What's New on the Rialto
Todd S. Purdum's
"Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution"
Book Review by Ken Bloom
Purdum has written on the world of politics for The New York Times as well as Politico and Vanity Fair. Therefore, his writing is reportorial rather than having a distinctive voice. He doesn't insinuate himself into the story. The "juice" comes from the people themselves, their exploits, personalities, and writings.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue is so entrenched in our lives that we take for granted the artistry and talent behind what were groundbreaking musicals. Even the failures were noble attempts to expand the art form of the musical theatre. And Purdum allows us to see the shows in the context of the times and have an appreciation of just how important and influential they were. R&H shows had strong ideas behind them and ideals, too, like those expressed by South Pacific's "Carefully Taught" that are still sadly relevant to our time.
Unlike a lot of biographers, Purdum doesn't have an agenda other than to tell the story. Some of the below mentioned books, especially the Marx and Clayton biography of Lorenz Hart, want to take a narrow view of their subject to prove a thesis. Purdum tells the facts as they are and that's enough. Drawing from letters, writings, and conversations, Purdum lets the subjects give their own insights into what they are thinking about their art and relationships.
One takeaway that Purdum beautifully illustrates is how many different drafts of music and lyrics they went through. Many, if not most, of today's theatre songwriters seem to go through one draft and declare it ready for presentation on stage. The rock and roll pop / sensibilities have made scores without richness or wordplay. Oscar Hammerstein revised his work constantly. Each song had purpose and he had definite things to share with his audiences through the lyrics and dialogue of his characters. He had his own style, but each of the characters in a Rodgers and Hammerstein show has their own spoken and sung language especially suited to who they are and what they want.
A lot of us know that Rodgers and Hammerstein were very different in temperament and not close friends. Each commented that he didn't know how his collaborator really felt about him. And, although Purdum takes a reportorial tone, you can't help having complex feelings for both of these men much as they did toward each other. The final chapters are especially emotional and that speaks to Purdum's skill in choosing what to and what not to includeall adding up to a well-rounded examination of the men and their legacy.
Lately, when I read a book I take little tabs and paste them on pages where there is something I want to remember, something especially interesting or something I never knew. After I completed reading "Something Wonderful," I pasted almost sixty tabs. So, it turns out there's a lot that hasn't been covered before. It's certainly the best book on the team and a good one at that, though the competition isn't very distinguishedwhich seems strange considering their great fame and fortune. Just look at the Further Reading section below to see what I mean.
Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum,
"Musical Stages: An Autobiography", Richard Rodgers autobiography ghostwritten by the great Stanley Green
Rodgers and Hart:
"Rodgers and Hart: Bewitched Bothered and Bedeviled" by Samuel Marx and Jan Clayton (spends a lot of time on the sad and unsavory aspects of Hart's life)
Rodgers and Hammerstein:
"The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein" by Frederick Nolan
"Getting To Know Him: A Biography Of Oscar Hammerstein II" by Hugh Fordin