Richard Rodgers: Mostly genius, sometimes chicken

October 13, 2011

For our vacation this year we decided, again, to visit Hawaii: the first week with one set of close friends on the big island, and the second week with another group on Kauai. I’m not ready to relocate, but we love Hawaii. The big island is fascinating yet hauntingly hostile–volcanoes sleeping and simmering, past flows everywhere, VOG in the air, and not much rain; and Kauai is the oldest, greenest island with rain and intense trade winds.

Both this year and last, we watched “South Pacific” a film based on the musical mostly shot on Kauai. The musical is filled with one great tune after another. The theme of interracial marriage is still poignant and relevant today. My generation, the baby boomers, had John and Yoko as models; the previous generation had James Michener’s story “Tales of the South Pacific” upon which the musical was based. The 19th century had a fellow who oversaw the sugar industry in Hawaii who ended up marrying a Japanese woman — forbidden at the time. We bought the new edition of “South Pacific” which featured an additional 14 minutes of restored footage as well as a 60 Minutes interview with Dianne Sawyer and Michener. In it, Michener confesses that his wife threatened to knock his teeth out with a catsup bottle if he ever uttered the word “Jap” again. You’ll notice in the film, they are always referred to as “Japanese” and not “Japs” as was common during World War 2.

The friends we are with this week in Kauai brought along their two daughters. The elder, Katie, is almost 4 and quite precocious. Because she was such a good girl, her mom let here stay up and watch the movie with us. She continually asked questions about the plot. Her father did a great job of trying to explain the difficulties of interracial marriage to her. My husband, Daniel, tried to draw an analogy of his marrying a gecko [sic] as such a model. [I caught a gecko earlier in the evening and introduced him, “Ralph,” to Katie, complete with messages that he would whisper into my ear, and I would convey to her.] The parents quickly jumped in and painted another analogy. Katie frowned saying that it was impossible for Daniel to marry a gecko because he will always be married to Roger! Katie knows nothing of this kind of prejudice and they want to be careful in presenting this concept to her. After all, prejudice is taught (see below).

The next day, Jenny couldn’t stop singing the music. Katie too tried to emulate the song, but didn’t understand the words. She kept trying to sing “Bloody Mary” but instead just kept dancing around and improvising in 6/8 in the style of the song. I couldn’t but help seeing how catchy all the tunes are. We were all moved by the message as well as the music.

My own parents raised us in the 1950s listening to all the great musicals of the time. I realize that I have a great attraction to this music and miss it in today’s music. Broadway seems to keep bringing back these old chestnuts as the new ones don’t appear to be as popular/profitable. In the tiny world of Classical music, we rarely hear good tunes these days. New music doesn’t seem to be about “tunes.” Don Martino always told us that anyone can write a good tune. Sorry, Don. I beg to differ. I can’t imagine Jenny or Katie singing tunes by Boulez or Carter, or John Adams for that matter.

In 1976, I realized that my love for the avante garde was over and in the long run, I find that I align my musical aesthetic more closely to Rodgers and Hammerstein than to Stockhausen and Carter. I confess that I love all kinds of music and always will. But music like that in “South Pacific” seems to be in a category by itself. Is it art music? I guess not, but who cares what that means? Being able to communicate to the range of people that R&H do is an amazing gift and opportunity.

As I write my opera, I find that as a hopeless romantic who loves tunes, I am writing more populist music than elitist music (music that you have to be educated to understand) and I am comfortable with that.

James Michener strongly urged Rodgers and Hammerstein to not cut the controversial song about how racism is ultimately taught––”You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught“. After hearing the song again last night, I think Richard Rodgers sugar-coated the song. The lyrics are a powerful message; the song sounds like a happy-go-lucky throw-away. IMHO, Rodgers tried to distract us from the message with another one of his happy tunes. Perhaps he was incapable of handling that kind of message musically at that time. I guess we had to wait until Bernstein gave us “West Side Story.”

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