Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who comprised the most consequential partnership in the history of American musical theater, were brought together by chance.
It happened in the early 1940s, when each on his own cottoned to the idea of adapting the play Green Grow the Lilacs into the musical that would become Oklahoma! (1943). Both Rodgers (1902–79) and Hammerstein (1895–1960) had enjoyed earlier professional associations—Rodgers with lyricist Lorenz Hart, Hammerstein with composer Jerome Kern—which, though successful, had run their courses. The project itself was not a hot commodity: The show, which tells of two men in Oklahoma Territory who vie to accompany farm girl Laurey Williams to the box social, was far too homespun for some. Columnist Walter Winchell reported one reaction to an out-of-town tryout: “No legs. No jokes. No chance.”
Yet Oklahoma! was a smash. It ran for 2,212 performances in an era when a five-hundred-performance run was a big deal. This unlikely duo—the lightning-fast, all-business composer and the more deliberate, shambling lyricist—were to dominate American musical theater for the next fifteen years. They made hit after hit—Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959)—shows that, in addition to being entertaining, epitomized the values and mores of America at mid-century. Since that era is gone, what was central to their work is now often disparaged. But perhaps we would benefit from taking Rodgers and Hammerstein seriously again.
For lyricist and book-writer Hammerstein, Oklahoma! represented the full flowering of seeds planted more than a decade earlier in his biggest hit with Kern, Show Boat (1927). In adapting Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, Kern and Hammerstein yoked music to story in ways unanticipated by earlier musicals, in which the plot tended to hum along until a song started and resumed when the song ended. The music from such shows has lived on—say, “Someone to Watch Over Me” from the Gershwins’ Oh, Kay! (1926)—but their stories, so much frivolous froth, were incidental. Show Boat commandeered the score to tell a tale. “What today’s listeners don’t realize is how intensely the story flows through the songs,” wrote Ethan Mordden in his 2013 history of American musicals, Anything Goes. “We take this for granted now; it was innovative in the 1920s.”
After the triumph of Show Boat, Hammerstein unproductively kicked around Hollywood for more than a decade. In Oklahoma! he sought once again to embed action, themes, and ideas in his lyrics. In the duet “People Will Say We’re in Love,” Laurey and her cowboy suitor Curly try to discourage each other from open expressions of affection for fear of confirming others’ impressions that they are an item: “Don’t throw bouquets at me,” Laurey sings, and the words remind us that people get what they want by asking for its opposite. The reprise of the song, naturally, features the pair acknowledging their feelings: “Let people say we’re in love.”
Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who in adolescence had been a protégé of family friend Hammerstein, credited the great man with teaching him and a generation of other writers about using music to advance plot and enrich character. “What I learned from him was how to tell a story, which is not what Cole Porter was doing or Rodgers and Hart,” Sondheim said in an interview in 2005. “Because of the success of Oklahoma! and subsequent shows, most musical theater now tells stories through song.” But Sondheim limited his praise:
[Hammerstein’s] writing, today particularly, seems somewhat naïve, but not if you look at it technically and certainly not from the use of the imagination. His creative imagination was far more sophisticated than the work itself.
Aye, there’s the rub. Everyone concedes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s innovations, but theirs was a revolution in the service of notions that seem, to some, mawkish and even retrograde. (When will cancel culture come for “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Flower Drum Song ?) Among the under-fifty set Rodgers and Hammerstein are remembered, if at all, for individual songs that, shorn of their “naïve” context, can be appropriated for “sophisticated” ends. Indeed, the cool kids have been remaking Rodgers and Hammerstein for decades. In the five years that followed the premiere of The Sound of Music, two jazz legends, John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck, recorded instrumental renditions of “My Favorite Things” that spared the listener any references to whiskers on kittens or crisp apple strudel. At the Oscars more recently, Lady Gaga performed a medley from The Sound of Music. Her rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” a song meant to be sung by a mother abbess, was a Madonna-esque evocation of Christian piety in a profane context.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs remain available for subversion—a fact that ironically demonstrates their staying power. It is not clear that irony and impiety improve them. In a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Hammerstein refused to apologize for his sentimentality: “In my book, there’s nothing wrong with sentiment, because the things we’re sentimental about are the fundamental things in life: the birth of a child, the death of a child, or anybody, falling in love.” He embraced critic Kenneth Tynan’s charge that his work with Rodgers, enamored of “trees and earth and the simple life,” was insufficiently urban or ironic. “I love trees,” Hammerstein said flatly. “Trees, green meadows—who cannot love them? Doesn’t Kenneth Tynan like those?”
Hammerstein’s sincerity exemplified the confident mid-century liberalism of which his shows, as surely as the sermons of Reinhold Niebuhr or the newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt, were leading examples. “Hammerstein was a passionate political advocate for liberal and left-wing causes,” wrote Todd Purdum in his 2018 dual biography Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, “while Rodgers was a conventional, middle-of-the-road liberal.”
Of course, just as John F. Kennedy or Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Democratic party is not that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s liberalism bears scant resemblance to the ideology of our present cultural gatekeepers. Through their peppy, hummable shows, Rodgers and Hammerstein applaud the integrity of individuals against the collective, glorify the strength of the Church, and cheer the call of home.
Oklahoma! has lost none of its power to sweep up willing audiences in its ingenuous account of the settling of the American continent. The title tune, so zestful and spirited, does not merely sing the praises of a new state—a seemingly magical place in which the “wind comes sweepin’ down the plain”—but suggests that a pride in one’s home turf is natural and proper. “We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand.” That such sentiments are at odds with contemporary attitudes is a sign of how quickly the mainstream can be exiled to the margins.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were no Pollyannas, about America or about humanity generally, but they accentuated the possibility of amendment and redemption. They presented social issues—racism (South Pacific), cross-cultural confusion (The King and I), the rise of fascism (The Sound of Music)—as problems admitting of solutions. In Carousel, their empathy extends even to carnival barker Billy Bigelow—a scallywag, a bounder, an overall good-for-nothing—who is nonetheless loved by Julie Jordan and whose death, brought about by his own stupidity, is not allowed to stand as the final word. Permitted to return briefly to earth and redeem himself, a ghostly Billy imparts much-needed wisdom to his and Julie’s teenage daughter. In South Pacific, racial prejudice tears asunder one relationship (that between blueblood Marine lieutenant Joe Cable and the Tonkinese girl Liat) and nearly derails the central romance between the dewy-eyed Naval nurse Nellie and Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner and father of two half-Polynesian children. Yet, refusing to recognize racism as an original sin, Hammerstein diagnoses prejudice as a learned behavior in the song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” “What we were saying,” Hammerstein told Mike Wallace, “was just what Nellie says in one of her last scenes: ‘All that is piffle.’ All this prejudice that we have is something that fades away in the face of something that is really important.”
Countless Rodgers and Hammerstein songs promote a commonsense stoicism sung in an everyday vernacular. In Carousel, a country doctor commends to a class of high-school graduates the nobility of soldiering through life’s struggles and injustices, words that a spectral Billy urges Louise to take to heart (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”); and in The King and I, Anna counsels her little boy to whistle rather than worry (“I Whistle A Happy Tune”). Rodgers and Hammerstein’s characters are always telling themselves, or others, to gather their courage.
That spirit was never more evident than in The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final show about a young Austrian postulant named Maria who decides that her vocation is to become the wife of Captain von Trapp and mother to his seven children. The Sound of Music carries the baggage of the Julie Andrews film version, shown endlessly on television. Overexposure should not blind us to the show’s real virtues, particularly Hammerstein’s lyrical invention and sensitivity. “Do-Re-Mi,” in which Maria gives her charges the rudiments of music-making, is a paean to learning in the truest sense: the simplifying of what seems an impossible art to rock-bottom elements. The lovely lines “When you know the notes to sing, / You can sing most anything” could apply to just about anything that can be broken down and built back up again.
By the same token, the question “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” posed in a song early in the show, is not as trivial as it sounds. Its significance becomes clear when the song is reprised during Maria’s wedding to Captain von Trapp: Each of our lives can be considered a “problem” until we find what gives us fulfillment. And “My Favorite Things” is not simply a gob of goo but a Hammerstein canticle to self-reliance—a reminder to steel oneself as the world goes mad, as it will when the Nazis annex Austria, causing the von Trapps to flee.
There is wisdom in the way Rodgers once answered accusations of sentimentality: “Anyone who can’t, on occasion, be sentimental about children, home, or nature is sadly maladjusted.” His and Hammerstein’s “mid-century liberalism” might go as accurately under the headings of goodness, wholesomeness, and decency. One hopes these qualities are not particular to the mid-twentieth century, nor to any political dispensation.
Convulsed by the 1960s, musical theater in America moved on from Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sondheim’s cynical lyrics imparted intellectual interest to shows with genuinely nihilistic subjects, such as Sweeney Todd (1979) and Assassins (1990), while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1981) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986) inaugurated a period of pyrotechnic productions. In the wake of these developments, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s legacy is still worth tapping. Today, many people are seeking moral instruction. With the usual sources—a mother, a father, a pastor, a teacher—frequently absent or silent, lodestars are turning up in unlikely places, such as the YouTube channels of Jordan Peterson or Dave Rubin. But if bromides are what we are looking for—“rules for life,” in Peterson’s parlance—we can find them more tunefully rendered in Rodgers and Hammerstein.
One of their best but least-remembered shows is Allegro (1947), which tells of a young physician named Joe, whose journey from the hinterlands to the big city in pursuit of earthly rewards comes at a spiritual cost. In the haunting, incantatory “Come Home,” Joe’s departed mother enjoins her son to return to whence he came: “You will shake the hands of men whose hands are strong, / And when all their wives and kids run up and kiss you, / You will know that you are back where you belong. . . . Come home, son, come home.” No poet ever made a homecoming sound more like a return to the womb.
We, too, need to come home to Rodgers and Hammerstein—to take the measure of them for what they told us, not merely as artists who set the stage for Sondheim and his successors. Perhaps audiences in earlier decades more easily grasped their meanings, but who could need their shows more than those of us living on our fallen planet, so strange and confused, right now?
Peter Tonguette writes from Columbus, Ohio.