Friday, May 30, 2008

Mom, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein Aren’t Playing Fair!

I guess it’s not really breaking the rules when you made them in the first place. Still, buying the 1994 revival cast recording of Carousel recently made for a fascinating listen. Yes, Sally Murphy, Audra McDonald, and Shirley Verrett are all in top voice singing some of Broadway’s most beautiful melodies, but it’s also interesting to experience the story solely through the music.

It’s intriguing to see how the songs are divided among the characters. Main character Billy Bigelow gets two songs (“If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy”), an intro, and a reprise. That’s it. Julie Jordan gets heard in a few more, but most of the songs go to Carrie, Mr. Snow, and Nettie Fowler, with the chorus helping out. If they were taking a class on writing musical theatre, I think it’s fair to say Rodgers and Hammerstein would not have gotten 10/10 for structure.

Because of this, it’s really hard to tell what’s going on in the show from the recording. I saw the movie a number of years ago, so it’s not like I’m confused, but it is intriguing that on recording, Billy and Julie are footnotes in their own story.

And let’s take a look at those lyrics. If Stephen Schwartz had had the nerve to rhyme bigger with figure (figger) or stickler with particular (partic’lar), there are those who would be ranting about Carousel as an abomination of musical theatre. There’s actually quite a bit of that in Carousel, and while one could argue that these are only examples of Hammerstein’s Northeastern dialect, the truth is that it’s a dialect that comes and goes throughout the show.

Now I, for one, am not attacking Rodgers and Hammerstein. But I do think we can take a step back and learn from the Masters.

As I’ve written elsewhere, we can’t allow ourselves (or critics) to get too caught up in the mathematics of art. Carousel was a smash when it first opened and is still a beloved show despite who sang the songs. It’s a great show, and above all, that is what counts.

Secondly, we can’t over-glamorize the past. It’s easy to attack the current talents of Broadway for not being the greats of the past, but the truth is that many people hold the talents of today to greater standards. No one is ever going to top how great Ethel Merman is in the collective conscious of the Broadway mind, but perhaps there will be someone with more nuance and warmth.

I would suggest everyone to recalibrate themselves with Carousel from time to time. Yes indeed, you can learn many things from the Masters.

the Broadway Mouth
May 30, 2008

1 comment:

WarsawWriter said...

I agree. Standards have gotten a bit too high, and it seems folks expect perfection nowadays. There are very few shows, including the "classics", that don't have some sort of flaw: slow or awkward plotting; a song or two that's no up to par; some awkward lyrics. And Merman most certainly would not be a star on Broadway today - she was no actress, and wouldn't pass muster with the actresses we have working today. I'm willing to overlook some of the lyrical awkwardness of shows like Wicked or Hairspray, for the overall thrill the shows provide - and, yes, I'd include them in the classics category.