“Something Wonderful” Indeed! By Peter Filichia
Just when you think you’ve heard each and every story about Rodgers and Hammerstein, here comes a book to show you what you don’t know.
Yes, Todd S. Purdum’s Something Wonderful does include the standard tales we’ve all heard since the Year One — or should we say Year 1943?
Once again we read Mary Martin’s “two basses” response to Ezio Pinza’s being her leading man in South Pacific. Nevertheless, Purdum gives us plenty of delicious details and stories that have not been aired more times than Martin washed her hair in that Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
So although you may have often heard that “Younger Than Springtime” was a late addition to South Pacific, the fact that its melody was originally written for Allegro might have escaped you.
We all know that Away We Go! was the original title of Oklahoma! but did you know that among the seriously considered titles were Swing Your Honey, One Two Three, Party Tonight and Singin’ Pretty?
Do any of those sound like groundbreakers to you?
For decades I’ve heard that the famous New Haven assessment of that musical, be it from Mike Todd or Walter Winchell’s secretary, was not “No legs, no gags, no chance” but “No tits,” etc. Purdum gives us reason to believe that the less elegant word was indeed used when people were predicting the fate of Away We Go!
Joshua Logan, who co-wrote and directed South Pacific, went the method-actor route by giving each of his Seabees $25 and sending them to army-navy surplus stores to buy what they believed their characters would have worn. Logan also found a way to save “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right outa My Hair,” which wasn’t getting much response during South Pacific’s tryout. He also made a suggestion when The King and I was enduring a poor out-of-town break-in that inspired the team to write “Getting to Know You.” It turned out to be a far more productive idea than Leland Hayward’s advice that R&H close the show in New Haven.
Much has been made throughout the years that Gertrude Lawrence sang terribly during the King and I run. Here, though, you can actually read the letter she sent to the team on this subject during this difficult time. It alone is worth the book’s $32 price tag.
The most revealing story is that for all intents and purposes, Rodgers and Hammerstein broke up after The King and I. That may not have occurred to you, and Lord knows the guys didn’t go around proclaiming it. Purdum makes a good case for it, though, noting that both men turned their energies to revivals of hits they’d enjoyed before they began collaborating: Rodgers’ Pal Joey and Hammerstein’s Music in the Air.
No, getting along isn’t always easy. Jo Mielziner, who’d designed five R&H productions, sued both the team and 20th Century Fox for appropriating for the film his King and I designs (down to the map of Big Siam and Little Burma). And that was the end of that association.
We complain a great deal today about performers who call-in sick or are just too lazy to do the show. It’s not a recent occurrence; Yul Brynner missed 116 of the original 1,246 performances. That’s close to ten per cent of the run.
Purdum also includes many first-drafts of Hammerstein’s lyrics. The most unexpected is one from Cinderella’s “The Prince Is Giving a Ball,” when Town Crier gives the King’s many names; Hammerstein considered including “Elvis.” (Well, Elvis was known as “The King,” wasn’t he?)
Later, in The Sound of Music’s “So Long, Farewell,” Hammerstein originally wrote “Auf Wiedersehen, Aloha!” Hawaii’s impending statehood during the early months of 1959 put the islands on Hammerstein’s mind.
There are plenty of details about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s previous collaborators, too. Did you know that when a lyric occurred to Lorenz Hart, he’d write it on anything he could find – including discarded toilet paper rolls?!
Purdum sympathizes with Rodgers and Hart, who wrote the score for Betsy but were unaware that star Belle Baker, who felt they hadn’t given her a worthy enough number, asked Irving Berlin to write her one. The team didn’t even know until Baker unleashed “Blue Skies” on opening night. A more bitter pill was the audience’s liking it so much that Berlin actually stood right then and there and took a bow.
Better times were coming, especially for Rodgers. But would you have guessed that for many years that the piece of sheet music that outsold every other Rodgers composition was his “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”?
Why does Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun rate seventeen pages in a Rodgers and Hammerstein book? People often forget that the team produced it. Purdum surprises us by quoting Brooks Atkinson, then the esteemed New York Times theater critic, who brushed off the show’s score as “routine” and “undistinguished.” Has there ever been a musical that has yielded more hit songs? Oh, well; everybody makes mistakes.
Although Purdum never gets salacious, he is more frank about the men’s extra-marital dalliances than other biographers have been. An actress with the arresting name of Temple Texas apparently caught Hammerstein’s eye (and other parts, too). Rosemary Clooney said that some of the observations that Hammerstein had Flower Drum Song’s Linda Low make in “I Enjoy Being a Girl” were actually facets of Temple Texas’s personality.
The lady appeared in three Broadway shows, the last of which was Pipe Dream – her first Main Stem assignment in more than eight years. We needn’t wonder how she got into that show by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Some musical theater historians have written how vital Trude Rittman was to Rodgers’ work. Her name was on the dance, ballet, vocal or choral arrangements credits on four of his shows; she also served as his assistant on South Pacific.
You may have heard that Rittman actually composed “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” but Purdum also points out that she and not Rodgers actually wrote the “Do-mi-mi, mi-sol-sol” section of “Do-Re-Mi.”
Perhaps because Rittman was receiving so little credit during those years she wasn’t above implying that Rodgers stole from a sixteenth century composer the melody used in The Sound of Music’s “Preludium.” Agnes De Mille agreed with her.
If only in recent years you’d heard of the physical fitness system known as Pilates, that puts you decades behind Mary Martin, who embraced it during her The Sound of Music days. It may have helped her to breathe better, but she probably lost her breath on the day she witnessed an outburst by Joe Layton, the show’s choreographer.
Layton wasn’t ever known as the terror that some directors were (including the guy who did The Office), but Purdum tells of the time he castigated his Sound of Music nuns for still being in their costumes long after their performance had ended.
“You girls know you’re not supposed to stand out here in your Goddamned costumes! Now get back to you dressing room right this minute and get them off!”
Only problem was, they actually were real nuns who had come backstage to give their regards to Martin.
Even after Hammerstein’s death in 1960 and Rodgers’ in 1979, the team would still be linked together – and not just because of thousands of revivals staged from New York to Kokomo. Purdum tells us that way back in the ‘50s, a fan wrote to Hammerstein and suggested a story that he thought would make a good R&H Musical. Hammerstein apparently read it, wrote back and said it would be “difficult” but conceded that the story was “a tempter.”
Nothing more came of it until Rodgers’ grandson Adam Guettel turned that story — Elizabeth Spencer’s The Light in the Piazza — into his own very much acclaimed musical.
Guettel is the son of Mary (Once Upon a Mattress) Rodgers, who’s quoted in what will undoubtedly be Something Wonderful’s most eye-raising observation: “I don’t think anybody ever knew who he really was,” she says of her daddy, “with the possible exceptions of one of the five psychiatrists he went to.”
Perhaps, but we – and Purdum – certainly know that he was Broadway’s greatest composer, one who knew enough to team up with a bookwriter-lyricist whom most everyone else on Broadway thought was all washed up. On the contrary: “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right outa My Hair” and other smash-hit songs and shows were in Hammerstein’s future, Rodgers’ future – and our past, present and future, too.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.