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Richard Rogers’ Oklahoma! The Story of a Game Changing Musical…

Musical Theatre, or ‘Music for Theatre’ is a diverse topic, and the variety and quality it offers ensures its place in the exam board syllabus. Both the AQA and Eduqas at A-Level curriculums give Musical Theatre equal weight to hefty genres like the western classical tradition and jazz.

One composer common to both syllabuses is Richard Rogers (June 28, 1902 – December 30, 1979). Rogers wrote 43 Broadway musicals and more than 900 songs, and is recognised as one of the most significant composers of 20th century American music. He is known in particular for his song-writing partnerships with the lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. His work has had a significant impact on musical theatre and popular music, and 2018 marks the 75thanniversary of the opening of his ground-breaking musical Oklahoma!

Rogers met Lorenz Hart, his first collaborator, at Columbia University, in 1919. Together they wrote 26 musicals, which were performed on Broadway, in London and recorded in Hollywood. Sadly the partnership ended in 1943 when Hart died. Their work together includes On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse (based on Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors) and Pal Joey.

In 1942 Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II who he had also met at Columbia University. Hammerstein had already made a name for himself working with Jerome Kern but the partnership of Rogers and Hammerstein took both to higher success. It could be argued that this musical partnership changed the American musical: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals earned a total of 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards.

Their first work was Oklahoma!. The musical was immediately popular and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances – 5 years and 9 months. This was a record that it held for 15 years, until My Fair Lady ran for 2,717 performances from March 1956.

The history of Oklahoma! provides its own interesting story. The musical is based on Lynn Riggs’s play of 1930, Green Grow the Lilacs the name of which is from an old American Civil War song. The play, set in ‘Indian territory’ in 1900, seven years before the State of Oklahoma was founded, was performed just 64 times on Broadway between January and March 1931. However, ten years later in 1941, Theresa Helburn, a producer at the Theatre Guild, saw a production of Green Grow the Lilacs which was supplemented with traditional folk songs and square dance. She saw that the play could be the basis of a musical good enough that it might revive the struggling Guild and approached Rogers and Hart about writing it. Rogers was interested in the project and bought the rights to the play.

Green Grow the Lilacs

Rogers had already started talking to Hammerstein about working together with Hart. Hammerstein had said he would be happy to work with Rogers if Hart were unable to work, and as Hart was struggling with alcoholism and finding it hard to write, it was suggested that Hammerstein would be an ideal new partner for Rogers.

Coincidentally, Hammerstein had already considered setting Green Grow the Lilacs to music, but his then collaborator, Kern was not interested, so when he heard that Rogers was looking for a partner to write the show, he jumped at the opportunity.

One of the reasons the Rogers and Hammerstein partnership worked so well was that the partnership allowed both collaborators to follow their preferred writing methods: Hammerstein preferred to write a complete lyrics before his libretto was set to music, and Rodgers preferred to set completed lyrics to music. It has been suggested that this permitted Hammerstein to build the lyrics into the story so that the songs could enhance the story instead of diverting it.

The work was originally called Away We Go! But following tryouts, it was re-named Oklahoma!for the Broadway run.

According to playwright and theatre writer Thomas Hischak,

Not only is Oklahoma!the most important of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, it is also the single most influential work in the American musical theatre. … It is the first fully integrated musical play and its blending of song, character, plot and even dance would serve as the model for Broadway shows for decades.

However, initially it was expected that the show would bomb. According to theatrehistory.com

The saga of the trials and tribulations of Oklahoma!before it reached its premiere performance in New York to become one of the surpassing triumphs of the American theatre is now a twice-told tale. Virtually everybody connected with the production was convinced he was involved with a box-office disaster. Here was a musical without stars; without “gags” and humour; without the sex appeal of chorus girls in flimsy attire. Here was a musical that strayed into realism and grim tragedy, with Jud as one of the main characters, and his death as a climax of the story. Here, finally, was a musical which for the first time in Broadway history leaned heavily upon American folk-ballet–the choreography by Agnes De Mille, one of America’s foremost choreographers and ballet dancers. Oklahoma!might be fine art, was the general consensus of opinion before premiere time, but it was poison at the box-office. The effort to get the necessary financial backing proved to be a back-breaking operation, successfully consummated only because the Theatre Guild, which had undertaken the production, had many friends and allies. But there was hardly an investor anywhere who did not think he was throwing his money down a sewer.”

In 1955 the show was made into a feature film, in fact, the first feature film shot in 70mm widescreen. It was also unique in that Rodgers and Hammerstein, having held onto the rights until the stage run had finished, personally oversaw the making of the film to ensure that no changes were made. As a result, the film follows the stage version much more closely than any other Rodgers and Hammerstein. The film won Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound, Recording.

Fact file:

  • One innovative feature of Oklahoma! is the dream ballet sequence which reveals the hidden fears and desires of the main characters: A device that was later used in many musicals including, famously An American in Paris: 
  • A key element of the story, following in the footsteps of Show Boat (also by Hammerstein) and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, is the showcasing on Broadway of the pioneering men and women who had worked the land of the American Southwest. It has been suggested that harking back to the ‘good old days’ was timely as Americans fought in the Second World War. Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel in 1945 also built on this theme.
  • Oklahoma!It opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on April 30, 1947 to rave press reviews and sell-out houses, running for 1,543 performances. Its pre-London run opened a day late at the Manchester Opera House on April 18, 1947, because the ship carrying the cast, scenery, and costumes ran aground on a sandbank off Southampton.
  • The exclamation mark in the show’s title was in common use in musical titles in the 1930s and 1940s. As George Jean Nathan, an American drama critic and magazine editor stated “It seems that the moment anyone gets hold of an exclamation mark these days, he promptly writes a musical show around it”.
  • As the end of the musical celebrates the formation of the state of Oklahoma, the title song became the official state song of Oklahoma in 1953 and is the only state song from a Broadway musical.
  • Richard Rodgers was the first person to win all four top show business awards. He was awarded an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, and also won a Pulitzer Prize.
The dream sequence from An American in Paris

Songs from the musical:

Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’

The Surrey with the Fringe on Top

Kansas City

I Cain’t Say No

Many a New Day

People Will Say We’re in Love

Pore Jud Is Daid

Out of My Dreams

The Farmer and the Cowman Annie, Laurey, Ike Skidmore, Cord Elam & Ensemble

All Er Nuthin’

Oklahoma

BBC Proms performances with the John Wilson Orchestra:

Higher Education: What’s Right for You?

Although the deadline for applying to conservatoires and music colleges has passed, the closing date for university applications through UCAS (UCAS.com) is the 15th January 2018.

This gives plenty of time for potential applicants to consider whether they want to study at university, and if so, which university and which course best suits them.

Alex Baxter, Programme Leader Music Technology Programmes at the University of Hertfordshire advises:

The best degree courses expose their students to the huge range of connected areas which make up music technology as a whole – including those that students may not know even exist when they start their course.  Industry accredited degrees highlight that the broader industry sees the course content as being relevant to current industry practice, and this also offers excellent opportunities for industry input, and live projects where students’ developing techniques can be applied.  Universities which foster collaboration opportunities between courses (ie music technology students working with film & TV and animation students) offer that great extra dimension, as does the opportunity to study abroad or take a work placement.

UCAS offer 1,763 courses with ‘music’ in the title. These range from BMus(Hons) and BA(Hons) in Music to courses in Music Production, Songwriting, Music Performance, Community Music, Music Psychology, Music Technology, Music Composition, Music Business, Musical Theatre, Commercial Music, Digital Music, Popular Music, Sound Design, Composition for Film & Games and Music Industry Management…

That’s before looking at Joint Honours Programmes: Music and another subject.

[Image: Emily]

 

Supporters of universities suggest that benefits for students include the opportunity to study an area of interest, meeting people with both similar and different interests, making connections with fellow students, lecturers and industry, and improving job prospects.

With current fees in the UK at £9,250 per year for many degree courses, plus the additional costs of study (text books, resources, accommodation, travel etc.), it’s important to consider whether university study is for you.

There is a big difference between studying for A-Levels or BTEC and studying at university. Although universities offer a range of support services, particularly for those with learning needs, university studies are much more focussed on individual study and research. This requires self-discipline and focus.

Choosing the right university for you is also important. Different universities have different specialisms and contacts within particular Industries or Sectors. For example, if you are considering studying Music Business or Music Industry Management, you may want to study in or close to London to take advantage of the opportunities in London for internships and attending Industry events.

Universities also have different ‘feels’. Attending open days where you can meet staff and current students and check out the facilities can help you get a good feel for each institution.

[Image: Ольга Жданова]

The teaching staff are also a key element of your university experience, so research the teaching team. See what research they have been involved in, what their position in the industry is and how active they are outside the university. Also find out about industry speakers and alumni. Developing your network while still at university is crucial to developing a career on graduation.

When selecting a university, key questions to ask yourself include:

  • Do you want to live at home or move away?
  • If you want to move away, does the university have halls and suitable accommodation nearby?
  • If studying music, what aspect of music do you want to study? What might you want to do as a job?
  • Do you want an academic programme or a more vocational one?
  • Do you want to study with particular tutors/lecturers?

Key questions to ask the University include:

  • How much contact time do you get on the course? What wider support is available?
  • What experience do you get on the course? For example performing opportunities, recording, managing live projects?
  • What opportunities does the course give for Studying Abroad or a Work Placement as part of the degree?
  • Does the course focus on a specific discipline or does it give you a wide overview of your chosen area?
  • How involved in the programme are named tutors?
  • How many students are in each cohort / class?
  • What jobs do recent graduates get? Where are alumni working 3 – 5 years after graduation?

[Image: Danchuter]

The key to finding the right path for you is in looking at the most important aspects of study thoroughly. The most important decisions centre around whether or not to go to university, which course to study and where to study. It’s vital to take time to visit any universities you’re considering, and to seek advice from family, friends and people in your preferred industry.

The author of this blog, MWC’s Maria Thomas, is a Senior Lecturer on the Music Industry Management course at the University of Hertfordshire. 


If you would like to speak to the Music Workshop Company about anything in this blog, or to book a workshop, contact us today:

Do You Hear The People Sing? Batley and Spen Does…..!

West End Theatre Director Nick Evans talks to the Music Workshop team about an exciting community singing project in memory of MP Jo Cox…

“One year ago the horrific murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, shocked the country. In a nation that was divided by the Brexit debate, and with the news seemingly filled with bleak events across Europe and America, there was a real sense of not knowing ‘what to do’ to make things better. As a theatre director on shows like ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘Mary Poppins’ my skills seemed less than useful.

Tributes in Parliament Square for murdered MP Jo Cox.

In the Summer, when a group of Jo’s friends in Parliament approached me to think if there was ‘anything theatrical’ we could do to celebrate Jo’s life and values, my skill base seemed suddenly relevant. I knew from my work with Sir Cameron Mackintosh, that the wonderful Boubil & Schoenberg musical ‘Les Miserables’ was Jo’s favourite show. Together with the brilliant new MP for ‘Batley & Spen’ Tracy Brabin, we got to work.

Over the last few months we have assembled 100 young people with a range of skills as singers, actors, designers, dancers, stage management and production crew, all drawn from Batley & Spen and the surrounding communities of West Yorkshire. This August, ‘Les Miserables’ will be staged in traverse (we think for the first time ever) in an empty industrial space in Batley. The project sees directors, musicians, choreographers and designers from top shows like Billy Elliot, Aladdin and Mamma Mia come to Yorkshire to inspire the next generation of talent.

The project has been driven by that talented young people of the region, and they are quick to talk about how the project has affected them. Alice Schofield, 16, from Batley said,

“Les Mis is all about the people coming together and starting a revolution for the good of everyone, and I think Jo Cox really believed in the community coming together to make a better society, a better world”

Michael Frith, 18, from West Yorkshire is playing the iconic role of Val Jean, and says working with a team of West End professionals has been a unique experience,

“Having an opportunity like this, being local, being free, being so accessible is an absolute privilege”.

The project has worked closely with the schools in the constituency, and a student of Upper Batley High School, Bilal Khan, 13, is clearly relishing making his acting debut in the role of Gavroche,

“It just goes to show that a place like Batley & Spen can pull a West End Musical off as well, and opportunities like this don’t come knocking on your doors every day. If you really want to do it why not, no one can stop you – just go and do it like we have done”.

As a visiting director, I’ve been blown away by the talent I’ve encountered in the area. The young people involved have an innate bravery, and I think we can make something really special happen for this brilliant community – and for the friends and family of Jo Cox – in putting together a show that will hopefully have a lasting legacy in Batley.”

The Company are hoping to attract fundraising and support from local people and businesses to realise the project. Their JustGiving page is at https://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/bsyct/hearthepeoplesing

Performance dates are 9th -12th August, and information about tickets for the show will be available from the end of this month at www.hearthepeoplesing.com



 

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