This is a list of 5 of my favourite musicals of the 1940s. Anyone who is even vaguely interested in musical theatre should know about these shows and if you don’t… well, there’s no better time than the present to begin!
South Pacific is my favourite of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. To take a couple of short stories and weave them into a full length musical is no mean feat, but to do it with a book that really stands on its own feet dramatically and a score in which there are no bad songs is simply amazing. Only one minor problem exists in the last half of the second act, when the score tapers away to allow the action to wrap itself up, but the montage of scenes that tells what what happens with De Beque and Cable is probably the only way that part of the story and the reprises probably serve the show better by reinforcing theme, character and development than introducing a number of new songs would. It’s perhaps the prefect representation of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Oklahoma! It’s all about a picnic, right? A simple romance with the lovers working at cross purposes until they finally get together before the final curtain falls. I suppose that’s the easy way to look at it, but in the hands of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma! transcends its humble narrative and becomes and allegory for a time in American history that was fraught with conflict and uncertainty, the mileau against which the show itself is set. What else does it have to offer? One – a charming score with songs that sound so much like the American landscape that one wonders at the fact that they didn’t exist before Rodgers and Hammerstein created them for this show. Two – a mode of storytelling that uses dance as an inextricable part of the action, not just in the famous dream ballet but throughout the show. Three – when it’s done right, a show that really rises to the mark in terms of dramatic tension; just who is going to win that auction on the picnic basket? Don’t know? Well go and buy the DVD of the RNT production and find out!
Carousel offers us the rawest emotional experience of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. As in Oklahoma!, we have a largely excellent score and an engaging multi-modal storytelling experience. It’s true that perhaps some elements of the show fall just short of knitting into a perfect whole, but almost perfect is good enough for me. The highlights of this show are breathtaking: the opening “Carousel Waltz”, the flawlessly constructed bench scene, Louise’s heart-wrenching ballet in the second act and one of Rodgers’ most dynamic scores. If you don’t have a cast recording of this show, you need to get at least one. Not sure which? Read this blog which compares the various recordings of the show and get one now!
4. On the Town
“Finally”, I hear you say, “We are out of Rodgers and Hammerstein territory!” And the show that gets us there is On the Town. On the Town is haunted by two tragedies: firstly, the original Jerome Robbins choreography was never notated so all we have on record is what he could remember when he reconstructed his work for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and, secondly, the film version chucked out the heart of the score leaving us with all entertainment and no enlightenment and hoofing instead of dance. (That said, the film version is very entertaining, but it is so different that it is an entirely separate entity.) Leonard Bernstein’s score (with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) is by turns thrilling (“New York New York”), comical (“Come Up to My Place”, “I Can Cook Too”) and deeply moving (“Lonely Town”). It’s the classic show from the 1940s that perhaps deserves more recognition that it receives.
5. Kiss Me, Kate
Last show on this list is another not quite perfect show: Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. What’s wrong with it? Well, conceptually, there’s no real clear choice made regarding what the show within the show is supposed to be, resulting in some moments in which require one to push to the limits of one’s suspension of disbelief, not the least of which involves two gangsters suddenly performing a musical number within the scope of the show within the show. That’s one of the very few things the film adaptation got right, shifting the song into the alley behind the theatre as a non-diegetic piece of advice for leading man Fred Graham. But once you’re that conceptual flaw, there’s a great love story being told here with a great score, offering some of Porter’s most moving work (“So in Love”) and some of his wittiest lyrics (“Wunderbar, “Tom, Dick, or Harry” and “Where is the Life that Late I Led?”). It’s a gem.