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The team of Rodgers and Hammerstein was one of the most influential creative forces in the history of Broadway. Explore a few of their musicals and test your understanding of their legacy.

Rodgers and Hammerstein

What a night we’ve got ahead of us! Grab your coat and hat because we’re doing Broadway, but not just any Broadway. Tonight, we’re doing two-minute Broadway, watching entire plays in a minute or less. That’s three plays, all in about six minutes. And what a great lineup, three classics of Rodgers and Hammerstein!Who are Rodgers and Hammerstein? Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, the creative team that changed the American musical forever with their mid-20th century Broadway hits.

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This team defined our ideas about the Broadway musical with their innovative stories, personal characters, and unforgettable music. Ready to see what I mean? Take your seat. Curtain’s about to go up.

Oklahoma

Oh good, they’re starting with OKLAHOMA!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical together, released in 1943. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs, a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, this is the love story between cowboy Curly McLain and farm girl Laurey Williams. Curly starts flirting with Laurey, but she coyly turns him down and accepts an invitation from rival cowboy Jud to attend the town dance that night.

As other couples in town deal with their romantic troubles, Curly tries to convince Laurey to go with him to the dance. She refuses, mostly out of fear of Jud, and everyone heads to the dance. Once there, Laurey tells Jud she does not love him, he storms off yelling threats, and Curly confesses his love for Laurey, which she returns.

They are married, Jud drunkenly appears with a knife and in the ensuing fight, trips and kills himself. Curly and Laurey leave for their honeymoon and live happily ever after.Ah, great play, right? This thing was absolutely groundbreaking in musical theater. Most plays before this were frivolous, lighthearted, and almost vaudevillian. But this was a story of love and betrayal, with real characters and personal issues.

But beyond that, it changed Broadway’s ideas about musicals by making the songs integral to the plots. Before, the songs were just fun little distractions, but in OKLAHOMA!, the music is where all of the important plot information is revealed. This changed everything and musical theater would never be the same.

The King and I

Looks like the next musical coming up is The King and I, Rodger and Hammerstein’s fifth musical together, produced in 1951. Based on a novel that was based on a true story, it follows Anna Leonowens, a widowed schoolteacher who moves to Siam to tutor the king’s children. As she tutors the children, she continually insists on having a house of her own, a part of her contract thus far unfulfilled. The King orders her to think of herself as his servant, and she storms off, replaying their fight in her mind.

The King apologizes, and Anna helps the king’s wives prepare for the arrival of British diplomats.Amongst the diplomats is an old fling of Anna’s, who asks her to come home to England. Later, the King and Anna dance together, and their love becomes apparent. However, they have a major falling out as the king reacts harshly against the secret affair between his slave-wife and a Burmese scholar. Anna and the King do not speak for many months, until it is revealed that he is very sick.

She rushes to his bedside and he asks her to stay and council his son, the future king. As the new king abolishes Siamese practices that Anna hated, she and the King reconcile, and he dies.Sad right? But again, there’s that deep, personal story that people came for. And again, great music that was used to tell the story, with songs like Getting to Know You, which establishes how Anna’s relationship with the children is changing their worldview.

By this point, Rodgers and Hammerstein had also cemented what many call the formula musical, meaning that many of their plays had similar pacing and resolutions, but also tended to feature a strong baritone male lead, a light female soprano, and supporting tenors and altos. There are exceptions to this but in general, most Rodgers and Hammerstein productions followed this formula, making casting easier for them and giving audiences an idea of what to expect from their musicals.

The Sound of Music

The last play we’re watching this evening is The Sound of Music, released in 1959. Ever heard of it? It’s another true-life tale, based on the memoir of Maria Augusta von Trapp, The Story of the von Trapp Family Singers. In this musical, we follow an Austrian nun-in-training, Maria Rainer, who is having trouble adjusting to life in the abbey, and is eventually sent to serve as the governess of Navy Captain Georg von Trapp.

Maria and the children develop an instant relationship as she subverts the captain’s militaristic tendencies. Despite his expected marriage to another woman, the Captain and Maria discover their feelings for each other during a dance. Maria runs back to the abbey, but cannot stay away from the captain and soon, the two are married.

After the honeymoon, Austria is falling deeper into the grips of Nazi Germany, which concerns the entire von Trapp family. The Captain is forced to accept a position in the German Navy, but uses the now-famous musical talent of his children to postpone his leaving. Finally, during a farewell concert in which he declares his love for Austria, the von Trapp family flees to Maria’s former abbey, where the nuns help them escape over the Alps.This is one of the most famous musicals of all, due largely in part to the undeniably catchy music with songs like Do-Re-Mi, Climb Ev’ry Mountain, and My Favorite Things. Edelweiss was the last song that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together, just before Hammerstein’s passing in 1960. The Sound of Music remains one of the most financially and culturally successful plays of all times, a fitting ending to the partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the creative duo that changed Broadway forever.

Lesson Summary

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, more commonly referred to as the partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein, had more influence on musical theater than almost anyone else in American history.

Musical plays were generally lighthearted and farcical until Rodgers and Hammerstein created OKLAHOMA!, the 1943 musical about love, betrayal, and triumph in rural America. The characters were personal and complex, the music was integrally connected to the play and contained most of the important plot information, and the sounds were downright catchy. OKLAHOMA! redefined the Broadway musical, paving the way of other Rodgers and Hammerstein success like The King and I and The Sound of Music. And we got to see all three of them! Man, what a night.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Recall who Rogers and Hammerstein were
  • Name and summarize three of their famous musicals
  • Discuss how Rogers and Hammerstein changed musical theater forever
  • State the base formula for Rogers and Hammerstein musicals

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