"Life Upon the Wicked Stage" - The Hammerstein We Forgot
So many people chide Oscar Hammerstein, II for his Hallmark card-style lyrics of hope and strength that pepper his musicals written with Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, The Sound of Music and many others). They sum up Hammerstein in one broad stroke: sentimentality. I have always found this to be a wrong assessment of the man. Many of his lyrics have an edge, a slight darkness beneath the surface. "Carefully Taught" from South Pacific, "Love Look Away" from Flower Drum Song," "What's the Use of Wonder'n" from Carousel, "How Can Love Survive?" from The Sound of Music, "Lonely Room" from Oklahoma!, and "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" from The King and I debunk this theory. What I have always thought made his songs of hope and strength work within the context of these musicals is that they are anchored by the types of songs that I just mentioned. Something is always at stake in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a journey or life-changing decision that must be made and the music tells that story. This is why these shows work.
What people tend to forget is that Hammerstein was an old pro by the time he got around to working with Mr. Rodgers. Indeed, many of his earlier lyrics are far more biting, cynical, and dark. They are oftentimes very funny. Humor did not evade Hammerstein, but he did use it very judiciously. One of the finest examples of Hammerstein using humor and cynicism in a musical is "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" in the 1927 musical classic Show Boat. The musical is a sprawling epic, a story of love as is it unfolds over two decades. It chronicles the story of the Cotton Blossom, a traveling theatre riverboat, and the people who inhabit it. Though the story primarily focuses on the Captain's daughter Magnolia and her romance with riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, we learn about the dark underbelly of theatre life on the road (or the river, If you will) through many of the secondary characters. What makes "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" so brilliant within the context of this heavy show is that it brings a nice dose of tension-breaking sardonic humor in the guise of a comedic number that paints a bluntly honest picture of the world in which they all live. The song is sung by one of the Cotton Blossom's performers, Ellie, who bemoans her career and the lack of glamour that it supposed to go with it. She reminds us that theatre is all artifice and fantasy, and that it isn't the life that people suppose. Self-depricating, sometimes desperate, and just a bit disillusioned, Ellie, through this song, foreshadows the hard life Magnolia will eventually find as a performer. This is a complex Hammerstein at work.