more significant. One time, Hammerstein exploded and shared his feelings with a third party about how Hammerstein felt Rodgers wasn’t respecting his work on a particular lyric; another was when Rodgers felt slighted because Hammerstein and his wife were planning a trip and didn’t invite Rodgers and his spouse along. Perhaps most telling of all is Purdum’s comment that “to the end of their days, each maintained that he’d never been sure whether the other really liked him.”

“Something Wonderful” offers a fascinating look at two men who produced some of the most enduring classics in the history of musical theater. Whether you just have a general interest in the genre or you’re a hardcore devotee, this book is definitely a worthwhile read.

‘Something Wonderful: Rodger and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution’
Todd S. Purdum
Henry Holt and Co.
400 pages; hardcover, $32

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.