When Andy Williams croons Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies, politics does not intrude into memories of a more cheerful, hopeful era when Broadway musicals enlivened survivors of World War II’s carnage began by totalitarianism. Stage performances subtly undermine the status quo, a lesson opaque to the “woke” crowd, the new strand of Puritans, who impeded taxpayers’ freedom to drive in Plano on Mother’s Day weekend.
The 1950s and 1960s merit reviewing through the prism of racial receptivity, especially in the apparent innocence of those tales, further popularized through songs recorded by numerous vocalists and orchestras. Sixty years ago, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim gave us Tonight and Maria from West Side Story, a modernized Romeo and Juliet, the friction erupting over Puerto Rican immigration into New York City.
Broadway invited inclusivity even before West Side Story. One of the earliest musicals was Showboat, based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel. The original script and lyrics by Jerome Kerr and Oscar Hammerstein elevated ephemeral entertainment toward an epic, daring to treat white and Black characters as equals and sympathizing with the stevedore Joe’s lament Ol’ Man River: “You and me, we sweat and strain/Body all achin’ and racked with pain.”
In 1958, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers transformed James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific into the musical South Pacific. Amid World War II, two sets of lovers cross racial boundaries. Nurse Nellie Forbush of Arkansas grows fond of Frenchman Emilio De Becque, who woos her with Some Enchanted Evening, but the prospect of stepmothering two biracial children initially appalls her. Dismayed, he and Marine Lieutenant Joe Cable covertly spy on Japanese naval activity. Realizing Emilio’s peril, Nellie meets the children, learns a little French, and teaches them some English. He returns to find that love triumphs over doubt, which invites our tolerance. However, death takes Joe from the Polynesian Liat.
Another Rodgers & Hammerstein musical in 1956 drew upon Margaret Landon’s account of Anna Leonowen’s governess role in Siam, now called Thailand, in The King and I. The affection between King Mongkut and Anna balances the comedy of a Victorian’s struggles to reason with a monarch regarded as an infallible deity by his subjects. Hammerstein smuggles in lyrics to reprove racial presumption as Anna sings:
It’s a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you’ll be taught.
Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you’ll like me.
Let’s not pretend that the musical will regain its popularity, but its aspirations contrast to the strident, often hypocritical posturing of the Black Lives Matter movement. Unaudited co-founder Patrisse Cullors acquired four homes worth more than $3.2 million while the Black-on-Black murders continue in Chicago.
Significantly, Marxist outrage proves culturally sterile and barren of humor. The Father Knows Best era presented beneficent tranquility, but the gentle, humorous musicals invited self-examination, humility and optimism, attitudes absent now.
Which models better suit our children — Patrisse or Nellie and Anna?