Rodgers and Hammerstein: Musicals, Songs and Plots

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  • 0:05 Rodgers and Hammerstein
  • 0:51 Oklahoma!
  • 2:34 The King and I
  • 4:41 The Sound of Music
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The team of Rodgers and Hammerstein was one of the most influential creative forces in the history of Broadway. Explore a few of their musicals and test your understanding of their legacy.

Rodgers and Hammerstein

What a night we've got ahead of us! Grab your coat and hat because we're doing Broadway, but not just any Broadway. Tonight, we're doing two-minute Broadway, watching entire plays in a minute or less. That's three plays, all in about six minutes. And what a great lineup, three classics of Rodgers and Hammerstein!

Who are Rodgers and Hammerstein? Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, the creative team that changed the American musical forever with their mid-20th century Broadway hits. This team defined our ideas about the Broadway musical with their innovative stories, personal characters, and unforgettable music. Ready to see what I mean? Take your seat. Curtain's about to go up.


Oh good, they're starting with OKLAHOMA!, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first musical together, released in 1943. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs, a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, this is the love story between cowboy Curly McLain and farm girl Laurey Williams. Curly starts flirting with Laurey, but she coyly turns him down and accepts an invitation from rival cowboy Jud to attend the town dance that night. As other couples in town deal with their romantic troubles, Curly tries to convince Laurey to go with him to the dance. She refuses, mostly out of fear of Jud, and everyone heads to the dance. Once there, Laurey tells Jud she does not love him, he storms off yelling threats, and Curly confesses his love for Laurey, which she returns. They are married, Jud drunkenly appears with a knife and in the ensuing fight, trips and kills himself. Curly and Laurey leave for their honeymoon and live happily ever after.

Ah, great play, right? This thing was absolutely groundbreaking in musical theater. Most plays before this were frivolous, lighthearted, and almost vaudevillian. But this was a story of love and betrayal, with real characters and personal issues. But beyond that, it changed Broadway's ideas about musicals by making the songs integral to the plots. Before, the songs were just fun little distractions, but in OKLAHOMA!, the music is where all of the important plot information is revealed. This changed everything and musical theater would never be the same.

The King and I

Looks like the next musical coming up is The King and I, Rodger and Hammerstein's fifth musical together, produced in 1951. Based on a novel that was based on a true story, it follows Anna Leonowens, a widowed schoolteacher who moves to Siam to tutor the king's children. As she tutors the children, she continually insists on having a house of her own, a part of her contract thus far unfulfilled. The King orders her to think of herself as his servant, and she storms off, replaying their fight in her mind. The King apologizes, and Anna helps the king's wives prepare for the arrival of British diplomats.

Amongst the diplomats is an old fling of Anna's, who asks her to come home to England. Later, the King and Anna dance together, and their love becomes apparent. However, they have a major falling out as the king reacts harshly against the secret affair between his slave-wife and a Burmese scholar. Anna and the King do not speak for many months, until it is revealed that he is very sick. She rushes to his bedside and he asks her to stay and council his son, the future king. As the new king abolishes Siamese practices that Anna hated, she and the King reconcile, and he dies.

Sad right? But again, there's that deep, personal story that people came for. And again, great music that was used to tell the story, with songs like Getting to Know You, which establishes how Anna's relationship with the children is changing their worldview. By this point, Rodgers and Hammerstein had also cemented what many call the formula musical, meaning that many of their plays had similar pacing and resolutions, but also tended to feature a strong baritone male lead, a light female soprano, and supporting tenors and altos. There are exceptions to this but in general, most Rodgers and Hammerstein productions followed this formula, making casting easier for them and giving audiences an idea of what to expect from their musicals.

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