Rodgers and Hammerstein remembered for their art and their emotional impact THE SOUND of THEIR MUSIC

December 18, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Shows such as "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!" and "The King and I" are musical theater classics, but there's more to the musical legacy of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II than just their greatest hits.

This month, area theatergoers have a rare opportunity to experience some of the songwriters' lesser-known work, as well as music from those hit shows.

"Cinderella," the only musical Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for television, is currently receiving its area stage premiere at Olney Theatre. In addition, a touring production of "A Grand Night For Singing," the first Broadway revue of the duo's songs, begins a three-week run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on Dec. 27.

More than a half century after the debut of their first collaboration ("Oklahoma!"), why do the works of composer Rodgers and lyricist Hammerstein not only endure, but continue to enliven the musical theater stage?

"Melody and poetry," says Walter Bobbie, who conceived and directed "A Grand Night for Singing." "Hammerstein's gifts not only as a poet but as a sheer craftsman are quite astounding. It's very tricky to write simply. He was always drawn to very challenging themes, and at the base of every one of his shows is a very serious story."

Mark Waldrop, director of Olney's "Cinderella," cites their ability to engage people emotionally. "They could embody emotions in their songs that the average American resonated to in a really strong way. In a lot of our musical theater today we just have lost [that] ability."

Nor is Rodgers and Hammerstein's legacy limited to productions of their shows. There's also the unusual phenomenon of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Thirty-eight floors above New York's theater district, it operates out of Rodgers' old office and continues to be a vital presence in the industry, promoting the interests of its founders.

Hired in 1981 as the first non-family member to head the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Theodore S. Chapin, executive director, once told Variety, "I've come to respect those musicals in a way that, frankly, I didn't when I got here."

Since then, he explains, "I've seen [the musicals] done in a number of ways and wildly different qualities. There are things about them that are so basic to human emotions that don't

change. If they were passing fancies and passing fads, how on earth did they get through the '60s?"

Chapin has seen so many Rodgers and Hammerstein productions because the organization controls the production rights to all of the shows. But that's only one function of this office, whose music-publishing division also represents songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elvis Presley, and whose concert library represents film scores including "Gone with the Wind," "Star Wars" and "Batman."

"There really isn't another organization like it," Chapin says of the 40-person company, which annually licenses more than 3,000 productions in North America alone and has revenues of $10-$15 million. He admits he's never been able to come up with a simple phrase explaining what this multi-faceted organization does, but terms of his duties to its namesakes, he says, "I am here to encourage people to think about Rodgers and Hammerstein in slightly different ways."

Besides an obvious example like the stylish 1994 Tony Award-winning revival of "Carousel," some of those ways include the use of "My Favorite Things" on commercials for the Mitsubishi Gallant, "Getting to Know You" on commercials for Geo, and "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" on "CBS This Morning." Though such applications might seem a bit crass, there is precedent for them. Rodgers himself gave Clairol permission to use "I'm Going to Wash That Gray Right Outa My Hair." Despite this, Chapin says, "We do not allow them to change lyrics, even though Rodgers did it."

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"A Grand Night for Singing" -- a surprise 1994 Tony nominee -- is another instance of looking at Rodgers and Hammerstein in a different light. Chapin says the show arose from conversations with the producers at Rainbow & Stars, a nightclub atop New York's Radio City that had previously staged a revue of songs by Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

"We said Rodgers and Hammerstein doesn't lend itself to tuxedos," Chapin recalls. "It tends to be more site-specific, and the challenge would be to figure out a way to make it palatable in a tuxedo world."

For director Bobbie, taking the songs out of their original context required finding an overall theme for the revue. "I thought, because we were in such a romantic spot at Rainbow & Stars, our context would be a romantic evening, and we would do only Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that had to do with relationships and falling in love and getting married and having children and the challenges and glories of enduring relationships," he says.

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