Back in 2011, I wrote and produced a special podcast episode for The Stage, celebrating Rodgers and Hammerstein on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music‘s debut in the West End. We no longer publicise or distribute our podcasts, so I’ve gained permission to include it here. Of the 90 or so podcasts I created for The Stage, this is by far my favourite.
Presented by Helena Blackman, who had just released an album of R&H songs (excerpts from which are dotted throughout the programme), the feature also includes contributions from The Stage/Sunday Express theatre critic Mark Shenton, readings from The Stage archives by Adam Lilley, an exploration of the legacy Oscar Hammerstein left to Southwark Cathedral – and an exclusive (if short) clip of Stephen Sondheim himself talking about the influence of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. More background on my original blog post about the podcast.
Presenter: Helena Blackman Archive Readings: Adam Lilley Archive Research: Catherine Gerbrands Writer and Producer: Scott Matthewman
Excerpts from The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein by kind permission of Speckulation Entertainment
Something I’ve been working on for a couple of months (longer, counting the times I had to stop and either go on to other projects, or go off and be ill) went live on The Stage website today.
Rodgers and Hammerstein in London is an audio documentary looking at how the famous musical theatre pairing’s shows have been received in London, using archive material from The Stage’s extensive archive of back issues. I was aiming for a half-hour, Radio 4-style arts programme: the finished product ended up as just over 38 minutes, but I didn’t want to edit it down any further.
The project had its genesis when the publisher of Helena Blackman’s Rodgers and Hammerstein album asked if I wanted to interview Helena about the CD, and possibly include some short clips of the musical tracks. While I didn’t mind the idea, it was a format we’d done before – and we’d also been talking about ways in which we could promote The Stage Archive, an amazing resource which stretches back as far as the paper’s first issue in 1880. So the idea moved away from a straight interview to an exploration of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works, with Helena presenting.
Although The Sound of Music’s 1961 opening was the spur, the documentary reaches back to the late 1940s and the debut of the groundbreaking Oklahoma!, as well as coming (relatively) up to date with How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the reality casting show that gave Helena her first break.
It’s been good fun putting it together – I’ve been interviewing people from the Dean of Southwark Cathedral to Stephen Sondheim – but the main focus is the archive readings, which my friend, actor Adam Lilley, very generously did for me. We kept in the original idea of including extracts from Helena’s album, as it helps break up the long, talky bits with a bit of music.
It’s difficult to go wrong with a concert based on a repertoire founded in Tin Pan Alley and stretching to the golden days of the Hollywood musicals. Unfortunately, the New End’s latest production seems to try its hardest in places.
Performers Ray Caruana, Louisa Parry and Paul Roberts each have a distinctive approach to interpreting the melodic line, but they work better in ensemble than as soloists, which is the predominant setup here. Each performer takes their turn in the spotlight, while their co-stars retire to the wings, creating a patchwork structure to the evening that robs it of much-needed momentum.
Despite an opening speech that emphasises the breadth of composers and the volume of songs encompassed by the Great American Songbook soubriquet, the selections here stick to the safety of the most popular, and populist, standards. Elsewhere, the narrative elements undercut performances – why tell people about the original lyrics to Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and then sing the bowdlerised version? Why emphasise to the audience how Rodgers and Hart changed perceptions of the Broadway musical as the introduction to a Rodgers and Hammerstein number?
The unbridled quality of the four-piece GAS Orchestra helps make up for deficiencies elsewhere, but overall one is left with a feeling of opportunities missed.
_Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/25260/the-great-american-songbook)_
New End Theatre, August 11-September 13 Producer: Toby Cruse Productions Cast: Paul Roberts, Ray Caruana, Louisa Parry Director: Heather Simpkin Choreography: Charlotte Wood Musical direction: Andy Rumble