Thursday, March 11, 2010

N-Y Oklahoma and Paint Your Wagon

Boy, did we have fun on Tuesday night going to the New York Historical Society (N-Y) to hear four quite talented singers cover just about all the songs from the musical comedies Oklahoma! and Paint Your Wagon. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is, of course, the great groundbreaking musical. It opened in 1943 to tremendous acclaim and proceeded to run for 2212 performances. Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon, which opened in 1951, received only tepid reviews and closed after 289 performances. Oklahoma! was Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration, though they each had enjoyed enormous success with other partners. Lerner and Loewe, on the other hand, hit it big previously only with Brigadoon in 1947. Interestingly, both of these shows, whatever other virtues they possessed, were choreographed by the great Agnes De Mille. The reason they were paired the other night at N-Y is that they are two of the musicals used by the American Musicals Project, a public school curriculum that teaches American history through musical theater, to help middle school students gain a better understanding of the history of America's Westward Movement. As always, the songs were interspersed with commentary regarding these productions' librettos as well as a few behind the scenes stories about how these shows came to fruition.

Now, just about everyone knows how magnificent the songs from Oklahoma! are, and so it was easy to please the audience when these songs were performed. I must add, though, that the two talented people who did Surrey with the Fringe on Top were especially delightful. Gordon and Shirley didn't do it any better! But the songs from Paint Your Wagon are also pretty good. You probably know They Call the Wind Maria and I Talk to the Trees, because they both achieved notoriety outside the show. But are you aware of the very beautiful "Another Autumn?" Or of "Carino Mio?" Or of the clever and funny "In Between?"

Don't get me wrong, Oklahoma! is, by far, the superior show. It has everything. The commentator at N-Y called Oklahoma! a triumph and Paint Your Wagon a "near miss." Which seems about right, though with the right staging and some prudent trimming of a few of Paint's more grating songs, it could be terrific. By the way, give yourself a treat sometime and listen to how natural and perfect those Oscar Hammerstein lyrics are. I found myself really tuning into them the other night and marveling at their combination of impossible cleverness and unobtrusive naturalness. How DID he DO that?

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