Something Wonderful: Getting to Know Richard Rodgers
by Michael Dale
All too often the name Richard Rodgers is associated with "old-fashioned" and "traditional" Broadway musicals. This can't be further from the truth. Throughout his fifty-nine years as a Broadway composer, his musicals, both flops and hits, revolutionized the way lyrics in a musical were heard, stories were told, music was played, dance was utilized and subjects considered taboo for Broadway musicals could be presented. And even outside of their Broadway context, the beauty and sophistication of his music ranks Richard Rodgers among this nation's leading composers, if not the greatest.
Something Wonderful: A Richard Rodgers Celebration In Song, starring Heather MacRae, KT Sullivan, Craig Rubano and Mark Nadler has been touring the country for two years, making its only New York appearance a one-nighter on June 3rd at Town Hall, but it's the kind of revue that's so well-crafted, insightful and expertly performed that you'd wish it a regular home in a small off-Broadway theatre.
The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head.
The kindest words I'll ever know are waiting to be said.
These were the first lines of Richard Rodgers' first post-Hammerstein musical, No Strings. It was the first Broadway musical with lyrics credited to Rodgers (He is said to have ghost-written some lyrics for By Jupiter when Lorenz Hart's alcoholism and absence made him unproductive.) and the opening song seemed a declaration that his career was far from over. Indeed, his productivity was still consistent, if not prolific, and he passed away only two months after the closing of his latest new musical. Something Wonderful opens with a slow and pointed four-part arrangement of "The Sweetest Sounds", blended with some of his most popular hits, stressing the man's love affair with with his work. Said to be a very private, unemotional man, Something Wonderful not only celebrates his compositions, but often explores his music to find clues of the man's inner workings.
Any show with arrangements by Mark Nadler, whose piano playing supplies the evening's only musical accompaniment, is bound to have interesting and unexpected interpretations of classic songs. In a particularly impressive matching, Nadler plays themes from "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue", the Rodgers ballet from On Your Toes about a two-bit strip-tease dancer, and is eventually joined by Sullivan, who sings a weary "Ten Cents a Dance" with the ballet music continuing underneath.
In discussing the man's relationship with his composer-daughter Mary Rodgers, Nadler sings a tender "Many Moons Ago" from her score of Once Upon a Mattress (lyric by Marshall Barer). This beautifully blends into MacRae singing the "My Little Girl" section of "Soliloquy", and Gordon MacRae's little girl tells us of her experiences on the film sets of Carousel and Oklahoma!, and her impressions of the great composer while watching her daddy star in the movie versions of those classic musicals.
A few history lessons are included for those who may require an appreciation of Rodgers history. Love Me Tonight is generally regarded as the first film musical to truly incorporate songs into the action of the plot, as Sullivan demonstrates in a recreation of Jeanette MacDonald's rendition of "Lover", a song that whose lyric slyly includes instructions to her horse. We also hear various lyrics that were used for the melody of "Blue Moon", concluded by Rubano leading a joyous do-wop of the final product.
Nadler, an exceedingly charming performer who combines the comic song and dance panache of Danny Kaye with the scholarly wit of Sylvia Fine, tops the evening with a musical lecture explaining how "Shall We Dance" from The King and I is undoubtedly the sexiest moment in musical theatre history. As he takes a "volunteer" Mrs. Anna from the audience and polkas her across the Town Hall stage, only a fool would argue his point. Did I mention he tap dances to the same tune?If there's a flaw to Something Wonderful it's that the creators completely ignore the four musicals Rodgers composed after No Strings. Although certainly not outstanding, they all contain worthy material. But any Rodgers revue is going to have to leave out some beloved melodies or else the show would start taking on Wagnerian lengths.