Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Touch

At the bank's drive-through window, tears blurred my vision as the radio played the finale of Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III, performed by Chicago Lyric Opera.   It was the second time in a week that Rodgers and Hammerstein had touched me, after an excerpt of The King and I performed on the Tony awards.

[Photo: Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe perform "Shall We Dance?" from]

Why I was touched, I'm still trying to figure out.  I've no prior emotional attachment to Carousel, while the song "Shall We Dance?" from The King and I  is over-familiar.  Besides, I've always thought that Hammerstein spoke through his character "Nellie" in South Pacific when he had her sing, "They call me a cockeyed optimist," and, "I'm as corny as Kansas in August."

But one man's "corniness" is another man's generosity of heart.  Hammerstein ends Carousel with a country doctor's advice to graduates of a small-town high school, including this:  "Don't worry if other people don't like you; you try to like them."  Hammerstein digs to appreciate what's good in his characters, Carousel's volatile leading man Billy Bigelow a prime example.  Earlier, the ingenue sang, with Billy in mind, "What's the use of wond'ring / If he's good or if he's bad?.. /  ...You love him... /  There's nothing more to say."  Composer Richard Rodgers inserts a long pause before that last line, musically surprising, dramatically expressive of the character's inexpressible feeling. 

The spirit of Billy Bigelow, killed before his daughter was born, urges his grown daughter to listen to the speaker, who goes on to promise the graduates that, whatever crises they face, "You'll never walk alone."  Cue orchestra, cue chorus reprising that promise, cue copious tears.  We're in Hammerstein's world, and we want to believe that everyone who has loved us, though they're gone, is still at work in us; we want to believe that it's possible to hold on to the good when we face the bad. We want to learn from Billy Bigelow not to die without saying the things we want to say to our loved ones.  It's the kind of sentiment mocked in the ad, "I love ya', man."  But that doesn't make it less real. 

"Shall We Dance?" on the other hand, is a sophisticated piece of theatre, without leaning on irony or detachment. The song comes late in the show, when the governess Anna, alone with the King of Siam, answers his questions about courtship in England.

Anna and the King have come to represent Western Liberalism and Eastern Tradition, and have gained respect for each other.  Their battles of will have often been funny, but we know that Anna is secretly involved in a life-and-death matter involving one of the King's many slave-wives.  We also know from an earlier song that Anna's description of young lovers comes from memory of her late, beloved husband.  All of this subtext goes into a song that appears to be so simple. Anna sets the scene:
We've just been introduced.
I do not know you well.
But when the music started
Something drew me to your side.

So many men and girls
Are in each others' arms.
It seems to me we might be
Similarly occupied.

That formality of the last two lines, punctuated by inner rhyme and end rhyme, makes us smile.  Then, Anna sings the refrain, miming the action.  The words fly off into images of romantic fantasy, come back to earth for a little business formality -- "on the clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen" -- before three repetitions turn "Shall we dance?" from polite interrogative to imperative.   

Shall we dance?
On a bright cloud of music,
Shall we fly?
Shall we dance?
Shall we then say "good night"
And mean "good-bye?"
Or perchance,
When the last little star has left the sky,
Will we still be together
With our arms around each other
And will you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?
Shall we dance?   (lyric by Oscar Hammerstein III)
Holding hands up but apart, Anna instructs the King, who repeats the refrain with her, getting a laugh when he tries to count "1,2,3, and...."

The moment that gets to me (even now, while I type this) is what we saw on screen at the Tonys. The King
stops the lesson to demand that Anna dance with him the way he's seen it done, hands clasped, bodies close. Rodgers's music swells to launch the two around the vast stage with joyful abandon.  It's a moment that can't last:  Anna's help to the slave is an affront to the King's authority that will shame him and destroy him.

So much is packed into that moment when they stop singing, join hands, and cover the entire stage with their dance: it's dramatic poetry. 

On the Tonys broadcast, the song was a beautiful moment that stood out among the co-hosts' ironically retro banter, all bad puns and innuendo; and ads that played on cute sentiment, sexuality, and desire for status to sell us products.   

Really, a few minutes in Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "corny" world may make us weep for ours.  

[See my Sondheim page for many other reflections on matters relating to Oscar Hammerstein's protege Stephen Sondheim, and musical theatre more generally.]

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