The Sound of Music: spare us the revival

Rodgers and Hammerstein's remarkable canon is full of acid, mordant pleasures, says Michael Coveney. So why is the sugary 'Sound of Music' being revived?
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The Independent Culture

The very title strikes fear into my heart. The original London production of The Sound of Music, which ran for seven years at the start of the 1960s, and which I saw with the huge, unforgiving contralto Constance Shacklock, exhorting us to "Climb Ev'ry Mountain", was soon translated for my generation as The Sound of Muzak.

The final collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, their fifth major show in a remarkable 17-year partnership - beginning with Oklahoma! (1943), followed by Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949) and The King and I (1951) - has always seemed to be an anticlimax in a great canon. Or is it just in dire need of an overhaul?

The last London revival in 1992 at Sadler's Wells, with Liz Robertson and Christopher Cazenove, hardly deflected you from Walter Kerr's dictum that the story was too sweet for words, and almost too sweet for music. There is, after all, only so much you can do with a stage full of singing nuns, cute children, Alpine settings and looming Nazis.

So it has languished of late in the purlieus of camp. People dress up in wimples to see the 1965 film at Sing-along-a-Sound of Music. Judi Dench performs "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" in pigtails as a party turn at charity galas. Christopher Plummer, Captain Von Trapp in the film, referred to it as The Sound of Mucus. The Palladium revival has some serious ground to make up.

The Sound of Music was a retread of The King and I. In both, a serious young girl is hired to teach lots of children and falls in love with the tyrannical boss. In both, the score is a bewitching mixture of light, operatic, romantic songs and clever set pieces. And both have proved indestructibly popular.

The musicals of Stephen Sondheim self-consciously advanced the art form (while usually alienating the audience), but Rodgers and Hammerstein set out to give audiences what they wanted. Ironically, they advanced the art form anyway, taking up where Show Boat (1927) - for which Hammerstein wrote the lyrics - left off. "If a composer is to reach his audience emotionally," said Rodgers, "and surely that's what theatre music is all about, he must reach the people through sounds they can relate to."

Rodgers and Hammerstein had each enjoyed a successful career already before they got going together. Rodgers was into his forties when he realised that his 20-year collaboration with the brilliant but alcoholic Lorenz Hart was grinding to a halt.

He openly courted the then 48-year-old Hammerstein to work with him on Oklahoma!. Rodgers knew Hammerstein well, but he also knew that he had not had a hit for 10 years. But Hammerstein was also Broadway royalty. His father was Oscar Hammerstein I, an impresario and the founder of the Manhattan Opera Company.

He had warmed up for Rodgers by writing lyrics for all the great musical and light operatic composers of Broadway, including George Gershwin. To Rodgers, he brought the great American outdoors, a pulsating sense of justice and decency, and a literary poignancy and generosity quite different from the smart-ass melancholy of Hart."

The difference between Oscar and the rest of us lyric writers," said Irving Berlin, "is that he is a poet." Given the quality of the writing, Rodgers was happy to change his style and compose his music around whatever Hammerstein came up with. And they were a serious business. They worked regular hours. They produced other people's shows. They lived in Manhattan and kept places in the country. They wore suits. They had children.

It is hard now to imagine the impact that Oklahoma! must have had when it hit post-war London in 1947. The age of austerity was ready for theatrical colour, and the audience already knew the songs. The show broke through the membrane of Noël Coward flimsiness and Ruritanian escapist flummery with a rare, raw rush of excitement. It was the first modern musical, with an unprecedented blend of dance and drama, comedy and tragedy.

"No gags, no gals, no chance," was an earlier, cynical reaction to the show. In fact, Oklahoma! signified new land, new love and a new start. It caught the public imagination and the popular mood in a way that no other musical has ever done, not even The Sound of Music. Princess Margaret saw the show 26 times. The Queen and Prince Philip went as a wedding treat.

When Trevor Nunn's superb 1998 National Theatre revival transferred to the West End, the critics were invited to meet Her Majesty in the interval. I asked the Queen if she enjoyed the show as much today as she had 50 years previously. "More so, if anything," she replied. "But, of course, it was very special, and very special to us, first time round. I love it, don't you?"

Five years ago, Nunn also revived South Pacific at the National, revealing an acid musical of US imperialism poised between Puccini's Madam Butterfly and Sondheim's Pacific Overtures. But the real rediscovery was Nicholas Hytner's NT production of Carousel in 1992 as a mordant and mysterious musical play, in which he rescued the seemingly impossible second act when the dead fairground barker, Billy Bigelow, who has killed himself to avoid capture after a robbery, returns to Earth to commit one good deed and catch a glimpse of his daughter on her graduation day.

There are other shows that deserve to be revisited, notably Allegro (1947), a principled fable of the medical profession that was ahead of its time, and The Flower Drum Song (1958), which has a wonderful score, despite Kenneth Tynan's put-down that, in invoking Joshua Logan's The World of Suzie Wong, R and H had come up with "a world of woozy song".

Meanwhile, London anticipates a few of its favourite things in The Sound of Music. As Rodgers himself said: "Anyone who can't, on occasion, be sentimental about children, home or nature, is sadly maladjusted."

'The Sound of Music', London Palladium, London W1 (08708 901 108), 15 November to 14 April

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