Symphony celebrating Rodgers and Hammerstein

Friday , March 28, 2014 - 12:46 PM

Linda Brady, Standard-Examiner Staff

Jerry Steichen, principal pops conductor for the Utah Symphony, is an Oklahoma boy. In fact, when called for this interview, he was visiting his “Okie” childhood burg of Tonkawa, trying to help raise funds for new church doors.

So a love of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose breakthrough musical was named for Steichen’s home state, seems a natural fit.

On Thursday, March 27, Steichen celebrates “Oklahoma!” plus many other blockbusters crafted by the twosome that ushered in Broadway’s Golden Age. And not only will the Utah Symphony be playing beloved songs from throughout Rodgers and Hammerstein’s career, but the Utah Symphony Chorus, and Broadway stars Lisa Vroman, Gary Mauer and William Michals, will be lending voice to the evening.

“It is just the most spectacular of programs, because it is every one of your favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, sung by three singers at the top of their craft,” said Steichen.

Steichen has worked with each of the guest vocalists on Broadway, including in “Phantom of the Opera.”

“Lisa Vroman is one of the best singing actresses of all time, and Utah loves her whenever I’ve had her here,” he said. “I was so lucky to do ‘Phantom’ with her for all those years. We have been friends for so long, and to walk on stage with one of your dearest friends, doing some of your favorite music? Doesn’t get better than that. When she walks onstage singing ‘The hills are alive,’ it is just amazing. Like I have died and gone to heaven!”

Mauer was a former Phantom under Mauer’s baton.

“He (Mauer) has the easiest, most beautiful tenor voice. When he comes out and sings ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,’ you are transported.”

William Michals is a Broadway baritone and opera singer who made his Broadway debut as The Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” (he later sang Gaston in that original production as well), and has also sung the Rodgers and Hammerstein role of Emile De Beque in “South Pacific” in a recent Broadway revival.

“He (Michals) has done so many Broadway shows,” said Steichen. “We’ve been friends forever, so I can’t wait to have him sing these songs in Utah.”

The show considered the first modern musical, “Showboat,” was written by Hammerstein along with Jerome Kern. When it debuted in 1927, it was an instant hit. But more importantly for the future of musicals, it presented a ground-breaking idea. Its songs were written specifically to advance the story and reveal something about the character singing.

Steichen said, “It seems a given to us now, but actually, Hammerstein is the man who said, ‘The story must advance the plot.’ As a result, a whole new, truly American art form was born.”

Steichen explained that the idea of the songs having anything to do with the plot of the show has come in and out of fashion since the first days of opera.

“Back in, say, Mozart’s time, a singer would bring in a piece and say, ‘This is the aria that makes me sound good.’ ”

The idea of the music serving the story came and went after that. But by the time Kern and Hammerstein teamed up for ‘Showboat,’ musical roles were little more than fleshless stock characters.

“Hammerstein said no to that idea. He wanted the right song for the specific plot moment and the specific characters. This was huge. And by the time he got together with Hammerstein in the early ’40s, it was exactly the right time for this idea to really take. And look at the impact this idea still has on everyone, and how they write a musical today.”

The musicals that Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborated on are mostly the stuff of legend. Besides those already mentioned, they include “Carousel,” “State Fair,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “and “Flower Drum Song.”

The two also wrote the music for a television version of “Cinderella,” which was filmed twice— once with Julie Andrews, and later, with Lesley Ann Warren, in the title role.

Though many of these Rodgers and Hammerstein-penned shows may seem tame by the standards of “Rent” and “Cabaret,” several of these were controversial in their portrayal of racial and sexual issues of the day.

“State Fair” dared to get the kids off the farm and into decidedly more adult relationships — Ann-Margret was irresistible even to Pat Boone in the ’62 film version of “State Fair,” for example, but is not portrayed as villainous. “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” and “Flower Drum Song,” all deal with issues of race and fitting into new cultural norms and mores.

“How incredible it is to talk about such things in a musical,” said Steichen. “This goes all the way back to the beginning for Hammerstein, with ‘Showboat’ and its racial overtones. These were things that people just didn’t deal with in a public way then, and they dared to examine them and helped get a conversation started.”

Both composers had with other talented partners and produced quality work. But this was the partnership that led to greatness for both men, due in large part to a shared vision, said Steichen.

“They were on the same page artistically,’ said Steichen. “It was about telling a story from beginning to end, with specific characterization, with text and melodies that only that character could perform. And these are incredibly complex and specific characters.

“Anna, in ‘The King and I’ is probably my favorite,” added Steichen. “She is a modern woman that finds herself in a culture that is anything but modern. She affects change, by being a little bit, well, not manipulative, exactly, but she does work the system appropriately to her time and place, to help Siam to become a country of modern character. And the King in that story is also going through his own conflict.

“Another is Nellie Forbush, in ‘South Pacific’ — to watch her go from someone not even aware of her own racism, to then face it squarely, and then to say to herself, ‘My love for this person is more important than any previously held notions. I will reconsider my belief system due to my life experiences.’

“Where a character starts, and then, where he or she ends up at the end of the evening — to watch that journey? That is what is interesting, and what Rodgers and Hammerstein did so well, and what those that came after them try to do to this day.”

Contact reporter Linda East Brady at 801-625-4279or Follow her on Twitter @LindaEastBrady.

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