[September 12th marked the 150th anniversary of the first performance of The Black Crook, generally considered the first stage musical (although opinions vary). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy both Crook and other exemplary stage musicals—and will ask you to share your solos and choruses for a crowd-pleasing weekend post that’s sure to garner a standing O!]
Historical stereotypes and revisions in three of the uber-talented duo’s most famous musicals.
1) Oklahoma! (1943): The first collaboration between the established and successful composer Richard Rodgers and the equally accomplished lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma! is best known for its significant role in advancing theatrical history: the musical is considered a pioneering “book musical,” one of the first to truly center a serious (rather than comedic) plot and story on the songs and musical numbers, building on but extending further the starting points provided by yesterday’s subject The Black Crook and other prior works like Show Boat (1927). But as a hugely popular cowboy Western, Oklahoma! contributed a great deal to the resurgence of that genre ahead of its cultural heyday in the late 1940s and 1950s. And like so many of those popular Westerns, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s forgoes nearly all the region’s historical and cultural complexities, in favor of a stereotypical story of laconic cowboys, innocent farmgirls, feisty cowgirls, and their star-crossed but ultimately idealized romances.
2) Carousel (1945): For their much-anticipated follow-up to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein started with a well-known Hungarian play (Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 Liliom) and transplanted its story to the Maine coast in the 1870s. They kept the central plot, that of a neer-do-well carnival barker who falls in love with and impregnates a working class girl, turns to robbery in a desperate and failed attempt to support their family, but is able to redeem himself before a semi-tragic but romantic conclusion. But because the setting has been shifted to late 19th century New England, Carousel is able to engage with some key historical issues and communities, from industrialization (heroine Julie Jordan and her friend Carrie Pipperridge both work in the town’s mills) to rising inequality (the relationship between the incipient Gilded Age and the desperation of Julie, Carrie, tragic hero Billy Bigelow, Carrie’s fisherman beau Enoch, and others). Here, that is, the star-crossed romances and the characters’ resulting fates serve a more complex and revisionist historical purpose than they do in Oklahoma!
3) South Pacific (1949): The duo’s third stage musical (after they co-wrote the 1945 musical film State Fair) was technically still historical but set in a much more contemporary period: the Pacific Theater of World War II, as depicted in James Michener’s Pulitzer-winning short story collection Tales of the South Pacific (1947). Yet South Pacific differs widely from overtly, simplistically patriotic musicals like the film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), choosing to focus instead on themes of racial conflict and understanding across multiple cultures, including an American nurse and serviceman but also their respective lovers, a French plantation owner with mixed-race children and a Tonkinese (from a region of Vietnam, in the era’s parlance) young woman. The musical is not without its stereotypes in portraying these identities and relationships, but for its immediate post-war moment (and really for any period’s popular culture) it also features a surprisingly progressive vision of race and community. Within a six-year period, then, these titans of musical theater had themselves progressed quite a bit in their depictions of American and world history.
Next musical tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other musicals you’d highlight and analyze?
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