Prom 37: Richard Rodgers – & Hammerstein

Babes in Arms – Overture (orchestrated Hans Spialek)
Victory at Sea – Symphonic Scenario (arranged Robert Russell Bennett)
On your Toes – Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (orchestrated R.R Bennett)

Rodgers & Hammerstein
Oklahoma! (Concert version)

BBC Concert Orchestra
David Charles Abell


Aunt Eller – Maureen Lipman
Laurey – Lisa Vroman
Ado Annie – Klea Blackhurst
Will – Tim Flavin
Curley – Brent Barrett
Jud – Karl Daymond
Maida Vale Singers

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 17 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In the centenary year of the birth of Richard Rodgers, this Prom is one of many celebratory concerts and recordings. Perhaps in a macabre way, the timing is right for such a ’feel good’ composer – the tragedy of ’September 11’ and the decline in the US economy over the past twelve months has left many Americans in need of a ’shot in the arm’ – a little bit of jingoism goes a long way. Remembering that Rodgers was writing during the time of the American depression, during the Second War and then in its aftermath, it is perhaps unsurprising that his refreshingly uplifting music became “the people’s music” during such turbulent times.

For almost forty years, Rodgers worked with just two librettists – Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers and Hart’s collaborations are criticised for their sentimentality, though for me the creativity of Hart’s lyrics and naïve sophistication are just as delightful as that of Rodgers’s later collaborator. By the time that Babes in Arms opened in New York in 1937, Rodgers and Hart were already at the peak of their collaborative powers. With such standards as “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” this musical was destined to succeed. The overture omits these two numbers, but includes “Where or When” – another standard!

In the same way that Rodgers only collaborated with two librettists, he also limited himself to a handful of orchestrators – ones that he trusted to interpret his often-sketchy notes into the lavish scores that we know today. The man with the task of orchestrating Babes in Arms was Hans Spialek, also known for his work with Cole Porter in Anything Goes. Spialek’s style is more in the Big Band tradition of Paul Whiteman and he tended to opt for less doubling of leading lines, leaving the principal soloists with absolutely nowhere to hide. The BBC Concert Orchestra was slimmed down for the overture, in the original 1937 orchestration. With just eight first violins and six seconds, together with a truncated wind section and four saxophones, this is a combination that just cries out ’late Gershwin’ – scores like Pardon my English of four years earlier (also co-orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett) is similarly scored.

They said World War One was a war to end all wars. After World War Two they decided that even if the world wasn’t a particularly nice place, it could be made so if you told everybody how wonderful it was. With rose-coloured spectacles firmly in place, listen to the music that Richard Rodgers wrote to accompany the 1952 epic TV documentary, Victory at Sea. With over thirteen hours of film to underscore, Rodgers’s by now regular orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett was turned to. Rodgers sat at the piano while Bennett listened and some themes may have been hummed down a telephone line – such was the way with Richard Rodgers.

Bennett made a number of concert works from the wealth of material created during the project. The ’Symphonic Scenario’ is a précis of twelve minutes from “Submarines in a Calm Sea” to “Death and Debris”. The music is somewhat derivative, but with thirteen hours to fill, that is hardly surprising. The link between “Attack” and “Death and Debris” may be compared to ’Mars’ from Holst’s Planets Suite”. One other point of interest is the music entitled “Beneath the Southern Cross”. This little number was re-used in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s next collaboration, Me and Juliet, of 1953, where its title became another standard – “No Other Love”.

Back in time to 1936 to ’Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ from Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, originally orchestrated by Hans Spialek and played here in Robert Russell Bennett’s scoring. This orchestration seems to loose the sparkle of the original; it’s more symphonic and I fear that the dancers would be a little too heavy.

Oklahoma!, with the obligatory exclamation mark, has long been regarded as a watershed in American musicals. This tag was there despite omens that were entirely unpropitious – the first time that Rodgers and Hammerstein had collaborated. The book of the show was taken from the play by Lynn Riggs, “Green Grow The Lilacs”, which had been successfully produced by the Theatre Guild, which was also to produce Oklahoma! In fact, Oklahoma! was an even greater success than the original play.

The play is set in 1907 in the mid-west, though they were not quite united at this time – the State of Oklahoma was only admitted in 1907. The first production was in 1943 and though the subject matter and style was not unheard of – cf. Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan of a year earlier – this was almost certainly the first musical written by a popular American composer of its kind. Hammerstein wrote of the opening: “When Curly sings off-stage as the curtain goes up, and then wanders into the front yard of Laurey’s farmhouse singing Oh! What A Beautiful Mornin’ you can feel the audience smile and relax and settle back. At least that’s what we aimed for”. Tonight’s audience took perhaps a little longer to relax and settle back – the opening is scary enough on a theatre stage, let alone in a packed Albert Hall of eight thousand people, and Brent Barrett’s opening number was more wispy than declamatory.

Immediate comparison is drawn to the 1955 film version with Gordon MacRae (released on CD this year on the Angel/EMI label), the score of which was largely used in this performance. This was an excellent decision as the film version includes a number of additional numbers not in the original production – the “Many a New Day” ballet sequence for example. The link between the overture and “Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin’” is also much smoother in the film. Stars of tonight’s production? Well they were all, without exception, excellent – orchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor; a distinct improvement on the Carousel that Mr Abell conducted at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of months ago, which was variable to say the least.

Klea Blackhurst as Ado Annie – the girl who “cain’t say no” was just the right side of ’dumb-bimbo’ to be funny and attractive at the same time, and a spitting image of Gloria Grahame who made the role her own in the film. Lisa Vroman is another artist that has successfully mixed classical repertoire with Broadway. Her strongly focused voice gave Laurey a more powerful character – not dissimilar to the Julie Andrews look and feel. New to many listeners is the number “Lonely House” that was omitted from the film version – perhaps due to the surrealistic “Out of My Dreams” ballet sequence or the unknown quality of Rod Steiger who played in the film. It was included tonight and, though not one of the greatest of pieces, it links very well the scene where Curly suggests a mock funeral for Jud (real in the original play) and “Out of My dreams”.

For a work with such a declamatory title, it is perhaps surprising that the title song only appears once, is very short (only two verses), and is at the end of the work. Still, one should never underestimate the power of a good song. In 1944 the conductors Arturo Toscanini and Eugene Goossens were discussing Oklahoma!. Goossens reported that Toscanini “sat down at the piano and played the opening of “Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin’”, raptly exclaiming the while, ’Che bella musica!’ I agreed.”

The music of Richard Rodgers is indeed beautiful and if the rapturous applause of tonight’s audience is any gauge, it will still be being played in another hundred years.

  • Oklahoma! on BBC2 Televison Sunday, 18 August, at 5.45

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