London Letter

More & More Rodgers & Hammerstein

Beverley Baxter November 1 1953
London Letter

More & More Rodgers & Hammerstein

Beverley Baxter November 1 1953

More & More Rodgers & Hammerstein

London Letter

Beverley Baxter

I AM WRITING this on the eve of the first London production of The King and I, by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers. Will that fabulous pair score yet another triumph or will this gentle piece of semi-oriental whimsey mark the turning point of their career?

Needless to say the production will be at our national theatre, Drury Lane. With the exception of a few weeks immediately after the war when Noel Coward had a bad flop with a devitalized musical comedy, the old firm of R and H have been in possession of Drury Lane for the last seven years.

I shall never forget the first night of Oklahoma! there. Naturally its spectacular run in New York had built up an immense renown and we went to our seats in the grand old theatre with more than a tingling of excitement. In truth the atmosphere was electric. The overture was applauded as if it were a masterpiece and even the dramatic critics forgot to look bored. As for the gallery they were in a mood to cheer if a cat walked out of the wings.

Then up went the curtain—on what? At the left side of the vast stage there was the corner of a tiny cottage and a motherly looking woman knitting. There was a huge back-cloth of a vast plain—and nothing more. No chorus, no whirlpool of color, no dancers! Rodgers and Hammerstein had blasphemed against the strongest tradition of Drury Lane.

After a bit of dialogue a handsome young baritone cowboy — apparently the United States breeds no tenors — started to sing about the surrey with the fringe on top. Here in the orchestra was the clop-clop of horse’s hooves. From the cellos came those haunting, descending notes with their suggestion of unhurried twilight.

It is difficult after this long time to understand why we were so deeply moved. Perhaps it was because we had been besieged by war for five years and had seen the ruin of our cities and the weariness of mere existence. Then suddenly from the United States there had come this music-story of a territory throbbing with life and moving to its new dignity as a state. In the senseless, blasphemous vandalism of the long war years we had almost forgotten that anything ever grew.

At the end of the show there were scenes that are still vivid in my memory. The ovation and the cheers went on and on; the young Americans on the stage wept unashamed. One musical number after another was repeated as if we were going to stay the night. The great old theatre with its memories had gone mad, but I think even the ghosts of the past would have approved. Oklahoma! had begun its three years’ run.

It was not long after the opening that I went to New York and spoke at the Dutch Treat Club, a genial, off-the-record luncheon group composed principally of journalists and theatrical folk. When the luncheon was over I saw that two men were waiting to speak to me. One was a large, shy, rather untidy man, looking like Dickens’ Hefty Traddles; and the other was a short slight man with the face of a calm solicitor. Probably they were from Canada or England and just wanted to renew acquaintance from some distant past.

“My name is Hammerstein,” said the big fellow, “and this is Dick Rodgers.” If he had said that he was Smith and that the other fellow W’as Bill Watson he could not have shown less bombast.

I intimated that the names were not wholly unfamiliar and recalled the opening night of Oklahoma! at Drury Lane. Hammerstein looked as pleased as a schoolboy, but Rodgers retained his silence.

“We were wondering,” said Hammerstein, “if you would have time to see Allegro while you’re Continued on page 60

London Letter

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here. Some of the critics didn’t seem to like it.”

“Not all of them,” said composer Rodgers, making his first intrusion in the dialogue.

“I like Allegro,” said Hammerstein, “and if you could go to it we’ll have tickets at the box office for you.”

Let me explain that I was dramatic critic of the London Evening Standard at that time and their approach was not entirely divorced from that fact. Yet that would not he the whole explanation. Rodgers and Hammerstein — especially Hammerstein — are just plain stage-struck loons. They live in the theatre, they think, talk and breathe theatre, and when they go to sleep I am sure that they dream of the theatre.

But there the similarity between them ends. In physique, in appearance and in temperament no two men could he less alike. Hammerstein is a sheer sentimentalist. If he had a new show to produce and met a theatre owner who was out of luck he would give the show to him on any old terms and no matter how unsuitable the theatre might be. Therefore the business side is handled by the implacable Rodgers, that genius of sweet sound.

They tell me in New York that when Rodgers finally puts his signature to a contract they have to supply restoratives to the lawyers. There is only one man who is tougher and oddly enough he also is a composer—Irving Berlin. When Berlin makes a contract they apply restoratives to the lawyers before the proceedings begin.

To finish that small New York episode, I went to Allegro and liked it moderately. Hammerstein the sentimentalist had taken as his theme the hoary idea of a rich man who went back to his old home town to find happiness, forgetting that no rich man ever goes back to his old home town if he can help it and then only to open a library or something which he has built to ease his conscience or please his vanity.

Carousel followed Oklahoma! at Drury Lane and ran for two years or more. It had charm and Rodgers, music was quite superb, but it was rather a shock in one scene to find that heaven had apparently been taken over

by the Americans. The success was in the music, not in the rather meandering story.

Yet it was obvious that these two men of genius were creating a new technique and extending enormously the scope of musical comedy. Gilbert and Sullivan had brought wit and topicality to their immortal operettas, but they never visualized the chorus as anything more than a collection of singers who all did the same thing at the same time.

Rodgers and Hammerstein broke through the existing conventions. Instead of a ballet being thrown in as a mere divertissement they made the dancers take up the theme of the story. They had the wisdom to choose Agnes De Mille to direct these dances and she achieved startling dramatic effects.

But there was trouble ahead for R and H, at any rate as far as London was concerned. South Pacific had conquered and ruled New York long before it was due at Drury Lane, and when it finally turned up in London we who had first-night tickets were looked upon with the reverence of Mount Everest conquerors. They were good enough to send two extra tickets for my son and daughter, which caused my daughter to say: “Daddy, if you pan

this show I’ll never speak to you again!” On such frail fabric is filial love sustained !

Now for the story behind the story. The American Josh Logan not only produced South Pacific in New York but had himself adapted it for the stage from a book of short stories. He had, however, sent another producer to superintend the London opening. Logan himself did not arrive until four days before the opening.

He went to a rehearsal and decided that the dialogue was being spoken too quickly for the British ear. “Slow down!” became the slogan in rehearsal. And believe me they did.

The first act seemed interminable. The American cast headed by that grand little artist Mary Martin were nervous and they conveyed their nervousness to the audience. Every line was spoken as if it were a pronunciamento. Nor were we amused by the offhand attitude of the American sailors on the stage toward their officers. You can joke about the Abbey in England, or about parliament, or even the Derby, but you must not joke about the Navy.

There was another factor that could not have been foreseen. The romantichero of South Pacific is a man in his

late fifties. This so excited New York that men of similar age rushed to South Pacific to see themselves in this unexpected role of glamour. To the British it was absurd. In England a man of fifty has it all over a boy of twenty-five when it comes to romance. When the first act finally ended I saw with some perturbation that my daughter was coming to speak to me. “I agree with you completely,” she said. Not bad, considering that she was sitting in another part of the theatre and we had not exchanged a word. The next day the critics had a night out—-if you will excuse the Hibernianism. One of them wrote that it should have been called “South Soporific.” There were some mildly good notices, but the rest, including mine, were pretty tough. Hammerstein had been good enough to invite my wife and myself to a party at the Savoy following the premiere, but we did not go. It would have been impossible to drink his wine knowing what I would write the next day. However, the public paid small attention to us. We had warned them but they would not accept our warning. South Pacific ran for more than two years. Once more I realized that a critic should never meet an actor or a dramatist. The very fact that one knows and likes a dramatist forces a critic to be more harsh—if he thinks the show is poor — than he would be toward a stranger. After all, friendships can be fleeting, but a critic must live with his conscience forever. On my subsequent visits to New York I made no further contact with Hammerstein and on his periodical visits to London I heard nothing from him. Grandpa’s White Elephant Then this summer he turned up to superintend the choosing of the chorus and small-part actors for the opening of The King and I at Drury Lane —the run of South Pacific having finally come to an end. Unknown to him I had seen the new piece in New York and liked it, so with a clear conscience I dropped him a note and asked him to come down to the House of Commons and have a cup of tea on the terrace. He replied at once, accepting. It was a beautiful day and when he arrived the scene was almost one of magic. While the terrace was in shadow the setting sun lit the opposite bank with so sharp a light that the buildings seemed almost to be a stage illuminated by footlights. The gurgling Thames was tinted with silver and even the tugs passing under Westminster Bridge had a rakish, pirate look. And there in his soft lazy voice he told me how his rich German grandfather—also named Oscar Hammerstein—had come to London from Germany and built the opulent London opera house in Kingsway, just up from the old Gaiety Theatre, under the mistaken impression that London could sustain two opera houses. The grandfather lost a fortune because the English had become accustomed to their beloved Covent Garden, set in the midst of a vegetable market, and they were not to he lured away by the gilded opulence of the new one. Today the London opera house that Hammerstein I built is a white elephant. Occasionally it has a musical show. For a time it showed films and even descended to ice shows. Sometimes it is dark for weeks at a time. But among the vegetables the old Covent Garden opera house continues its life of glory.

“How did you become a writer?” I asked. “I owe that to two men,” he answered. “Charles Dickens and my tutor at college. I was studying for the law and one day he rathpr oddly asked me what I intended to be. I said a lawyer, of course. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I always thought you would he a writer.’ That was like a flash of lightning. It revealed everything that I had been trying to hide from myself. I had written sketches for amateur shows at college but his words cleared the line for me. From that moment my mind was made up.” Then we talked of critics. “Why do you Invite them to your opening nights?” I asked. “You and Dick Rodgers have acquired such fame that the public is yours for the taking.” His nose crinkled with a rather shy amusement and then he became serious. “The critics aren’t often wrong,” he said. “They see things with a fresh eye when the author has become so familiar with his own work that he may lose his sense of proportion. A lot of critics in New York didn’t like our new Juliet show.” “Were they right?” “I don’t think so—at any rate not altogether.” “Is it a success?” “Oh, yes.” But that is not the whole story. When Hammerstein collaborated with Jerome Kern they had triumph after triumph. In fact the three longest runs in the history of Drury Lane previous to Oklahoma! were Hammerstein operettas (including Show Boat). But when that partnership ended Hammerstein could do nothing right. New York said he was finished. That scourge of talented men — frustration — made weary the days and nights for him. New gods had appeared and were not to be denied. Then the Theatre Guild of New York produced a dramatization of a novel called Green Grow The Lilacs. As a play it was mildly successful and no more, but Hammerstein saw its possibilities for a new kind of musical show and acquired the rights for a small outlay of money. “Oklahoma! was not just a boymeets-girl affair,” he said, “but part of the American story. The hero of the story was a territory of farms and ranches and horses and cowboys moving toward statehood. I talked it over with Dick Rodgers and he saw its possibilities for a new kind of music. We made everyone on the stage a distinct personality. We even had violent death, although technically it was musical comedy. Then we added ballet to help tell the story. There’s a touring company in the States that’s been playing Oklahoma! for five years. Sometimes, when we get a chance, Dick and I go and have a look at it.” As far as his manner was concerned he might have been describing an amateur show which had run two weeks instead of one. Those years of failure and frustration did not embitter him and the years of success have not added an inch to his vanity. The sun had set and the opposite bank had resumed its usual sombre condition. A barge chugged its way toward the Bridge and the terrace was almost deserted. “That was a wonderful film you people made of the Coronation,” he said as we shook hands good-by. “I guess if you give the English enough centuries to rehearse they can do thing? better than anyone on earth.” Whereupon with a shy, friendly smile he shook hands and departed, looking more than ever like a tall, untidy, boyish Traddles from his beloved Charles Dickens. ★