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Rodgers and Hammerstein’s World


Carousel, Oklahoma! And South Pacific

Reviewed by James Karas

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II have a safe and very high place in the pantheon of producers of great American musicals. And surely, they are a great source of entertainment any time and even more so during a pandemic.

Many of their best musicals can be seen on television and I grabbed three of them. Their first great success was Oklahoma! It opened in 1943 during the war and it looked at a simpler, rural America and it proved to be a great success and innovator in the genre.

You can see a staged concert version of Oklahoma! from London’s Royal Albert Hall which is entertaining despite some issues. The John Wilson Orchestra occupies a small portion of the stands of the Royal Albert and the singers perform in front of it in western costumes with some farm equipment to give the illusion of ranch life in the 19th century. John Wilson conducts.

Laurey, the pretty girl who is pursued by the young men, is sung by Scarlett Strallen. The young man who wants and wins her is Curly (Nathaniel Hackmann) and Aunt Eller is played by Belinda Lang.

The video is somewhat choppy at times but Oklahoma! is such a rousing show it does not fail to entertain.

You can also see the great South Pacific in a production recorded at Lincoln Center and directed by Bartlett Sher. It has two outstanding singers in soprano Kelli O’Hara as Nellie and baritone Paulo Szot as Emile. They are both Broadway stars who have sung at the Metropolitan Opera.

Carousel followed a couple of years after Oklahoma! and it went into territory not usually visited in musicals (the afterlife) and its star is a Neanderthal thug that we are asked to find sympathetic and worthy of redemption.

The production at the Lincoln Center Theatre is a partly staged concert version with the New York Philharmonic at the centre of the stage. There is a playing area in front of the orchestra and some props but the whole production works very well.

Kelli O’Hara gives a marvelous performance as the innocent Julie who falls in love with Billy Bigelow, a barker at a carousel who is handsome and whose virtues stop there.  Baritone Nathan Gunn who is much better known for his operatic roles gives a superb performance as Billy.

The superb cast is joined by mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as Nettie in a production that takes no short cuts in the vocal department.

The musical has its true love story, its humour and the problematic relationship between Billy and Julie. Shortly after they meet, he hits her. Her friend asks her if she hit him back and the answer is no. Billy has appeared in police court before, we find out, but Julie still loves him.

He dies during a botched robbery and is sent back to earth (from the waiting room of the other world?) so he can see his grown-up daughter. He does and he hits her. Julie and his daughter agree that when Billy hit them it did not hurt. Sure.

Countless plays written in a different era or about a different social order present problem. (How do you deal with The Taming of the Shrew and Madama Butterfly? But Carousel bothered me more than usual on this viewing.

Like Shakespeare and Puccini, Rodgers and Hammerstein belonged to a different world, but their best work has survived, and you do not need a pandemic to enjoy their great musicals. During a pandemic however is great to be able to find their work with a few clicks on our computer.

Where can you find these productions and many others? Go to YouTube and ask for the musical by name and, say, Lincoln Centre or BBC Proms. You should be able to find what you are looking for wit a few clicks.

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