RSS A Puzzlement

One of the ongoing projects at The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization is the preparation of corrected libretti and scores (including full orchestral scores), authenticated by as much original material as we can find. Several shows are finished—Chapin takes us inside one aspect of these restorations.

Be warned: this article is about details. Important details, to be sure, because sometimes one letter can change the meaning of a Hammerstein lyric. It's also about fact and opinion, where they correspond and where they differ. It's a view through the particular microscope that I share with our Director of Music, Bruce Pomahac, who is in the process of overseeing the restoration of many of the shows in our catalogue. He and I have long pondered the details I describe below; I wouldn't be surprised if he disagrees with some of my conclusions. But we have come to learn that nothing was ever arbitrary in the writing of Rodgers and Hammerstein. (And if you're not interested in details, move on to the next article.)

When a restoration begins, what appear to be errors crop up all the time. Some are simply mistakes in typing; others can be blamed on music copyists. But sometimes there are different versions of lyrics and music in which the "right" or "correct" intention of the author is difficult to determine. Let me cite some examples.

CAROUSEL. "You'll Never Walk Alone." Question—is the lyric: "When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high" or is it: "When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high"? (I shouldn't even mention that I have a recording by The Lettermen in which they sing "keep your head up high") Oscar Hammerstein isn't here to ask, so we have to look at what is left behind. In the typed script before rehearsals began, it is: "keep your chin." In the original sheet music it is "hold your head." Then, if you look at editions of the published material and listen to the recordings, you'll realize that it is done just about half one way, half the other, with "hold your head" having the slight advantage. Which is right? The next place to look is anything in Hammerstein's own hand. The original scripts were all typed, and neither we nor the Library of Congress have any pages in Hammerstein's hand.

So one theory is this: "keep your chin up high" is more of a clich. Would Hammerstein have wanted a clich? "Hold your head up high" is more regal and worldly—is that the right way for Nettie Fowler to speak? And yet there is no way to keep your chin up high without your head held high as well. Of course, in this instance the song is based on a sampler which Nettie says Julie gave to her—so somewhere in musical theater logic there must be that sampler—and it can only be written one way! Keep your chin, or hold your head? Which is better? And which is right? Votes?

Which brings us to an even more difficult quandary. A couple of lines down Nettie sings "and the sweet silver song of a lark." Makes sense—the sweet silver song is attributed to the lark as a species. But then at the Finale Ultimo (consistent in all the material from the original production) the townsfolk sing "...and the sweet silver song of the lark." Now this time it is Dr. Seldon talking about a song that "we used to sing every morning when I went to school." Does he remember it wrong? Did the sampler that Julie gave Nettie get it wrong? Did Julie get the sampler from Dr. Seldon in the first place? Are the townsfolk sloppy? Is this just a mistake that neither Hammerstein nor Rodgers ever caught? Most productions just assume it is a mistake and sing "a lark" both times. But is that the right decision?

Here are a couple of musical ones. The title song in STATE FAIR, "Our State Fair," has a jolly tune that rolls right along. And then at the very end, on the words "the best state fair in our state" there is a mistake in the published sheet music which was only caught when the stage version of STATE FAIR was assembled several years ago. Rodgers' manuscript has the note going up just one step on the word "our" where the sheet music goes up two steps. Both sound OK—if either one didn't, the mistake would have be caught years ago. But being sticklers, we felt this one was simply a mistake that we should, and did, correct.

But there isn't an authoritative manuscript which tells us whether the last line of Rodgers & Hart's "He Was Too Good To Me" sits on the melody as "it's on-ly nat-ur-al I'm blue" (with "I'm" sitting on the long note) or (more logically): "it's on-ly natch-ral I'm blue-oo."

Here's another lyric oddity from—of all obscure places—the title song of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. On the original cast album, Mary Martin sings, clear as a bell, "to laugh like a brook as it trips and falls, over stones in its way." Julie Andrews, on the movie soundtrack, sings equally clearly, "to laugh like a brook as it trips and falls, over stones on its way." One letter difference; an entirely different meaning. Which did Hammerstein mean? Stones in the brook's way indicates an impediment over which the brook has to triumph. Stones on its way is more passive—the brook trips and falls over stones as it trips and falls over anything else along the way. You could justify each word. Which is correct? Well, in this instance we did discover a typed page of the original script in which Hammerstein had crossed out his original lyric (or it could have been his 50th try—he left a great many yellow legal pages of scribbling) and writes in "To laugh like a brook as it trips and falls over stones in its way." So judging by that, Mary Martin got it right. But remember—Hammerstein wasn't around by the time the movie was made, so who knows, he might have changed it to the way Julie Andrews sings it. Maybe Richard Rodgers, who was writing lyrics for the two songs added to the movie, ventured his own opinion. (He did change some of Lorenz Hart's lyrics for revivals in the 1950's.) But seeing Hammerstein's handwriting makes this one pretty persuasive.

In the original rehearsal script of ON YOUR TOES, in "There's A Small Hotel" following the line: "There's a small hotel, with a wishing well, I wish that we were there, together" is the line: "There's no bridal suite: One room bright and neat. Someone struck a pencil line through the word "no" and changed it to "a", resulting in the lyric we know today: "There's a bridal suite." Think about it—once again, both make sense. But different sense. Somehow it seems more like Larry Hart to make the comment that a small hotel would not have a bridal suite, but one room that would have to make do. Or maybe he felt "what the hell" and decided to call the one room "a bridal suite" anyway; that is certainly the way the world has preferred it all these years.

And speaking of issues matrimonial, does Annie Oakley want "...a ceremony with a bishop..." or "...a ceremony by a bishop..." when she sings of her "Old Fashioned Wedding"? That's another stumper, this time an Irving Berlin one.

If only we could conjure up the authors and ask: "Which did you mean?" Of course, the right answer may be that there is no right answer, that the authors themselves accepted ambiguities, shrugged, and moved on to the next project. Maybe it isn't just a question of "all 'er nothin'" (Come to think of it, is it "all 'er nothin'" or "all 'er nuthin'"—that question was recently posed to us by a sharp-eyed student of R&H, and we don't have a sure answer.)

If anyone can shed light on any of these riddles, by all means let us know at

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