Rodgers, Hart & Hammerstein

(Queensland Musical Theatre)


“HART, LORENZ. See Rodgers, Richard” World Book Encyclopedia 1967

Perhaps lyricist Lorenz Hart can be dismissed as a footnote to the life and work of his more celebrated partner, composer Richard Rodgers, but that is hardly fair.

For much of the 1920s, ’30s and into the ’40s it wasn’t like that at all. It was Rodgers & Hart equal billing as one of the most prolific popular music collaborations ever. Together they wrote 29 musical shows and nearly 400 songs, even more remarkable when you consider Hart’s long and torturous self-destruction through alcohol abuse and wild living.

In 1943, after Hart’s death aged 48, Rodgers started to work with another outstanding librettist, Oscar Hammerstein. Over the next 16 years they produced some musical magic: Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and of course, The Sound of Music.

As the title of this latest production by Queensland Musical Theatre suggests, Rodgers, Hart & Hammerstein tracks the parallel lives of these three famous New Yorkers who grew up just a few blocks apart and found fame and fortune on the same Broadway stages.

It has clearly been a labor of love for QMT stalwarts Brian and Denise Cahill, who visited New York to research the story and ensure a sound historical basis for their production.

They have chosen a big canvas on which to work perhaps too big, for there is so much ground to cover, so much that needs to be said, and so much that of necessity must be excluded.

The show is presented in two acts, the first, an hour 17 minutes that covers Hart’s tragically short life and concludes with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first big collaboration, Oklahoma. Oklahoma was an immediate and mega success, running for six years on Broadway and earning Rodgers and Hammerstein the first of their two shared Pulitzer Prizes for drama. (The other Pulitzer Prize was for South Pacific).

Act 2 is more satisfying then the first. It is shorter, more focused, the music more modern and familiar, and the quality of performance is higher.

The interaction between Bill Carr and Graeme Roberts as the older Rodgers and Hammerstein (1942-1960) is excellent. They convey the genuine warmth that you’d expect in a partnership that survived so long and so well on the strength of a handshake.

They are superb in their final scene together, when Hammerstein presents Rodgers with the lyrics for his last song, “Edelweiss”, and says a final farewell before heading home to die from the tumor that is consuming him.

This is a wonderfully crafted scene, filled with pathos and a slightly understated sentimentality, that makes it all the more poignant, especially when soon after, Jordan Pettman, the outstanding voice in this show, leads the ensemble in the inspirational song “Climb Every Mountain”.

In the end, Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein suffers from the scope of its ambition, although there are many musical highlights Jordan Pettman’s “Climb Every Mountain” and duets with Fiona Franzmann (“The Blue Room”), and Sally-Anne Westendorf (“There’s a Small Hotel”), Preston Oh’s harmonica accompaniment to “Blue Moon”, Peter Roberts’ “Ol’ Man River”, Morgan Balfour’s “Edelweiss” and the ensemble’s performance of “Some Enchanted Evening”.

The orchestra under Marguerite Giovanni’s guiding hand is excellent. It is never intrusive, never overshadows the vocalists (even the softer voices) and if it misses a beat it certainly isn’t obvious. Their efforts do justice to the wonderful selection of music.

Although Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein has many fine aspects it doesn’t quite gel as a total work. It could benefit from cutting a couple of songs in the first act (yes, I know they are all wonderful classics) and forgetting the accents.

More often then not accents don’t work and aren’t needed. I’m sure the interaction between Brett Roberts (Richard Rodgers 1920-1942) and Pio Matarazzo (Lorenz Hart), a relationship that is essential to this show’s success, would have worked much better and been far more convincing without the distraction of their accents.

Remember how grating Meryl Streep was when trying to do an Australian accent in Evil Angels? Well I’m afraid Brett and Pio didn’t sound much like New Yorkers either.

— John Algate
(Performance seen: Thu 3rd June 2004)