While the live theatre scene is paused, here is the next in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of certain significant or memorable events. The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin are rightly respected as high-water mark achievements of their times. Proof of their timeless appeal is that they are still performed around the world to this day.
In looking through the writings of my late colleague ANTHONY FIELD, I have come across several interesting stories relating to these shows’ First Nights in the UK, at all of which Anthony was present. Here’s a fascinating look back to the birth of some legendary shows and performances, compiled from his writings in 2010.
My programme from the first night of OKLAHOMA! At the Opera House, Manchester on Friday 18 April 1947 reminds me that it starred Harold Keel – who swiftly had to change his name to Howard Keel as British Equity already had a Harold Keel on their books.
Few theatregoers in Manchester then seemed to know what “The Theatre Guild presents OKLAHOMA!” was all about. It was due to commence at 6.30 – and by 6.50 the packed house was getting restive – “how like the Americans to be late!” I overheard.
The curtains parted a little and a cowboy stepped forward to apologise for the delay because “our sets and costumes were on the Queen Elizabeth liner stranded on a sandbank off Southampton, but we are almost ready to begin.” He disappeared back through the curtains and a buzz went around the house, slowly subsiding. All of a sudden the orchestra struck up, Aunt Eller was churning the milk and the potent voice of Harold Keel enchanted us with “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…..”. The gleaming sunshine of the show lit up the auditorium- and the audience with it. OKLAHOMA! utterly thrilled the grey and gloomy British, still reeling from the War. From that moment on, there was no holding this powerhouse of a show, sweeping us off our feet and, two weeks later, Theatre Royal Drury Lane audiences for 1,543 performances. Further Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals followed it into Drury Lane – CAROUSEL, THE KING AND I and SOUTH PACIFIC. (see afterword)
Talking about SOUTH PACIFIC, in those days producers banned the songs in a new musical being played too early in the UK, in the fear that the public might tire of the scores before they ever reached the West End. I vividly remember coming back from New York in 1949 and “smuggling” 10-inch vinyl discs of SOUTH PACIFIC into the UK which made me very popular amongst musical aficionados in those days! The London production of SOUTH PACIFIC ran from November 1, 1951 for 802 performances at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Joshua Logan directed; Mary Martin and Wilbur Evans starred, and in a tiny chorus part was a very young Sean Connery!
When ANNIE GET YOUR GUN opened at the London Coliseum on 7 June 1947 the young lead, Dolores Gray, became a star overnight. Together with Bill Johnson she reigned for 1304 performances, with Wendy Toye and Irving Davies dancing delightfully. As well as being there at the first night, I also well remember the last night when, after countless curtain calls, the audience simply refused to leave. The set was struck and the bare stage did not deter the applause until finally Dolores Gray and Bill Johnson returned in their street clothes, sat on a costume trunk and sang THEY SAY THAT FALLING IN LOVE IS WONDERFUL with just a piano accompaniment and finally, THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS to persuade the audience to go home.
Recalling these marvellous musicals reminded me of another London first night- that of CAROUSEL which opened at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on June 7, 1950. The production was restaged by Jerome Whyte, with a cast that included Stephen Douglass (Billy), Iva Withers (Julie) and Margot Moser (Carrie), achieving 566 performances.
Being fortunate enough to have had a partner (Ted) as devoted to the stage as I am, we have a complete record of the events of the times through all the first night reviews. Some of you may be surprised to see how short some of the references are to the actual music in the show. But it underlines one of my bug-bears- that music in musicals should be taken more seriously by critics. And now, 60 years later, when CAROUSEL and its fellow works are considered theatrical milestones, the problem for newer musicals still exists to a significant extent.
Please bear in mind that the UK was still enduring great shortages- this included paper, and so newspapers had to be ever more concise in their reporting. Here, for your interest, is the press’s entire critical assessment of the music in CAROUSEL- some of them two words, others many more. It is still quite startling to read them all this time later. Also it should be borne in mind that the majority of the public read just one newspaper.
“Three tunes are charming – “If I Loved You, “You’re A Queer One” and “June is Bustin'” – for the rest I wouldn’t give tuppence” -Sunday Dispatch
“Fine numbers” – Sunday Pictorial
“Full of good numbers like ‘June is Bustin'” – Sunday Express
“I remember the rush of the June song, the most exhilarating thing in a generous score” – Observer
“The music is a genuine delight to the ear. The choruses and ballets are inventive” – Sunday Graphic
“The songs are not as catchy as those in OKLAHOMA!” – Reynolds News
“The music, if less hummable, has more of an operatic quality. The lyrics are cleverer” – Daily Mail
“Many pretty tunes by Richard Rogers though even these are not the best he can do” – News Chronicle
“There is a ‘Sonny Boy’ sort of song sequence that brings tears” – Daily Mirror
“There are fresh and eloquent songs and one of those lively and audacious choruses” – The Times
“There is a song “June is Bustin'” that seems at exploding-point with joy and enthusiasm and youth: and there is a masterly sailors’ hornpipe” – The Sunday Times
“Hammerstein’s taradiddle is offset to some extent by the boom-de-ay of Rodgers, who has written two certain hit tunes and a number of probables” – Sunday Chronicle
“The songs are a summer tonic and here are the three you will remember: ‘You’re a Queer One’, ‘If I Loved You’ and ‘June is Bustin”- the last most of all” – News of the World
“The music is delightful and really advances the drama and underlines it in a way a far grander opera from a British pen so much fails to do; it also reminds me of Stephen Foster type balladry of the States” – Time and Tide
“The music does not disdain the operatic method of underlining the drama, but it manages to preserve something of the homespun appeal of a ballad by Stephen Foster, and there are never long stretches which do not soon flower into some bouncing dance or jingling chorus song” – Manchester Guardian
“There is a great deal of music and although there are such magnificent tunes as “June is Bustin'” and “When I Marry Mr Snow” much of it is a finely orchestrated background to the action” – The Daily Telegraph
“Numbers, except for a brisk song about the arrival of June, are as unremarkable as they are pretentious” – The Daily Herald
“The music is not a s good as Richard Wagner’s but it may take the ear more easily” – The Evening News
“CAROUSEL is Dick Rodgers’ triumph. He looks like a businessman and writes like a modern Richard Strauss. No wonder modern American symphony orchestras play his works. There is never a moment that the music does not express the mood and point of the tale. The opening waltz is a superb, sardonic commentary on the sad gaiety of circus life. Rodgers is incapable of a cliche or a descent to the commonplace” – The Evening Standard
“The musical side contains three songs destined to make early appearances in the best-selling list – “June is Bustin'”, “What’s The Use of Wond’rin'”, and “If I Loved You”. Besides these there are half a dozen subsidiary songs and melodies which are unlikely to be heard much outside the show but which are fetching examples of the distinguished work turned out by this lyricist and composer. I particularly took to a thing called “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” but I dare say you’ll find your own pet pieces in a score which delightfully and cunningly follows every mood an turn of the plot” – What’s On
AFTERWORD Anyone interested in hearing more about the first productions of OKLAHOMA! will be interested to listen to this short (12 minute) programme from the BBC. You can access it here.
With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish his writings