The Broadway composer Richard Rodgers found four things invariably gratifying: “eating, a warm bath, making love and having a successful show.”
But how gratifying is it to read about successful shows – or the people who’ve created them?
That’s the question that hovers over two recently published Broadway biographies —
Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution (Henry Holt, 2018, 386 pages) by Todd S. Purdum and
Renaissance Man: The Lin-Manuel Miranda Story An Unauthorized Biography
(Riverdale Avenue Books, 2018, 184 pages) by Marc Shapiro
Both are about people who created Broadway musicals that became cultural phenomena. But they differ so radically in quality it’s almost an offense to consider them together.
Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II together wrote some half dozen musicals between 1943 and 1959 that were the most popular Broadway shows of their time. The songs from these musicals remain among the most beloved and familiar of any that have ever been sung on Broadway.
Todd Purdum, a former White House correspondent for the New York Times and current writer for Politico, devotes a chapter to each of these shows – Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music. We learn where the ideas came from; how Hammerstein figured out the right lyrics (Rodgers’ process was more mysterious and often instantaneous), how the initial productions came together, how the public and the critics reacted.
But the author spends almost as much time on some of the movie adaptations of these hits, and on the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that weren’t hits – Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song.
And the first two of the book’s 11 chapters are taken up with the individual careers of the two men before they started collaborating with each other. Both had successful partnerships with other theater artists – Oscar Hammerstein with composer Jerome Kern, most notably on Show Boat; Rodgers with lyricist Larry Hart, whose 28 stage musicals together included Pal Joey and On Your Toes.
And then there are the shows Purdum writes about that Rodgers and Hammerstein produced but didn’t write, most notably “Annie Get Your Gun,” which they lured Irving Berlin into scoring.
And the author also goes into some depth about the projects that each man undertook separately in-between their collaborations, such as “Carmen Jones,” Hammerstein’s adaptation of Bizet’s opera “Carmen” transposed to the American South with an all African-American cast. (A revival of ‘Carmen Jones” is opening this month at the Classic Stage Company)
All of this information is well researched and competently written. There are plenty of memorable tidbits. The night after “Oklahoma!” opened, we’re told, the house sold out for the next four years. During “The Sound of Music,” lead actress and investor Mary Martin had befriended a theater-loving nun, who became an advisor on the show. Among Sister Gregory’s advice: “ Please don’t have the nuns giggle. Chuckle, laugh— and even explode with laughter, but not giggle.”
Yet after a while, with so much covered in its 320 pages of text, “Something Wonderful” (the title is taken from a song in “The King and I”) feels more like “Many Wonderful Things,” and occasionally even “Too Many Wonderful Things.” One begins to wonder: What’s the point of this book? And also: Why now? Rodgers died in 1979, Hammerstein in 1960. (There’s an entire chapter on what Rodgers did in the years after Hammerstein died; and more details about each of their end-of-life illnesses than I was eager to learn.)
Certainly I can be excused for assuming that the book would take advantage of the passage of time to offer fresh critical perspectives. But any critical evaluations are perfunctory – largely brief excerpts from contemporary reviews. The author does offer a line or two of analysis here and there: “If Oklahoma! had satisfied wartime America’s longing for a simpler time and Carousel had tapped into the returning servicemen’s familiarity with death, South Pacific offered a dramatization of a conflict that was still visceral for millions.” But that doesn’t explain why the shows are still popular.
A brief section in the Epilogue makes the current case for Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as if they’re under attack, but, again, by briefly quoting critics.
Instead of critical insights, Purdum opts for a compact historical overview of two impossibly fruitful careers. We learn that during his lifetime Rodgers had written the music for some 900 songs, and Hammerstein had written the lyrics for 1,589. (The 1,589th was Edelweiss from The Sound of Music.
By the end of “Something Wonderful” I can’t claim to have gotten a firm handle on either theater artist – not what made them great, nor even a vivid sense of what they were like as individuals. It is hard to blame the author for this. Mary Rodgers, Richard’s daughter and an accomplished composer in her own right, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think anybody ever knew who he really was, with the possible exception of one of the five psychiatrists he went to.” Stephen Sondheim (Hammerstein’s protégée and Rodgers one-time, unhappy collaborator) is reduced to a kind of unhelpful Zen description of the two: Hammerstein as a man of limited talent but infinite soul, and Rodgers as a man of infinite talent but limited soul.
Still, “Something Wonderful” is a reasonably good read about two theater artists whose work remains familiar and beloved 75 years after they first started creating together.
“The Sound of Music” was one of the many original Broadway cast albums lying around in the Miranda household when Lin-Manuel was growing up in Inwood, we learn in “Renaissance Man: The Lin-Manuel Miranda Story.” Hunter College Elementary School put on Oklahoma when Miranda was in the fourth grade. His senior thesis at Wesleyan was an analysis of the lyrics of Alan Lerner, Stephen Sondheim…and Oscar Hammerstein.
So, yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein were among Lin-Manuel’s many influences in an eclectic cultural upbringing that featured, among many other things – as Renaissance Man reminds us — his parents’ many original cast albums, a school bus driver who loved rap, early exposure to Disney animated films, a household full of Puerto Rican culture, schooling that emphasized the arts, especially theater.
“Renaissance Man” by Marc Shapiro (who specializes in “unauthorized” celebrity biographies) is a cut-and-paste job, splicing together facts and quotes gathered from newspaper articles and blog posts and podcasts and speeches. This alone wouldn’t necessarily be reason to condemn it. As with “Something Wonderful,” there should be some appeal in revisiting Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinary story, even though it is by this point so thoroughly familiar – how he created “In The Heights” starting when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan; followed by the six year journey to create “Hamilton.” We can even appreciate being reminded of some of Miranda’s other activities as writer and rapper and actor – his improvisational rap group Freestyle Love Supreme, his work on other Broadway shows (co-composing Bring It On The Musical; writing the Spanish translations for a West Side Story revival), his songwriting for the animated Disney film Moana and a Star Wars movie; his appearance as himself in Fatwa: The Musical in Curb Your Enthusiasm, his forthcoming role in the movie Mary Poppins Returns
All of this is mentioned in “Renaissance Man: The Lin-Manuel Miranda Story,” but nothing in this book is worth the effort to get through it. The book could hardly be a worse read. It’s poorly written, cliché-ridden, and so full of typos and obvious factual errors that one wonders what else the author got wrong. (It’s the Outer Critics Circle Awards, not The Outer City Circle Awards. It’s the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Miranda’s high school friend Chris Hayes of MSNBC is sometimes referred to as Chris Harris; Hamilton performer Daveed Diggs is sometimes referred to as David.)
Marc Shapiro uses the word “literal” or “literally” incorrectly so many times — dozens of times! (“Miranda was a literal babe in the woods”…”Miranda was literally over the moon…”) — that my head figuratively exploded.
There is no intelligent or even cogent insight into Miranda or his shows, and virtually no original reporting. The only apparent interview the author conducted was with one Irv Steinfink, Miranda’s 11th grade Social Studies teacher, who said he assigned him to do a report on the Hamilton-Burr duel, which may have been Miranda’s introduction to the Founding Father.
“It was a good paper. He got an A on it. As I think about it now, it may have actually been an A plus.”
There are so many hilariously awkward sentences and extended forays into incoherence that I briefly wondered whether Renaissance Man was meant as a spoof of a bad book.
Here is a typical paragraph, which purports to explain the reason for the book:
“That Lin-Manuel Miranda has emerged as the pop composer/literal renaissance man of his time was the logical reason to profile his life. Hamilton is on everybody’s lips and so, in the immortal words of the publishing bard, strike while the iron is hot became the order of the day. But it soon became something a bit more than cashing in on the latest big thing.”
Actually, “Renaissance Man: The Lin-Manuel Story” is never anything more than an attempt to cash in on the latest big thing.