MUSICALS / Tunes are bustin' out all over: The National's new Carousel is just a small part of a global industry. Kevin Jackson visits the New York offices of Rodgers and Hammerstein

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IRRATIONAL as the response may be, it still feels slightly eerie to dial an office phone number in midtown Manhattan and hear the receptionist politely identify herself as 'Rodgers and Hammerstein'. Even locals can find this phenomenon a shade bizarre. As an enthusiastic young employee of this same office by the name of Bert Fink puts it: 'You tell people who you work for, and they give you a strange look and say, 'Aren't they dead?' ' Indeed they are: Oscar Hammerstein II (the words man) died in 1960 at the age of 65, and Richard Rodgers (the tunes man) faced his final curtain in 1979.

Thanks, however, to the fact that this particular showbiz duo paid as much careful attention to their business as to their shows, Rodgers and Hammerstein live on - and not simply in the sentimental sense, through melodies and memories, but as a thriving commercial enterprise. 'I mean, think about it,' Mr Fink enthuses. 'There's no such thing as a Cole Porter office, there's no such thing as Lerner and Loewe office, there's no such thing as a George Gershwin office. . . so the Rodgers and Hammerstein office really is unique.'

Even allowing for a certain amount of excess team spirit, Mr Fink clearly has a point. The difference between R & H and most of their contemporaries was that the canny partners recognised that many Broadway artists of the Twenties and Thirties had to put up with the galling spectacle of producers and backers creaming off the big profits. Instead of mourning, they organised: first by setting up a publishing company, Williamson Music (both Richard and Oscar had fathers called William) in association with Chappell and Co, and then by going into production themselves.

The business grew, and continues to grow: the Hammerstein and Rodgers estates are in close touch with developments, and attend fortnightly board meetings, but leave the administration to professionals. In recent years, the various branches of the R & H company have also taken on musical and / or dramatic rights to shows and songs by Kurt Weill (including The Threepenny Opera), Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun) and even Elvis Presley, as well as of the musicals each partner wrote with other collaborators - Lorenz Hart (Pal Joey, On Your Toes), Jerome Kern (Show Boat) and Bizet (Carmen Jones). All of which makes for an annual turnover of, as the company's Executive Director Ted Chapin modestly estimates it, 'comfortably in excess of dollars 10 million.' The tills are alive with the sound of music.

These days, the centre of the R & H empire takes up a fair slice of the 38th floor of a medium-size skyscraper on Broadway just a few blocks north of Times Square. (The theatre just across the road from this building is showing Cats, which might offer an easy irony or two were it not that R & H also handles some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, and shares the 38th floor with the New York branch of the Really Useful Company.) At first sight, there does not seem much to distinguish this place from dozens of similar offices in the theatre district. A closer inspection, however, shows that some of the furniture - inherited from the old R & H HQ on Madison Avenue - is grander and more solid than usual, and any conducted tour of the place will culiminate in the vision of a mighty ancestral totem: Richard Rodgers' piano.

It is to these premises that you must apply if you want to stage a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, whether you are calling on behalf of the East Tytherley Amateur Dramatic Society, who fancy South Pacific for their annual fund-raiser, or represent the Royal National Theatre, keen to add Carousel to the established canon of great world drama. (That latter call, incidentally, was first made about 6 years ago, and the results began previewing this week.) As Mr Chapin points out, while the other aspects of the R & H business may be more than adequately profitable, it is the five major musicals - Oklahoma], The King and I and The Sound of Music make up the rest of the quintet - which 'are really the centre of everything'.

'If you compare Rodgers and Hammerstein with, say, Irving Berlin,' he continues, 'Berlin has a publishing catalogue of songs that's unbelievable, but he really only has one show, Annie Get Your Gun - well, he has others, like Miss Liberty or Call Me Madam, but they're really not as big. But when you have songs which exist as part of a show as well as in their own right, they really become extraordinarily large and lucrative - as movies, as stage productions, as cast albums. Those five solid shows fuel everything we do.'

Misanthropes and cynics who think that Rodgers and Hammerstein are as corny as Kansas in orbit, or however the line goes, may find this posthumous triumph hard to credit. But the figures brook no argument. First, there have been such developments as the re-issue of the R & H movies on home video ('maybe next Christmas we'll put them out as a boxed set - there's some interesting archival footage we could put in the package') and this autumn's King and I album with Julie Andrews and Ben Kingsley: 'Julie Andrews was an idea that occured to me a long time ago, when Yul Brynner was ill and people were saying, well, when he goes, The King and I will go with him. And I said, no, we'll just wait until someone puts the emphasis back on the part of Anna.'

Less conspicuously, but no less significantly, there are all those professional and amateur stagings. Mr Chapin is vague as to the precise number of productions of the Big Five his office is now licensing each year, but in 1990 the figure was estimated at around 3,000 in the United States and Canada, with Okalahoma], the very first R & H show (1943), still the most reliable cash cow, taking the boards of more than 700 theatres per annum. On 31 March 1993, the US Post Office is marking the show's 50th anniversary with a commemorative stamp - R & H has been lobbying for this tribute for years, and it will be issued as part of an 'American Musical' issue including stamps for My Fair Lady, Show Boat and Porgy and Bess.

And to arrive at a more accurate estimate of the present global demand for R & H product, that figure of 3,000 must be supplemented by all the productions in the UK, Australia (where Mr Chapin has just seen a version of The King and I that he is keen to bring to Broadway), Japan and Denmark (where he saw an interpretation of South Pacific 'in Danish, and they completely rewrote the end of the first act] And I'm supposed to go backstage afterwards and meet the cast and tell them how much I liked it]').

It must also be supplemented by all the requests which the office turns down, since the R & H company tries to keep a lynx eye on quality control either in person or through a series of local agents. The company has something of a reputation for being tight with their licensing policy, and Mr Chapin is happy to agree: 'We do it all the time. It's hard to generalise about why we would refuse permission, but here's one example. Sometimes people come to us and say, we want to do, maybe, Oklahoma], so let's trot out . . . well, there aren't many of them left alive now, but what they mean is performers who are of quite a good age.

'My feeling about that is, well, if you want to play it in Miami, fine, but you're not going to do it on Broadway - that's not the way that Rodgers and Hammerstein are going to live on. One of the things about Oklahoma] is its youthful enthusiasm - that show was written for kids, and you can tell. So essentially, we are deliberately trying to discourage the stuff which underlines its old-fashionedness.'

Which is why the R & H office is taking such a keen interest in the National's new Carousel. 'Really, this is the first time that people of that calibre have been interested in approaching a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and saying, listen, we think it's time for this material to take its place alongside Shakespeare. And without being pretentious, I've been sitting here for ten years waiting for that moment, because too often these musicals have been staged. . . maybe not in a perfunctory way, but not in a terribly intelligent way. And Nick Hytner, with his background in opera and theatre as well as musicals, seems like a good person to have a shot at finding out what's really there.'

Carousel opens at the Lyttelton on 10 December (Box office: 071 928 2252)

(Photographs omitted)