- Historic Sites
It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
Musical comedy had its roots in vaudeville. The plots of these shows were slight, the characters pasteboard, and the jokes and songs often had little, if anything, to do with either. But musical comedies could also be very inventive, often on the cutting edge of popular music. Moreover, musicalcomedy lyrics, at least for the major songs, were carefully written, poetically sophisticated, and often extremely witty. As with Gilbert and Sullivan, and unlike European musical theater, they were as important as the music itself.
From early on Hammerstein sought to expand the boundaries of the purely American musical-comedy form. He wanted to bring it closer to the op- eretta, a much more dramatically solid kind of musical theater that had roots in Berlin and especially Vienna, as well as a long Broadway tradition. With his next big hit, Rose Marie , in 1924, he began to do so. Then, in 1927, he and Jerome Kern wrote Show Boat .
Hammerstein sought the rights to the failed play and learned that Rodgers and Hart had already been given them.
Today Show Boat is the only musical of the 1920s that can hold the boards in its own right, not just as a historical curiosity with good songs. It is, in every sense of the word, a masterpiece. Hammerstein was always at his best adapting the work of others, and his dramatization of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel was a marvel of concision. The score was an integrated whole, arising out of the dramatic situation. Yet it produced no fewer than six songs that became standards.
In one of these songs, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Hammerstein for the first time expressed what would become a constant theme in his later work: the idea that human love is an elemental force in human nature, quite beyond the control of those who experience it. “Tell me he’s lazy, tell me he’s slow./Tell me I’m crazy (maybe I know)—/Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine.”
Doubtless this expressed a long-held belief. Doubtless also, it reflected his recent encounter “across a crowded room” with Dorothy Blanchard, who was to be his second wife and the love of his life. Twenty years later, when his lyrics were published in book form, he dedicated the volume, simply, “To Dorothy, the song is you.”
But as the twenties gave way to the thirties, and boom to depression, Hammerstein’s style of musical—romantic, concerned with character and the nature of love—went out of style. Instead shows featuring the lives of the rich and set in penthouses and ocean liners—the Broadway-musical version of Hollywood screwball comedies—came into vogue.
Although Hammerstein and Kern’s Music in the Air was the big hit of the dismal 1932 season, it would be Hammerstein’s last success for eleven long years. His only hits thereafter were occasional individual songs such as “All the Things You Are” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
This last song was most atypical of Hammerstein. For one thing, it was one of the very few he ever wrote not intended for a particular play or movie. (It was later interpolated into the movie Lady Be Good and won the Academy Award for best song in 1941.) He had written the lyric only because he was so saddened by the fall of Paris, a city he deeply loved, to the Nazis in the early summer of 1940. Jerome Kern then set it to music.
Further, it showed a side of Hammerstein that was not often revealed in his work. For if he was not a particularly urban man, he was a thoroughly urbane and sophisticated one and was quite as much at home in Paris as at his beloved Pennsylvania farm. Even there, as his potégé Stephen Sondheim explained, if the cattle were often standing like statues, they did so right beyond the tennis court.
Despite the success of “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” when Rodgers called him in the summer of 1941, the wisdom on that hard-nosed thoroughfare they both knew so well had it that Hammerstein’s Broadway career was washed up.
Hammerstein’s response to Rodgers’s plea for advice was typical of the man. He told Rodgers that he should keep working with Hart for as long as possible. He thought that for Rodgers to walk away from his partner now would kill him. But he told Rodgers that if the time came when Hart was unable to finish a job, he should let him know and he would finish it for him, with no one but the two of them the wiser.
After Rodgers and Hart completed By Jupiter (Rodgers got Hart to check into a hospital until the score was completed), Rodgers, as always, immediately looked for another project.
The Theatre Guild, in 1931, had produced a play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow the Lilacs . It had been a flop then, but Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner, who ran the Guild, thought it had possibilities as a musical. Rodgers immediately saw the potential; Hart was less enthusiastic.