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The Right Musical at the Right Time

ART TIMES May 2008

Just what made mega-hits out of such shows as “Oklahoma!” “Carousel” and “Annie Get Your Gun”? That is, putting aside their great scores and fabulous lyrics. It is almost like that joke: “Just because she can sing beautifully, dance magnificently, and act superbly—why do you think she’s talented?” However, my opening question is not quite in that category.

Consider. “Oklahoma!” opened in March 1943. “Remember Pearl Harbor” was still a rallying cry and young men were dying for a cause that was clear and an enemy that was identifiable. Hollywood was churning out propaganda films in which Robert Taylor was gunning down troops of Japanese and every regiment had an even distribution of ethnic types. While Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson and Irene Dunne were showing us “what we were fighting for,” Rodgers and Hammerstein, consciously or not, were creating a myth—just at the time it was needed.

The plot? Will the nice Curly or the evil Judd take Laurie to the picnic? (No joke, that’s all it boils down to.) Since that is not exactly what is needed to fill up over two hours on stage, the required second plot involves Ado Annie and Will and the sort of life they will lead. Not very promising.

However, using the plot of “Green Grow the Lilacs” (a flop), the team gave the audience (again, above and beyond the score and lyrics), believable people living in a territory that is not yet a state, going through a small crisis that will or will not lead to marriage and babies, and somehow tying together the political background, the social problems (can the farmer and the cowboy ever be friends?) and the personal relationships—all into a unified whole that plays more like a myth than a typical musical.

As I said in at least two past essays, the show opens up with a hymn to the crops and to a beautiful morning. It ends with a salute to the new state and returns to “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” (So many people still believe the show ends with the title song!) This is just what the 1943 audiences needed: reassurance that there will indeed be many more beautiful mornings, “when the lights go on again all over the world,” as singer Vera Lynn was at the same time promising the British soldiers.

“Carousel” opened (symbolically) in April 1945, a month closely connected with the blossoming of springtime. If the audience was surprised to find “Oklahoma!” beginning with an off-stage solo instead of the usual chorus, how much more was the “Carousel” audience surprised to see the first act end with the death of the leading male.

Yes, the war was just about over and the monumental task of getting Europe back on its feet was yet to begin. What was to be LEARNED from the slaughter that was the result of not only a single madman but of all the “normal” people who believed him and allowed him to “move ahead” with his plans to dominate a planet? Again, the show tries to answer the questions of the times in terms of individuals.

Billy is allowed to return to make up for what he did to the daughter he died too early to know. Although a ghost, he is still human and fails. The show ends, not with a beautiful morning, but with advice about how to walk through a storm. Never walking alone and having hope in your heart is the answer Hammerstein gives us.

Of course, that is semantic nonsense. But in 1945 it was exactly what audiences wanted to hear, because it SOUNDED good and therefore it was good. (Years later, “Climb every mountain” tried to deliver the same message but sounded simply pretentious. You see, once having succeeded with that sort of ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein were stuck with it.)

A year and a month later, “Annie Get Your Gun” opened—again, just at the right time. The men were back on the job and women were back on the range—the kitchen range, that is. Factory owners could not help but notice how much better on the whole the women worked on the assembly lines than did the men. But in 1946, the girl that one married had to be as soft and as pink as a nursery, not muscular and grease-stained like Rosie the Riveter.

However, Annie still outshoots the male competitors, showing once again that a woman can do anything you (males) can do. Just the right thought at the right time, although many of the males in the audience took it all as a joke. After all, how many Annies are there in real life? (More than men care to admit, as in the current bid for the presidency.) 

The question of the times influencing the musical and the musical influencing the times certainly deserves closer and deeper and more extensive study than just this superficial look. Perhaps future essays in this journal will be devoted to just that subject. Yes, “Show Boat” is certainly a candidate. Do my readers have any other suggestions?

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