Arts

THEATRE NOTES

Oscar campaign

There are two kinds of people in this world: Rodgers and Hart people and
Rodgers and Hammerstein people. Rodgers and Hammerstein people are, broadly
speaking, optimists. Or at least they like to hear optimistic messages,
simple truths, clear lessons. They believe in community; they feel at home in
the chorus; they believe they’ll never walk alone. Rodgers and Hart
people are, broadly speaking, cynics and pessimists. Or at least they find
themselves responding more to unhappy endings, messages of doubt, witty
insults, stories about antiheroes. They think happiness is fleeting.
They’re loners who are glad to be unhappy but wish they were in love
again. Rodgers and Hart are cool; Rodgers and Hammerstein are not. The
classic Rodgers and Hart singer is Frank Sinatra; the classic Rodgers and
Hammerstein singer is Gordon MacRae. The fact that no fewer than three
different Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are being staged in Edmonton this
month—South Pacific by Edmonton Opera, Carousel by Mayfield Dinner
Theatre and The Sound of Music this week at the Citadel—puts a Rodgers
and Hart guy like myself in a difficult position. The newspapers are full of
Rodgers and Hammerstein tributes and even Oh Susanna! staged a special salute
to R&H a couple of weeks ago. But while I’ve always enjoyed
Broadway shows, I’ve never been able to get the appeal of Rodgers and
Hammerstein’s bloated, sexless brand of musical theatre. Sure, I can
appreciate the fact that their show Oklahoma! ushered in a new era of
Broadway musicals where the songs advanced the plot and revealed new shadings
of the characters singing them. And I guess I can respect them for the way
shows like The King and I and South Pacific paved the way for musicals to
explore subjects more serious than backstage romances and settings more
exotic than New York City. And let me tell you, Carousel is a pretty terrific
show. But for such a supposedly revolutionary creative team, why do most of
their shows seem so safe and cornball only 50 years later? I think that Oscar
Hammerstein’s singular brand of optimism is the main culprit. As
Stephen Schiff once wrote in the New Yorker, Hammerstein’s shows
“supported an optimistic, corny-as-Kansas worldview that chimed
perfectly with the gung-ho mood of postwar America. But by the end of the
’50s… a counterculture was forming, and its chief feature was doubt:
a sense that all that Rodgers and Hammerstein cheeriness was somehow false,
that the truth was double-edged, that American optimism was a form of
repression, and that the family behind the white picket fence had something
to hide.” That’s why it’s especially satisfying to hear
juicy backstage stories about The Sound of Music—to know that Heather
Menzies, who played Louisa in the movie, posed naked for Playboy when she
grew up, or that Christopher Plummer actually hated the movie version and
privately referred to it as The Sound of Mucus, or that when Ernest Lehman
told his friend Burt Lancaster he was working on the Sound of Music
screenplay, Lancaster remarked, “Jesus, you must really need the
money.” Something about The Sound of Music, which represents Rodgers
and Hammerstein at their most populist, particularly seems to drive a certain
kind of critic crazy. Pauline Kael gave a lot of bad reviews in her life, but
she seldom frothed at the mouth the way she did in her famous pan of the film
version of The Sound of Music, the one that got her fired from McCall’s
magazine. “A world of operetta cheerfulness and calendar art,”
she wrote. “Wasn’t there perhaps one little Von Trapp who
didn’t want to sing his head off, or who screamed that he
wouldn’t act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa’s party
guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage?… This
is the world teachers used to pretend (and maybe still pretend?) was the real
world. It’s the world in which the governess conquers all. It’s
the big lie, the sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat.” The
paradox, though, is that Hammerstein was, by all accounts, the precise
opposite of a liar. “Oscar believed what he wrote,” Stephen
Sondheim once said. “Oscar was able to write about dreams and trees and
grass and stars because he believed in them.” (Significantly,
Hammerstein was a croquet-playing family man while Lorenz Hart, Richard
Rodgers’s pre-Hammerstein songwriting partner, was a tiny, depressive
alcoholic who endured a lifetime of rejection from women.) And the fact that
Sondheim, a man famous for his downbeat, pessimistic, ultrasophisticated
musicals that made him every Hammerstein-hater’s favourite composer,
was mentored throughout his youth by none other than Oscar Hammerstein
himself adds another vexing wrinkle to the whole puzzle. So how do you solve
a problem like Maria? Are the legions of people who adore The Sound of Music
misguided dupes, or do we Lorenz Hart-loving cynics who think it’s
nothing but a big old schmaltzfest need a lesson in tolerance drummed into
our dear little ears? Should we try and respect Oscar Hammerstein’s
heartfelt beliefs even though we don’t necessarily share them
ourselves? Cultural critic Grettir Asmundarson would say we should:
“What makes Oscar Hammerstein’s work worthwhile,” he
writes, “is not that I believe in the things he wrote about. It’s
that he believed in them.” I’m not so sure. I think the true test
I’ll have to apply when I see The Sound of Music at the Citadel this
weekend is whether it can make me believe Hammerstein’s worldview as
well. After all, I can only go by my own opinion. And if there’s one
lesson I’ve learned from Maria Von Trapp, it’s that I’ve
got to have confidence in me. Kirkpatrick’s hat trick John Kirkpatrick,
the new artistic director of the River City Shakespeare Festival, was
upstaged this Monday as he launched his company’s 16th season lineup in
the luxurious Wedgwood Room at the Hotel Macdonald. But at least the person
who upstaged him was Shakespeare himself—or at least RCSF artistic
associate Julien Arnold, in wig, pointy beard and full gold-lamé
Shakespeare drag. (Arnold gave reporters a rare glimpse of Shakespeare at
work—who would have guessed that the immortal line “What a piece
of work is man” is in fact a rewritten version of “What a piece
of work is this dude I know”?) Kirkpatrick had three productions to
announce. As usual, the RCSF will stage two shows on alternating nights in
Hawrelak Park this summer (from June 24 to July 18): Twelfth Night, directed
by Kirkpatrick and starring Daniela Vlaskalic and Julien Arnold, will be
performed on the even nights; and The Merchant of Venice, directed by
Marianne Copithorne and starring John Wright as Shylock, will occupy the odd
nights. The company will also be co-producing Vern Thiessen’s new play,
Shakespeare’s Will, with the Citadel this February. (Geoffrey Brumlik
will direct and Jan Alexandra Smith will star as Anne Hathaway.) “I
just love the misguided passion of Twelfth Night, I love Malvolio’s
tragic tale,” Kirkpatrick says. “I’ve wanted to do it all
along; it was part of my pitch when I interviewed for the job. And it has
some the same elements and a similar-sized cast as Merchant of Venice, which
I knew a lot of the associates wanted to tackle. People often go on hearsay
when it comes to that play, but in fact Shakespeare hasn’t written
Shylock as just an evil, scrimping miser—this isn’t The Jew of
Malta. He’s a fabulous character. And what many people also don’t
realize is that the play has a lot of great comedy in it—it’s a
bit of a wedding farce. It’s a great play, and I figured,
‘Let’s give it a shot.’” Further information about
the shows (and handy performance-night weather forecasts!) can be found at
the festival’s new website, www.rivercityshakespeare.com. V

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