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The Theatre Channel: Episode 7: Rodgers and Hammerstein

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: Thom Sutherland

The latest in a series of films exploring musical theatre, The Theatre Channel’s focus on songwriting duo Rodgers and Hammerstein provides a fascinating insight into their career, and the longevity of their music.

It is safe to say that the landscape of musical theatre would look very different without Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Responsible for hits such as The Sound of Music, Carousel and South Pacific, this episode showcases the songs you know, and highlights some of their work you might be less familiar with. In looking at the songwriting team’s misses – we are encouraged to take Allegro on its own terms. The smart, sassy The Gentleman is a Dope (a real blast of energy from Josefina Gabrielle) will have you seeking out the cast recording.

This showcase pre-empts a revival of Carousel, which will be appearing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from July. Much of the filming takes place here, with Ashley Nottingham’s choreography making good use of the space. This gives the performances an expansive feel – Michael Xavier’s performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s heavy hitters (Climb Every Mountain / You’ll Never Walk Alone) sees him walk into the theatre, to be joined by other singers as he makes his way onto the stage. It’s a powerful moment, as they sing these crowd pleasers to an empty auditorium. Poignant but hopeful, it keenly illustrates where the theatre industry currently finds itself.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, when looking for new material, always locked into a good story. With The Sound of Music, the story has proven unbeatable, both in terms of theatre and film box office. It is suggested here that the evergreen appeal of The Sound of Music will be the key to preserving Rodgers and Hammerstein in the public consciousness. The fun, playful chemistry between Tavio Wright and Ethlinn Rose as they sing Sixteen Going on Seventeen reiterates why this musical will never age.

We are treated to more classics, including Daniel Koek’s excellent This Was Nearly Mine from South Pacific. Koek’s impressive tenor taps into the rich romanticism of the musical, while feeling that keen edge of being caught between two worlds.

While the stage is being set for a new production of Carousel, this showcase reminds us that although Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work belongs to a different era, their songs have lost none of their emotional power. While the lushness of their music and lyrics is undeniable, the way domestic violence is depicted in Carousel is still shocking: placed alongside some of the most gorgeous love songs written for musical theatre.

It is this ability to look at life through the whole lens that makes Rodgers and Hammerstein so interesting. It will take new productions, a revisionist gaze, to confirm not only the songwriters’ achievement, but also an influence continuing to make its presence felt. To look deeper into a story and not turn away from its darker elements: there is a bravery in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songwriting that both resonates and inspires.

Available here until 25 June 2021

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