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LOU'S VIEWS: In Defense of Rodgers and Hammerstein

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Lou Harry

This week, two community theaters take on musical theater milestones.
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I strongly considered not writing about Footlite Musicals’ “Oklahoma!” and Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s “Carousel” this week.

That isn’t because I thought the shows themselves were unworthy of discussion. Or that the productions didn’t engage and entertain.

Rather, it’s because I have daughters in the ensembles of each of these shows.
 

A&E Dane Rogers has a beautiful morning in Footlite Musical’s “Oklahoma!” (Photo Courtesy Footlite Musicals)

Now, the potential problems, both ethical and familial, of reviewing a show featuring one’s offspring are pretty self-evident. But rather than dodging this Rodgers & Hammerstein double-header completely, I’d like to take the opportunity to launch a defense of the shows themselves.

Do Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II need defending?

I think so. Despite the perennial popularity of their work, they are often mislabeled. There’s a commonly held belief that their work is old-fashioned and sentimental, that these are shows that offer platitudes and easy answers, and that, by design, they go down smoothly without any challenges to the actors or audience.

But quite the opposite is true. Both are groundbreaking shows that are far more than parades of now-familiar songs. They are shows with heart and soul, beauty and longing. They have an understanding of human connections and disconnections and an uncanny understanding of human frailty and strength.

“Oklahoma!,” the first R&H collaboration, hit Broadway in 1943, offering a radical rethinking of what musical theater—then primarily labeled musical comedy—could do. Unlike most earlier shows, where plot and character development ground to a halt when the songs started, “Oklahoma!” featured musical scenes that were integral to the story and our understanding of its people. Rodgers, who wrote the musical, and Hammerstein, who took care of book and lyrics, dispensed with a big opening number, delved into the psychology of their heroine through ballet, and deftly combined humor, drama and world-class dance (thanks to choreographer Agnes DeMille). They did nothing short of change the face of an art form.

Yes, it’s a classic and a groundbreaker. But director Eric Karwisch at Footlite clearly understands that those labels don’t mean the show needs to be treated as if preserved in amber. Without tampering with its integrity, he’s framed it with a bit of a vaudeville sensibility—as a show Will Parker, the second male lead, might have seen on his trip to the bustling metropolis of Kansas City (where, if you’ll recall, “everything’s up to date”).
 

A&E Billy Bigelow (Brandon Alstott) gets bad advice from Jigger Craigin (Paul Nicely) in Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s “Carousel,” running through March 28. (Photo Courtesy Indianapolis Civic Theatre)

It may not have much dirt under its fingernails, but Footlite’s production has scene changes signaled by placard-posting cuties, a trio of State Fair cloggers rousing the post-intermission audience, and age-appropriate leads. This “Oklahoma!” is full of youthful energy. (Show me a pair of 35-year-olds as Laurie and Curly and I’ll show you an “Oklahoma!” that isn’t going to work, no matter how polished the dancing and singing.)

Rather then rest on their success, R&H dug deeper for their next show. In “Carousel” (1945), all the doors opened with “Oklahoma!” were torn off their hinges. Here, the leading man is a loser who can’t control his anger, the leading lady is a co-dependent who gets the dreamer knocked out of her, and the ballet is as heartbreaking as anything ever put on stage. Oh, and the music is spectacular, from the curtain-raising “Carousel Waltz” to the final strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” These songs blend beautifully into their scenes with lyrics that dodge, reveal, bite, and both condemn and offer salvation to the show’s troubled characters.
  “Carousel” is the opposite of sentimental. It’s raw and rough and knows full well that there aren’t easy answers when confused, flawed humans are involved. It’s funny, too, but never in ways that compromise.

Both “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” are about how small we are, about the value of connecting to a community, about how clinging to an idea can bring people together or keep them from being together.

Civic’s “Carousel,” like Footlite’s “Oklahoma!,” benefits from a director (Robert J. Sorbera) who gets that his show is relevant—that his characters aren’t archetypes. They’re living, breathing people who don’t know what the world is going to throw at them next and, in the case of “Carousel’s” Billy Bigelow, can’t grasp that there’s a place in this community for him. That it’s possible to change.AE infobox

Even some musical-theater fans are uncomfortable with “Carousel” because they see it as justifying spousal abuse. In the wrong hands, it can come across that way. But Julie’s “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” shouldn’t be taken as R&H’s statement on the way women should be. It’s one young, damaged woman’s attempt to make sense out of her choice to stay with her husband. This and other successful productions of “Carousel” earn a powerful payoff by making clear their understanding that people don’t always say (or sing) what they really feel. They sometimes don’t even know what they feel.

Ultimately—and wisely—Civic’s “Carousel” isn’t concerned with whether Billy gets his heavenly reward. It’s concerned with showing that, no matter what comes next for him, Billy realizes he has—by his own choices—screwed up the chance to be in the lives of his wife and child. His final sigh as he takes a last look at what he has lost is as strong a moment as I’ve seen on Civic’s stage, capping a show that once again made clear that “Carousel” was—and is—a masterpiece.

And I’d say that even if my daughter weren’t in it. Although, since she is, I have one more reason to see it two or three more times before it closes.•

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

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  • audience
    Peter,
    You'll have to ask the folks at Civic who their audience is.
    Mine, I hope consists of a wide range of individuals interested in having an ongoing discussion of A&E in Indy. I'm glad
    you are part of that discussion and look forward to reading your comments on other arts events you experience. Feel free
    to chime in on the You-review-it Monday blogs, which you can find at www.ibj.com/arts.
    As for your comments, I'm sorry if you found the review misleading. I stand by what I wrote about "Carousel," which I
    believe is one of the great works of musical theater.
    Thanks again for contributing to the conversation.
    --Lou
  • You Were Right
    Lou-

    You were right, and tactful, in your review of Carousel in that you stayed away from this particular production at Civic Theater, and concentrated rather on the story the play told, and the context in which it was conceived. Understanding that your daughter was in it, and not wanting to offend, but my wife and I left this show at the intermission... and I have never done that before. We love theater, and I have been going since I was a little kid, but we could not watch the second act of this show.

    I write not to criticize, but rather to say that your review hooked me, and made me want to go and see the play. This was, for me, misleading, and somewhat costly, given the $32 ticket price.

    The acting was stiff, the musical numbers were "delivered" but not inspired. The whole thing fell flat, and honestly, I couldn't watch another minute.

    So, I'm made to wonder who the Civic's audience actually is, and who yours is, as well.

    I mean this last sentence as a simple statement, honestly, and not as pointed criticism.

    The experience made me wonder.

  • Radical rethinking
    I have always questioned the reasons which are given so often in explaining why "Oklahoma!" is referred to as a radical rethinking of the American musical play. After all, Rodgers accomplished much of this in "Pal Joey" and Hammerstein much of it much, much earlier in "Show Boat." Rodgers certainly incorporated story-driven ballet into "On Your Toes." I think "Oklahoma!" was a culmination of a lot that was already going on in American musical theatre, and was especially effective because Hammerstein and Rodgers together -- who had been trying some of these things separately -- now were doing them together.
  • Age-appropriate
    I though the Civic's leads were age-appropriate as were the leads in last spring's Oklahoma done by the IU Theater department. But that made me wonder how old John Raitt and Jan Clayton were in 1945 at the time of the original production of Carousel. The answer: they were both born in 1917 and were therefore 28. Given the difficulty of the roles, that seems about right. They certainly sound wonderful on the original cast album. And yes, that's the same Jan Clayton who played Jeff's mother in the old Lassie TV series if the name seemed familiar to other baby boomers. And for those youâ??ve never heard of John Raitt, he had a fabulous voice and played a succession of Broadway roles. Oh, and heâ??s the father of Bonnie Raitt. I believe they did an album together near the end of his life.
    As to Lou's main point that Carousel and Oklahoma are still relevent, I completely agree and feel sorry for people who think the best musical ever is Wicked and aren't interested in shows they consider ancient.
  • age-appropriate
    "...age-appropriate leads... ...show me a pair of 35-year-olds as Laurie and Curly..."

    Thank you for pointing this out, Lou. I don't understand why so many local theatres cast 30 - year old actors as 20 year - old characters and 20 - year old actors as 15 - year old characters (or in the case of Wizard of Oz, a 12 - year old character). From what I've seen, we have ample supply of talented actors of all ages, what are directors gaining by casting so much older? It's very distracting as an audience member.

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