Ranking the Stage Musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein
Rodgers and Hammerstein are considered major groundbreakers in the world of musical theatre, having established the formula by which musicals are created and judged. The scores of their musicals have become major contributions to the American Songbook, and even a second-rate Rodgers and Hammerstein song can outshine many a first-rate song in another musical.
Since I am in a Rodgers and Hammerstein mood today, I decided I would rank them in order, from my least-favorite to my most-favorite, offering my justifications along the way. I am just as interested in the discussion, so please weigh-in and tell me what you think.
Me and Juliet
Poor Me and Juliet. For the fact that it was born of an interesting concept (the story of a theatre production of a musical and the love and escapades of cast and crew) it is such a non-event in the plot department. It’s not that it is awful, it’s just that everything it is feels like reheated leftovers over better musicals. True to form, Rodgers and Hammerstein create a pleasant score with “That’s the Way It Happens”, “Keep It Gay”, “Marriage Type Love” and “The Big Black Giant” emerging as better than the whole. Me and Juliet’s greatest offering is its overture, a soaring and melodic magic carpet ride that, thanks to the talents of orchestrator Don Walker, creates a undeserved anticipation for the musical to come.
The shortest-run of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and not particularly their most beloved score, is the oddity or curiosity (you pick the word you prefer) Pipe Dream. Based on a short John Steinbeck novel called Sweet Thursday, about a romance between a marine biologist and a prostitute. If you read the original Steinbeck novel, you can see how the piece interested Rodgers and Hammerstein. The pairing of two-unlikely lovers is a favorite device of the duo, unfortunately, the subject matter of prostitution was a bit racy and what could have been titillating about Pipe Dream was sanitized into something vague and uninteresting. The score also leaned a bit toward the operatic and just didn’t resonate in the ways most of their scores had. “All at Once You Love Her” was the one song that had a life outside of the show. A recent new cast recording makes a better case for Pipe Dream, but even with that the musical only lives on because it has Rodgers and Hammerstein’s reputation to entice people to care.
To be fair, the stage production of State Fair was not put together by Rodgers and Hammerstein, but instead was an adaptation of the hit film for the stage that occurred long after the duos death. In 1996, State Fair opened on Broadway, cobbled together from two film versions’ plot devices and songs, with a few ditties from lesser-known musicals and cut from R&H hits thrown in to fill out the score. It turned out to be lighthearted musical comedy, true to the spirit of the original film about a farming family attending the Iowa State Fair. The result: an entirely producible “new” Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was born. It particularly caught-on with summer stock companies, community theatres, and high schools, proving innocuous fun that was overflowing with good (if not always great) music. The two big hits “A Grand Night for Singing” and “It Might as Well Be Spring” remained the far-superior standouts of an agreeable score.
Flower Drum Song
Full of many stereotypes that we have a hard time digesting today, Flower Drum Song is, nevertheless, brimming with catchy music and colorful characters that are fun to love in the old-fashioned, musical comedy tradition. If the sentiments of such songs as “I Enjoy Being A Girl”, “Chop Suey” and “The Other Generation” feel a bit outdated, other songs such as “A Hundred Million Miracles”, “Grant Avenue”, “Love, Look Away” and “Don’t Marry Me” still sparkle like they did in 1958. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the musical explored how two different generations of a Chinese immigrant family assimilate into American culture. What Flower Drum Song does particularly well is demonstrate the generation gap and how it transcends cultures, nationalities, and creeds to be the equalizer of us all.
Cinderella was initially written to be a live-television musical so it is not necessarily easy to judge it for the stage. It is at least important to acknowledge that its journey to being a Broadway musical came with several TV inceptions and few different stage versions that played other locations. When it did finally arrive to the Great White Way, the result was a likeable family musical that felt a little forced in its attempt to fill an entire evening. It was, however, enjoyable most of the time. There is just nothing riveting or life-changing in Cinderella, nor does there need to be. What it needs is to be is magical, and fortunately Rodgers and Hammerstein provide plenty of glitter and stardust with a score that includes “In My Own Little Corner”, “Ten Minutes Ago”, “Impossible”, “The Stepsisters’ Lament”, and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” It’s better not to think too hard about this one, but rather let it embrace you, suspend disbelief, and enjoy it as a diversion and well-adapted fairy tale.
The Sound of Music
I am one of the minority who prefer The Sound of Music on the stage over the film and my ranking for this musical reflects that opinion. My key reason for this is that the stage production is far more charged by the imminent threat and looming specter of the Nazi takeover over Austria. The breakdown of Captain Von Trapp’s relationship with the Baroness is over differing political ideologies (she’s ambivalent about Hitler’s rise to power) and not over competition from a singing nun. This all makes for a more compelling storyline and creates an urgency that is felt throughout. The songs, however, are not always the best that Rodgers and Hammerstein have to offer, lovely and blithe (if a tad treacly) but without their usual bite and poigancy. The Sound of Music is Rodgers and Hammerstein playing it safe after years of manifesting groundbreaking material that stretched and evolved musical theatre. And yet, “Edelweiss” still haunts in its simplicity, and the title song still lifts the heart with its gentle exuberance.
South Pacific is, without a doubt, my least-favorite musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. I find the characters hard to warm-up to and the deliberate attempt to keep the music anti-choreography somewhat limiting (exhausting). I do, however, have to respect South Pacific for its courageous, intelligent exploration of bigotry. “Carefully Taught” is the duo’s most emotionally raw, and remarkably cerebral song. South Pacific opened in 1949, so addressing such (then) polarizing issues as racism and bigotry was a real risk. The musical also played to the patriotism and nostalgia of those who had just served in World War II (the musical is set on an island in the South Pacific during WWII) and it must have felt very fresh to audiences. Obviously, the musical was an enormous hit (it won the Pulitzer Prize and ran for several years) and its music, especially “Some Enchanted Evening”, was some of the most popular theatre music of the decade.
The reason Allegro places so high on my list is that it was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s daring experiment: a contemporary, “Everyman” story told with a cynical edge and an unconventional structure. The life of Joseph Taylor, Jr. is played before our eyes, from his idealistic beginnings, through his successes and failures as a doctor, to his eventual emotional and professional maturity. A Greek chorus was on hand to give voice to his thoughts and his conscience. In many ways, Allegro was the musical equivalent of the play Our Town, demonstrating the meaning and love found in the things we often take for granted. Everything about the show was way ahead of its time, from its flowy, seamless staging to the contemporary attitude of its score. Among the score’s delights, “So Far”, “The Gentleman is a Dope”, “A Fellow Needs a Girl”, “Come Home” and the title song are particularly memorable. Its initial audacity to be different, and its effective scrutiny of how we gauge our life’s successes, make Allegro Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most underrated musical.
In terms of significance, Oklahoma! is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most-important musical. When it opened in 1943, its success changed how musicals would be made and what became known as “The Rodgers and Hammerstein Model” was followed for the next two-decades by most everyone who was writing Broadway musicals. It finally achieved what many writers were striving for: the integration of music, dance, story, character development, and staging in a way that everything was incorrected and grew out of one-another. The story is not particularly complex, most of it centered around who an Oklahoma farm girl will go to a picnic with: a cocky cowboy or an obsessed farmhand. Much of it is filled with breezy comedy, but occasionally the show takes a turn for the dark with songs like “Poor Judd is Dead” and “Lonely Room”. It’s the balance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score that keeps it buoyed with such fun as “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No”, “The Farmer and the Cowman”, “Kansas City” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”.
The King and I
The King and I represents everything that is enchanting about Rodgers and Hammerstein in terms of theme, music, and heart. It puts two diametrically opposed forces within close-proximity, demands that they occasionally yield to one another, and, in the end, they evolve from the experience. What doesn’t happen in this instance is that they fall in love. The King and I is probably the most-revived musical of its period that simply doesn’t have its two main characters fall in love, but instead has them morph from adversarial tolerance into deep, devoted respect. A British schoolteacher travels to the court of the King of Siam to instruct his royal children and his wives in Western thinking and learning techniques. East meets West, cultures clash, and yet a beautiful thing happens: people begin to trust each other. The score is distinctly the team’s most lush with “We Kiss in a Shadow”, “Hello, Young Lovers”, “A Puzzlement”, “The March of the Siamese Children” and “Something Wonderful” particularly grand in this regard.
Onstage, the breathtaking 1945 Carousel is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most majestic and complex musical. Unlike most musicals of the time-period, this unyielding piece was unafraid to tackle the realities of abusive relationships and the peculiar reasons why people stay in them. Though it is a hard pill to swallow today, the reality is that Carousel captures imperfect characters in Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, lovers who are stubborn, reactionary, idealistic dreamers, and who are deliberately blind to their own dysfunction. These are real people. Whether we like its themes or not, the behaviors therein are not antiquated, but our attitudes about normalizing them are. It’s right to be angered and saddened by Carousel, but it is just as important to acknowledge that people like this do exist. It is also important to acknowledge that Carousel contains riveting drama, compelling character development, and gorgeous, emotionally-charged music. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a masterpiece with both its story (adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom) and its score which includes the hypnotic “Carousel Waltz”, the coyly flirtatious and awkwardly reticent “If I Loved You”, the tour-de-force monologue of internal conflict “Soliloquy”, the heartbreakingly fatalistic “What’s the Use of Wond’rin”, and the stalwartly hopeful “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.