Sunday, February 03, 2008

Some Enchanted Evening A Long Long Time Ago, They Lit Up Broadway ...

Come March, the Pulitzer prize winning musical South Pacific, created nearly 60 years ago by legendary musical theater pioneers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, will be given its first Broadway revival. Can the kings of the “golden age” do it again? More important, can the 1950s live again? During that outwardly innocent period, R&H dominated Broadway stages. Their songs were sung on radio hit parades. Their made-for-televison original, Cinderella, was seen by over 107 million viewers in 1957 (nearly twice as many as those who watched Elvis Presley shake his sexy hips on the Ed Sullivan Show). A televison tribute to their work in the fifties was broadcast on all three major television networks. Unprecedented?

As much a fan as I am of R&H, I can’t see the odds being in their favor. Times have changed (some would say progressed) so drastically since America embraced tunes about cockeyed optimists, about singing nuns and poetic cowboys breaking into music over beautiful mornings. Now on Broadway, contemporary society — more cynical and disjointed, carved out from all the social upheavals that have split the nation apart since the 1960s — offers the grist that musical theater must confront in order to stay relevant at the box office. Think Hairspray and Wicked. Think any number of Stephen Sondheim revivals — Sweeney Todd for starters?

A fan like me dreams that the younger generations will discover the magic that cast a spell over my boyhood. Dream on. When Robert Goulet toured in South Pacific less than ten years ago, at a matinee in San Francisco I was seated next to a young couple who looked as if they had wandered in on a lark. During the first half of the performance, gratefully attended by a not-young crowd, the younger woman to my left shuffled through her program in the manner of an impatient patron. No surprise when she and her date did not return after intermission. I felt a sadness, though, as if to be witnessing the demise of a theatrical force that once held audiences spellbound. No longer. The fact is, today’s hits inevitably become tomorrow’s fondly remembered chestnuts. Of course there will always be an audience for the older “golden age” musicals. But, on revival row, the likes of a Chicago or a Cabaret (both cynically in step with today) are the rare exceptions. I note that A Chorus Line in revival is not setting the box office on fire.

You almost had to have grown up when South Pacific and The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music first hit the boards. Had to have been young and impressionable enough for their songs to have taken up residence in your soul. I will never forget listening to Mary Martin singing “A Cockeyed Optimist” from an old radio my brother and I shared in our bedroom in Santa Rosa and being absolutely mesmerized by the lyric: “When the sky is a bright canary yellow, I forget every cloud I’ve ever seen...” Something about that moment enchanted me so that my tastes were formed for life. I am sublimely grateful.

Now in song, today’s pop icons celebrate social mayhem. White kids dig what black hip hoppers give them, and, to quote an Oscar Hammerstein lyric from The Sound of Music, “there’s no way to stop it.”

There never was. A very good friend, older, still wants me to take in a Gilbert & Sullivan. I have no interest. In fact, I fear shuffling through a program and wanting to exit at intermission. As the world grows ever more self-centered and expedient and "relationships" are being redefined in so many variant ways, the worlds of Rodgers and Hammerstein feel less relevant, less emotionally compelling. I hope that South Pacific is there when I am in New York in May. Maybe, miracle of miracles, this will be the one that stays on the boards for a very long time, not for a respectably drawn out, money-losing one-year run at best.

The best I can hope for is that The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization will refrain from another one of their lame-brain reconstructions of the sort that mangled Flower Drum Song from charming delight into labored rewrite dishonoring the source material upon which the work was originally based.

The best thing they can do is let Richard and Oscar be — on their own terms. You don’t repaint the Cystine Chapel. Don’t revise Ravel. "Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons. Wise men never try." That's more than good enough for me. So is the libretto, ground breaking in 1949. So please, keepers of the R&H legacy on the Avenue of the Americas, be wise and don't try.

No comments: