- Ted Chapin in front of the Sydney Opera House earlier this month, seen here with performer David Campbell.
It turns out that Melbourne, Australia, longs to be the third global capital of musical theater. In fact, Jeff Kennett, a Premier of the state of Victoria, in which Melbourne lies, announced early in his term that he wanted Melbourne to become ‘the third point of a cultural triangle for musical theater’ after New York and London.
Which put the day-long symposium – “Rodgers And Hammerstein – Understanding The Phenomenon” – hosted by the Victorian College of the Arts on August 13th, into perspective. It is true that Melbourne has many more theaters than any other city in Australia, with Sydney being a case study of a major urban center that let many of its old playhouses fall to the wrecking ball. And it is true that there is a loyal audience for musical theater - when I was there, a starry production of ANNIE was coming to the end of its run, a new Australian musical using the music of Cat Stevens had closed to make way for SOUTH PACIFIC, local singer/actress Rhonda Burchmore was about to open in a musical based on the life of Julie London, and a press conference was held for a production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM this fall that will star Geoffrey Rush.
Since I was in Australia for the opening of Opera Australia’s remounting of the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of SOUTH PACIFIC at the Sydney Opera House – which went extraordinarily well - I became a participant in the symposium. And in many ways it was both eye-opening and reassuring. Eye-opening because of the different prisms through which the Rodgers & Hammerstein works were examined, and reassuring because of the devotion for the work and the extraordinary high regard in which they are held. Papers were presented throughout the day, from composers, historians, students, professors, and lyricists, all focused on Rodgers and Hammerstein. What came across loud and clear was love and appreciation for the R&H works, and a clear understanding of how vital they remain today to anyone interested in musical theater. I was impressed by the collective knowledge of these participants, and the passion of Peter Wyllie Johnston, the head of the Australian Centre for Music Theatre, whose brainchild the symposium was. He chose the participants, from, according to him afterward, many who expressed interest. And for him it was a strong indication of his passion in studying, encouraging, and training future generations to create, perform and celebrate the musical theater. By the end of the day, which concluded with a gala dinner held for what looked like the cream of the Melbourne arts scene, it felt like the day had been a great success.
It was a special pleasure to sit on the other side of the world and hear people reference productions and projects that have occurred during my time at the office. Who knew what an enormous impact our studio recording of ALLEGRO had? It was praised often, and provided the focus for one paper that was devoted entirely to ALLEGRO. One point that was made in the paper was how similar the ascending melody of the title song is to Rodgers’ earlier song “Johnny One Note.” It was a surprise to hear an interview I did with Stephen Sondheim at the Paley Center earlier this year made reference to as part of a paper asking whether Richard Rodgers’ music for OKLAHOMA! was actually revolutionary or similar stylistically to his final Rodgers & Hart score, BY JUPITER. And I had forgotten how good Sondheim’s new introduction to the 1985 reissue of Hammerstein’s LYRICS was, but when it was quoted from I thought back to encouraging Bill Hammerstein to pursue that project.
We who toil in the trenches don’t often get an opportunity to pull way back and look at what we do from other people’s points of view. The papers varied, from a passionate list of favorite aspects of Hammerstein’s lyrics – which included a convincing argument about why Maria would of course describe a lark as “learning to pray” since she only knows the world of the convent – to a detailed précis of how two songs - SOUTH PACIFIC’s “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Love To Me” from Adam Guettel’s THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA - serve almost identical dramatic positions in their shows, showing a genetic generational influence. It was fascinating to hear from Australian musical theater historian Frank Van Straten the history of Rodgers & Hammerstein productions in the country, starting with the Melbourne premiere of SOUTH PACIFIC in 1952. Who knew that the Australian premiere of THE KING AND I was by an amateur group, or that James Hammerstein insisted on an American director for a production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC in the 1980’s because he felt everything he had seen in the country “was shit”? Seeing photographs of the sumptuous 1991 production of THE KING AND I took me back to my first visit to Melbourne. Only a block away from where the symposium took place stands the Victorian Arts Center where I first saw that production, which prompted me to get the ball rolling toward its journey to Broadway and the first-ever Tony Awards for an Australian production. In my talk I read excerpts from letters between Hammerstein and Rodgers from 1956, the only time in the collaboration when the two men were separated and corresponding about the details of a project. The project was CINDERELLA and Hammerstein was in, of all places, Melbourne, attending the summer Olympics. The hotel Hammerstein was staying in – The Windsor – still stands prominently at the top of the city’s main business district.
The papers presented may well become a published collection. I hope that does happen, because there were things to be learned and observations to be contemplated. Of course I didn’t agree with everything, but that is very much a part of academic and intelligent discourse. Clearly it was a big deal for Melbourne – the Lord Mayor himself came by in the middle of the day to give a rather inspiring brief talk – and the day kicked off with a talk by Andy Hammerstein whose grandmother Dorothy grew up in the Williamstown section of Melbourne. More connections with Australia!
But the day belonged to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And another reminder of just how extraordinary their work was, is, and will continue to be. The fact that they are now being examined and studied in ways they weren’t when they were being created, is a good indication for a strong future.