AN ERA ENDS – AT 9:50 A.M. ET: The single greatest request I get at Urgent Agenda is to write more about movies, music, and popular culture generally. I always promise to do it, and then don't. This is a partial attempt to make amends. I'll try to do more.
Joan Roberts has died. Now, that may mean absolutely nothing to many readers. But for those who love the American musical theater, and regard it as one of America's premier contributions, the death of Joan Roberts marks the end of an era. She was the last of the Rodgers & Hammerstein stars to pass on. Her death comes only a month after that of the immortal Celeste Holm, the only other Rodgers & Hammerstein star to go on this long.
First there was Rodgers & Hart. When the lyricist Lorenz Hart became too alcoholic to remain a reliable collaborator, composer Richard Rodgers turned to his old friend Oscar Hammerstein II, and in 1943 they mounted their first production, "Oklahoma!" It changed the American musical theater. Its perfect integration of song, dance and story, and its refusal to depend on quick jokes and chorus girls, signaled that standards would now be higher, the demands of audiences greater. Yes, of course, there'd been the immortal "Show Boat" in 1926, also with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, but it had been a tentative step. "Oklahoma!" set the new tone.
As "Oklahoma!" was being developed under its original title, "Away We Go," Broadway "experts" were pessimistic. The common line at the time was, "No jokes, no legs, no chance." They were incorrect.
To cast the leading roles Rodgers & Hammerstein turned, not to the usual headliners, but to up-and-coming performers – Alfred Drake as the male lead, Curly; Joan Roberts as his love interest, Laurey; and Celeste Holm as the comic foil, Ado Annie.
The show's opening received one of the greatest receptions in the history of the American musical theater. We were in the middle of World War II. Broadway was weak, with only a small number of shows running. And along came a musical that reminded audiences of beautiful mornings, corn "as high as an elephant's eye," simple pleasures like a country dance, and a surrey with the fringe on top. Richard Rodgers had written his most beautiful score to date, inspired by the unashamedly sentimental lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II.
"Oklahoma!" was the first of the Rodgers and Hammerstein "big five" –"Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King and I," and "The Sound of Music." There were others in between of lesser stature.
Before last month, all the major stars, but two, of the big five had passed – Alfred Drake of "Oklahoma!," John Raitt and Jan Clayton of "Carousel," Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, Juanita Hall, and Bill Tabbert of "South Pacific." Mary Martin, of course, also starred in "The Sound of Music."
Celeste Holm died on July 15th. And now Joan Roberts. Celeste Holm went on to fame, winning an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in "Gentleman's Agreement," Hollywood's treatment of anti-Semitism. Joan Roberts, for whatever reason, never went much beyond "Oklahoma!" She signed a contract with David O. Selznick, producer of "Gone With the Wind," but he could never find anything for her. At her death this week, she was largely forgotten by the general public.
Now they are all gone. But we have the shows. Who hasn't seen, or been in, a school production of one of the R&H "big five"? We have the movies made from the shows. And the recordings. The first original-cast album ever cut was "Oklahoma!" It is sitting in a cabinet about ten feet from me right now.
Richard Rodgers, in his autobiography, "Musical Stages," tells of waking up in a New York hotel two days after "Oklahoma!" premiered, and hearing singing outside. He went to the window and saw a group of school children singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," from his new hit. In those days songs from Broadway shows were played immediately on radio, and were sung all over the country. We knew those songs. We hummed them. They became part of our lives.
A few years ago "South Pacific" was revived at Lincoln Center, and was an immediate smash. Observers reported that audience members would lean forward to hear every word because they loved the show, and its music, so much.
Yes, we still have the shows, but the stars whose voices we remember are, with the death of Joan Roberts, all memories now.