The Pre-Requisite For Having A Dream Come True Is Having A Dream - Richard Rodgers’ centenary at the Proms
Richard Rodgers’ centenary at the Proms

I was in great pain as I ran up the stairs to get to the arena. I jumped on the steps and broke my big left toe….what a graceful entrance! Because I had all my bags with me one of the stewards wanted to throw me out. I was in pain as my toe was throbbing but as soon as the concert started I felt ok!

My Favourite Things of the centenary so far was the joyful evening at the Proms Royal Albert Hall, with the BBC Concerts Orchestra, conducted by David Charles Abell. The first item on the programme was Babes in Arms – overture 1937, with lyricist Lorenzo Hart. Rodgers and Hart had perfected the creation of wonderful music from 1925-1942, coming to an end with Hart’s death in 1943 at the age of 48. Hart became too alcohol-ravaged to work. Rodgers met Hart when he was 16 and Hart was 23. Rodgers wrote afterwards, “I left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.” To my disappointment, my two favourite hits they composed together, The Lady and the Tramp and My Funny Valentine, were not played at the Proms tribute to Rodgers. I like the Lady and the Tramp because I identified with the Lady and I like the intense lyrics of My Funny Valentine. I listened to these tunes all throughout my twenties.

The second piece was Victory at Sea – Symphonic Scenario 1952 composed for a TV program documentary called Victory at Sea. Robert Russell Bennett worked on this piece as he did for many of Rodgers’ works. Such as On Your Toes – Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936). On Your Toes was choreographed by George Balanchine. Rodgers had also worked for ballet with Agnes de Milles and Jerome Robbins. In 1939 he wrote Ghost Town for The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

After the interval the entire second half was devoted to Oklahoma! (1943). This particular concert was adapted by William Hammerstein. The play was to celebrate the founding of the state of Oklahoma. It was a new genre, the advent of musicals (hitherto called operettas or musical comedies or musical plays) – a fusion of Rodgers’ music and Hammerstein’s lyrics. Agnes De Milles choreographed it, with Maureen Lipman as Aunt Eller (the role she had played in the revival of Oklahoma! at the National Theatre in 1998). The orchestrations were from the 1955 Hollywood film version (directed by Fred Zinnermann). In the middle of the performance at the Proms, the American flag, cowboy hats, and scarves featuring the American symbol of stars and stripes were very much evident and I think that the audience was dreaming that they, too, were on their way to Oklahoma!.

“The Man in Red” was there in his Bordeaux wine coloured ensemble, this time with a matching hat “of course from the USA” he told me at the interval.

The programme contained the text of Oklahoma! so we could follow along with the concert. This is one part that I liked:

Curly: Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. And the wavin’ wheat spanned for sure smell when the wind comes right behind the rain. Oklahoma, circles in the sky. We know we belong to the land. And the land we belong to is grand! And when we say – YEOW! A-YIP-O-EE-AY! We are only sayin’, ‘You’re doin fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, OK!”

This was the first musical that Rodgers composed with the librettist Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960). Hammerstein also wrote the lyrics from Jerome Kern’s 1927 operetta Show Boat. He was a dramatist. I always cry when they start Ol’ Man’s River. I think of my mother towards the end of her life and the appropriate words of the song: “I gets weary – and sick of tryin’. I’m tired of livin’ and I’m scared of dyin’.”

After Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein had a string of big hits on Broadway, in the West End and all over he world. Their hits are as follows: Carousel, 1954 (Rodgers’ favourite of all his musicals), Allergro, 1947; South Pacific, 1949; The King and I, 1951; Me Juliet, 1953; Pipe Dream, 1955; Flower Drum Song, 1958 and The Sound of Music, 1959. For the big screen their hit was State Fair, 1945 (which was re-made in 1962). For TV their hit was Cinderella, 1957, which was re-made in 1997. They earned 37 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, 2 Pulitzer Prizes, 2 Grammy Awards and 2 Emmy Awards. In 1999 they were commemorated on the US postage stamp.

Richard Charles Rodgers was born in New York City on 28 June 1902. He came from a family of Russian-Jewish emigrants, like the Gershwin’s and Irving Berlin. Rodgers' musical roots probably derived from the Viennese operetta. His career spanned more than six decades. In the 20’s and 30’s, Rodgers lived in London and his shows were staged at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Between 1931 and 1935, Rodgers and Hammerstein were in Hollywood, where they wrote the scores of several films like Love Me Tonight, starring Maurice Chevalier, Hallelujah and I’m a Bum (which were written for Al Jolson) and they composed the score for Billy Rose’s Circus Extravaganza, Jumbo.

After Hammerstein’s death, which was caused by cancer of the stomach, Rodgers composed No Strings (1962) and Do I Hear a Waltz (1965) for the Broadway stage. Rodgers died at home in New York City on 30 December 1979 at 77 years old. Posthumously on Broadway, the 46th Street Theatre was re-named the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It contains The Richard Rodgers Gallery, with a permanent exhibit in the lobby honouring his life and work.

Falling in love with this composer is fairly easy for he has written over 900 songs and 40 Broadway shows. Ella Fitzgerald recorded her Rodgers and Hart songbook in 1956. Cole Porter included in his music the words “Well Did you Evah: It’s smooth! It’s smart! It’s Rodgers! It’s Hart!” AHHHHH!!!! Benny Green said, “Of the thousands of musicians who still approach Rodgers-and-Hart with eagerness of kindred spirits, there is hardly one who warms to Rodgers-and-Hammerstein. As for the vast armies who continue to march on the great Rodgers-and-Hammerstein set pieces, their knowledge of Rodgers-and-Hart is vague to the brink of indifference.” Even the Mamas and Papas, Barbara Streisand, and Janis Joplin have sung Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and, believe it or not, Sophia Loren has too. Hart and Rodgers wrote the best of the American popular songs and with Hammerstein they gained a permanent place in musical theatre.

I saw an interview on TV with Rodgers daughters. Mary Rodgers, the protective keeper of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate said this about her father, “ He drank; he was depressed; he slept around. So? These sides of him were not relevant. He was only what he wrote.” At the Radio 3 tribute she said, “My father had to lock Larry in while they were working, otherwise he’d escape.” Then she said, “ I had no idea my father had a drinking problem until I was an adult.”

Just image, Rodgers’ estate still licenses 4,000 productions of his shows each year. The Gala Celebration in London brought in Judi Dench to sing I am Sixteen Going on Seventeen. My personal celebration was at the National Theatre in London to see South Pacific (the 1949 Broadway hit). I went armed with a bag of tissues. It is a very romantic musical of love and death in World War II featuring racism, war, and death looming large and destructive. The film won and Oscar in 1958 for best sound (filmed with Mitzi Gaynor as Nurse Nellie and the glamorously greying Rossano Brazzi in the role of Emile de Becque). Who could ever forget these songs? Some Enchanted Evening, This Nearly was Mine and, of course, I’m Going to Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair. South Pacific has been performed around the world in more than 25,000 versions. Ian Johns wrote,

“Director Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstien based the show on two stories from James Michener’s 1947 collection of gritty wartime stories, Tales of the South Pacific, in which naval nurse Nellie Forbush and moody lieutenant Joe Cable face up to their prejudices. Nellie falls for fugitive French planter Emile de Becque but is shocked to find that he has fathered two Polynesian children. Cable realises too late that it is only prejudice that keeps him from true love, a Tonkinese girl, in the anti-racist anthem You’ve got to be Carefully Taught.”

Here is an excerpt from the song. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made or skin is of a different shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught”. This was an issue of inter-racial romance at a time when miscegenation was still illegal in certain American states. The story tells of prejudice and military action because it was a crucial point in the war against Japan. Hammerstein was also very active in the anti-fascist and Popular Front movements in 1930’s Hollywood, including the Anti-Nazi League. The Sound of Music also has an anti-fascist manifesto.

Kite, the South Pacific set designer said, “Oscar’s huge contribution was courage, combined with important moral conviction and knowing how to make that work theatrically.” He also said, “The final scene serves as the musical ideological centre because it shows that Americans can overcome racism and that this will enable them to move into the Pacific with a clear conscience.” South Pacific shows the evil of racism but has a positive ending. It ran for five years on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The sound track of the film sold 5 million copies. I ended up with a lump in my throat as I sat an watched the play!!

The King and I, which I recently saw at the London Palladium, is similar to South Pacific, an attempt to understand the developing relationship between Asia and America. It was the two Dorothys’ (the wives of Rodgers and Hammerstein) who after reading Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam tried to convenience their husbands that the story would make a good show. But it was not on the advice of their wives that they created the show but rather the advice of the well-known Broadway star, Gertrude Lawrence. The show opened on Broadway in 1951. During the run of the show Gertrude died of leukaemia. They tried to cast Harrison or Noel Coward for the role of the king, but in the end it was given to Yul Brynner. It ran on Broadway for 3 years but Brynner played the role until 1985. He won a special Tony Award for the role. In London, at the London Palladium in 1979, Brynner played opposite Virginia McKenna. But the version that I personally remember and love is the hugely successful film version in 1956 starring Deborah Kerr. (I read in the newspaper the other day that someone had complained that Deborah Kerr had not been made a Dame.) The songs from the film were actually sung by Marnie Nixon. In the London productions of the show, the roles were played by Stacy Keach, Rudolf Nureyev, Susan Hampshire, Jeanette MacDonald, Angela Lansbury and Ricardo Montalban. There was even a revival film in 1999 of Anna and the King starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. Charles Spencer wrote: “There is something faintly offensive, even racist, about the story of a well-bred, stiff-upper-lip British schoolmarm giving a funny foreign despot a lesson in good manners and decency. The show’s whole attitude to the exotic East is faintly patronising…The developing relationship between the king and his schoolmistress also deepens and darkens with touches of disturbing but affecting emotional masochism that was the forte of Rodgers and Hammerstein.”

I still continually have in my head Getting to Know You, Shall We Dance and I Whistle a Happy Tune. In the story the love of the governess and king is not consummated and he dies. AHHHH!!!! Not a happy ending. The Palladium version, which I saw, originated in Australia in 1991, it was on Broadway for 2 years and then at the West End. Jerome Robbins choreographed the ballet for the story in the show of Uncle Tom’s Cabin using Chinese operatic style extremely well and with great humour.

AHHHH! All their melodies touch the heart and lift the spirits. I hope you will find happiness – as I have – listening to the incredible beautiful music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Music, after all, is the most important thing in life. I leave you today with 2 things. One a “YEOW” from Oklahoma! Secondly, with Bloody Mary from South Pacific, “The pre-requisite for having a dream come true is having a dream.” You all know that my dream is “sexy eyebrows”. I touched them once and I dream of touching them again while the radio plays Love Me Tonight, Isn’t it Romantic and Getting to Know You. If Some Enchanted Evening takes much longer to arrive I shall have to Wash (sexy eyebrows) Right Outta My Hair!

Verinha Ottoni


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