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Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote nine musicals together. Five are legendary hits: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. (Flower Drum Song was a success, but not in the same league as the golden five.) They wrote one film musical, State Fair, and the TV special Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews. They were also hugely canny producers. Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun was but one of the works they produced that was not their own. Their flops--Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream--were probably a result, as much as anything, of their trying too consciously to be innovative.
What sets the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals apart for me is their directness and their awareness of the importance of construction in musical theater. Years ago, I played through the piano score of South Pacific. It is staggering how skillfully reprises are used as scene-change music that sets up a following number or underlines a previous point. It could only be the product of a hugely close relationship in which each partner sensed organically where the other, and the show, was going.
After Hammerstein's death from cancer in 1960, Rodgers valiantly plowed on. He worked with Stephen Sondheim on a musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? An attempt at a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist of My Fair Lady, came to nothing. I can vouch for Alan's never having had the almost puritanical discipline that Rodgers found so satisfactory in Hammerstein. Sadly, too, with one or two exceptions, the post-Hammerstein melodies paled against Rodgers' former output. Who can say why? Perhaps it was simply the lack of the right partner to provide inspiration and bring out the best in him. Musical partnerships are, after all, like marriages--built on a chemistry that is intangible, perhaps not even definable. Nearly 40 years later, the partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein has not yet been equaled. It probably never will be.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest show, Whistle Down the Wind, opens on July 1 in London
Six Landmarks of the Drama
Inspired and inspiring, these plays in different ways each proved powerful enough to change the course of the theater.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1949)
With tender regard, Arthur Miller fashioned an elegy to Willy Loman, a materialistic, worn-out drummer who has succumbed to the "wrong" American Dream. Miller showed that tragic drama could be rooted in the world of the average man.
WAITING FOR GODOT (1953)
Two tramps anxiously pass the time expecting Godot. Why? Who is he? We're never told. Samuel Beckett's unsettling absurdist play captured the postwar mood of alienation and disorientation and has inspired dramatists from Harold Pinter to David Mamet.
SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR (1921)
In his dark drama about a group of people who interrupt a play rehearsal claiming to be a playwright's unfinished fictional creations, Luigi Pirandello compelled audiences to reconsider their notions of truth and illusion.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1962)
The language was both savage and witty, the emotion raw and intense. Shocked and thrilled, audiences had never experienced anything like the domestic hell that Edward Albee evoked so theatrically. After this, no topic, no means of expression could be taboo.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1959)
Lorraine Hansberry's warm-hearted story of a struggling middle-class black family had audiences white as well as black now weeping, now roaring with pleasure. Its commercial success opened the stage door at last to African-American writers.