Some enchanted reading... about Rodgers & Hammerstein

Todd S. Purdum never saw a Rodgers & Hammerstein show at the Muny.

But when he was growing up in Macomb, Ill., he saw lots of other musicals at the Forest Park theater. 

“We came to the Muny quite often,” recalled Purdum, a staff writer at Vanity Fair. “We’d stay at the Chase and see the Cards, go to the Zoo, go to the Muny. St. Louis was a great destination.” 

As an adult, though, he headed East, landing a job at The New York Times. 

“I covered politics for 35 years or so,” he said. “But my dream job would have made me the paper’s Broadway reporter. I love the theater.”

Now, with a couple of political books behind him, he’s writing about the theater at last. Purdum will be at the Jewish Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 10, to discuss his new book, “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution.”

Purdum credits the idea for the book to his wife, Dee Dee Myers. If her name sounds familiar, she was President Bill Clinton’s press secretary. The couple inspired “The West Wing” romance between press secretary C.J. Cregg and reporter Danny Concannon. Now the parents of two children, Purdum and Myers live in Los Angeles.

Purdum said he was intimidated by the prospect of writing about the very famous, very well-documented team behind many masterpieces of musical theater’s Golden Age. 

“But the last book about the two of them came out in 1953,” he said, when the team was at the height of their success and popularity. Purdum figured it was time for a longer look, one that would stretch from their first collaboration, “Oklahoma!” in 1943, to their last, “The Sound of Music” in 1959.

In “Something Wonderful,” which takes its title from a song in “The King and I,” Purdum set out to explore Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s artistic process, extremely successful business arrangements and their relationship.

Richard Rodgers, the composer, and Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist, grew up just a few blocks from each other in Harlem, at the time a prosperous Jewish neighborhood. Rodgers was the son of a prominent obstetrician; Hammerstein, about seven years older, was a fraternity brother of Rodgers’ older brother at Columbia University.

“They moved in the same circles,” Purdum said. 

But while the Rodgers family led the genteel life suitable to a well-off Jewish family of the early 20th century, Hammerstein, was the grandson of Oscar Hammerstein I, “probably the most important showman in the world at the time Oscar II was born,” Purdum says.

A German immigrant with a passion for opera, Hammerstein I was famed for the many theaters he opened and for the larger-than-life persona he cultivated. His son Willie, father of Oscar II, also became a top producer, specializing in vaudeville shows that starred scandalous celebrities.

Willie married a gentile woman, Alice Nimmo, the mother of his two sons, and after she died he married her sister. He earnestly hoped that his children would go into a different, more respectable line of work. 

He might as well have hoped for the sun to rise in the West.

Before they first collaborated, Hammerstein and Rodgers each enjoyed superb careers with other partners. Hammerstein and composer Jerome Kern virtually invented modern musical theater with “Show Boat” (1927), the first show that integrated musical numbers into the story. It marked a radical departure from the popular breezy revues of the period, not least because it dealt with such serious themes as racism and the abuse of married women.

About the same time, Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart were making their own name with such smart, sophisticated musicals as “On Your Toes,” “Babes in Arms” and the acid-drenched “Pal Joey.”

But by the early 1940s, Kern was working in Hollywood, and Hart, a troubled man who suffered from depression and alcoholism, was not in good shape. Rodgers, who looked out for Kern personally and financially although there wasn’t a lot he could do, needed a new partner. 

So did Hammerstein, who had not had a real hit in years. He and his wife bought a place in Pennsylvania; in his mid-40s, he was ready to retire to the life of a “gentleman farmer” and leave Broadway behind. He feared he had lost his touch.

But separately, he and Rodgers had each been thinking about a musical treatment for a hit play about ranchers and farmers, pioneering life on the prairie. Neither Kern nor Hart was interested, so a new partnership was born. The play was called “Green Grow the Lilacs,” but Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the title to “Oklahoma!”

With its psychological complexity, its revolutionary “dream ballet” choreographed by Agnes de Mille and, above all, with its dazzling score (“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the title song) Rodgers and Hammerstein had an enormous hit and won a special Pulitzer Prize. The Tony Awards didn’t exist yet, but “Oklahoma!” received a special Tony on its 50th anniversary and, earlier this year, won the Tony for best musical revival.

Purdum loves “Oklahoma!,” but it’s not his favorite R&H show. That, he says, has to be the winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and the 1950 Tony for best musical: “South Pacific.”

Based on stories by James Michener, “South Pacific” makes the war against Japan the background for two love stories: one between a Navy nurse and an older French planter, the other between a brave Marine officer and a Polynesian teenager.

Like “Show Boat,” the musical addressed serious themes, Purdum said. 

“Everybody told them that they should drop ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,’ ” a song in which the nurse and the Marine deliver a biting indictment of American prejudice, Purdum said. 

 “People thought it was preachy. But Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Michener, insisted on it. They thought that song was the heart of the story.”

If time travel were possible, the writer would book his reservation for Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949,  the night “South Pacific opened. 

“Almost everybody who was in that audience had just had some experience of the war,” Purdum said. “They had served, or somebody they cared about had served.” 

The whole audience, he suspects, connected with the production in ways that we scarcely can imagine. It must have been “Some Enchanted Evening” for them all. 

Purdum wishes that he could have been among them. But with his new book, he’s shortened the journey for the rest of us.