As Jews around the world are busy getting ready for the solemn Day of Atonement that begins tonight, I naturally have only one thing on my mind: Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals.
Okay, maybe it’s not the best preparation for the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar, but it’s meaningful to me. I’ve been attending the Rodgers & Hammerstein film festival that’s been going on at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and continues on for three more weeks. And, watching these films again as an adult, I find myself re-evaluating them in a Jewish context.
On the surface, can you think of a more goyishe set of stories than Rodgers & Hammerstein’s film canon? You’re about as likely to find a Jewish character in these musicals as you are to find Nellie Forbush singing that she’s gonna wash that “mensch” right outta her hair before donning her sheidel, the wig that orthodox women wear. It ain’t gonna happen. And yet, despite their total lack of Chosen People, the six films in this series—“Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “Oklahoma!” “Flower Drum Song,” and “The Sound of Music,” are rife with Jewish themes.
Because of their names, I grew up thinking that Richard Rodgers was Gentile and Oscar Hammerstein II Jewish. Turns out it’s the other way around…sort of. Rodgers was born in Queens to a prominent Jewish doctor who had changed the family name from Abrahams in an attempt to blend more easily into his world of privilege. Rodgers’ mother was born Mamie Levy, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. Oscar Hammerstein’s father came from a non-religious Jewish family but his mother Alice was the daughter of Scottish immigrants and Hammerstein was raised as a Christian. Yet the weight of the assimilation and intermarriage both boys grew up with had a profound effect on their work.
Only two films have been screened so far in this series and I went to both of them. It’s always exciting to see these high quality studio prints in a big theatre with an appreciative audience. I was especially excited about seeing “Carousel,” the 1956 musical starring Gordon MacRae as ne’er-do-well carnival barker Billy Bigelow, and Shirley Jones as his pure-as-the-driven-snow gal, Julie Jordan. I loved this movie as a kid and always remembered it as the first movie that made me cry from its sheer poignancy, especially during the last scene in which we see how much the deceased Billy, visiting from the hereafter, really does love his wife and troubled daughter.
Rodgers & Hammerstein adapted “Carousel” from the 1909 play “Liliom,” written by Hungarian Jewish playwright Ferenc Molnar. The original play was set in Budapest and featured several Jewish characters, including the successful businessman who would become Mr. Snow in “Carousel” and the robbery victim Linzmann who would be transformed into wealthy mill owner Mr. Bascombe. Dick and Oscar changed the locale of the story to Maine, possibly the least Jewish state in the Union, added an authentic New England clambake and a lot of dancing, and disappeared all overt references to Jews. Still, they retained the dark tone of Molnar’s work and succeeded in creating the first musical with a tragic theme. “Carousel” opened on Broadway in April 1945, a few days before Adolph Hitler’s suicide in his bunker just prior to Germany’s defeat in World War II. It took over 10 years to get the movie to the screen. While still presented as a tragedy, several key points from the play were “cleaned up” for 1950s audiences, especially how Billy dies. In the play, he kills himself rather than get caught during a botched robbery attempt. There is almost a noble aspect to his suicide. He knows that he has screwed up his life and is causing Julie too much pain so he decides to end it all rather than drag her down any further. But in the movie, he accidentally falls on his knife during the robbery and dies from his wounds. Much weaker, but I guess the censors at the time couldn’t handle the idea of putting a positive spin on a suicide.
On the other hand, the film does romanticize Billy and it presents his relationship with Julie as a tragic but beautiful love story. Watching “Carousel” as a kid, I cheered when Julie willingly let herself be fired from her job at the mill so she could stay out late with that rascal Billy. “You go, girl!” I thought. “Take the risk and go for your dreams. You and Billy are meant to be together!” Watching the film as an adult, I wanted to shout something else at Shirley Jones’ lovely Julie Jordan. “ARE YOU NUTS?!” Billy Bigelow is clearly a dangerous sociopath with the maturity of a seven-year-old and the ethics and morals of a back alley criminal. Julie’s devotion to him is certifiable, clearly a side effect of the abusive relationships she must have had with her father and the other men in her life. The fact that we’re supposed to cheer for this ill-fated union makes my skin crawl today. There is not a single scene in which Billy Bigelow shows anything to Julie other than out-of-control narcissism and male bravado. He is selfish, spoiled, physically violent, and emotionally crippled. When Julie gets pregnant and Billy finally starts thinking about his responsibilities as a husband and father, his only solution is to hook up with his sleazy friend Jigger Craigin and commit a dangerous crime.
When I saw the film years ago I cried when Billy died, wondering how Julie and their baby daughter could possibly make it in the world without him. This time I felt relieved that they were free of this maniac. I used to buy the redemption scene at the end of the film hook, line, and sinker. Now I just rolled my eyes. Sure, Billy comes down to earth (after expressing great reluctance) and ultimately helps his wife and child at the girl’s high school graduation. How does he do so? By hearing the principal’s inspiring speech about faith, leaning down to both of them, and saying, “Listen to him! Believe it!” Big deal. I realize I’m being terribly judgmental and unforgiving, not exactly what Jews strive for in the hours before Yom Kippur. Perhaps my perspective on Billy has changed so much because I can imagine how I’d feel if my daughter were to be attracted to someone like that. A lot of our culture still glorifies the sexy and dangerous “bad boys” while making fun of the so-called boring dependable types. I just hope Leah learns to see through the surface charms of people like Billy Bigelow and can instead appreciate the dependability and kindness of a Mr. Snow. “Carousel” has many beautiful Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. It was the duo’s favorite collaboration and Shirley Jones’ favorite film. Still, Shirley’s biggest number is like a Codependents Anonymous cry for help:
Common sense may tell you
That the ending will be sad,
And now’s the time to break and run away.
But what’s the use of wond’ring
If the ending will be sad?
He’s your feller and you love him,
There’s nothing more to say.
Oy, run, Shirley, run! I’ve seen Shirley Jones around town with her on-and-off-again husband Marty Ingels and frankly, more than fifty years after “Carousel,” I’m not sure she’s learned her lesson.
I was far less excited about seeing “South Pacific,” the 1958 film starring Rosanno Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor. As a kid, I always found this film to be a bore and the decision by director Joshua Logan to place monochromatic colored filters over the camera lens whenever the characters broke into song drove me crazy. Like most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the film version followed a successful stage production, and my assessment had always been that while “Carousel” represented a highly successful stage-to-screen transfer, “South Pacific” was a huge miss, including the replacement of Broadway star Mary Martin with young Mitzi Gaynor. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that I could barely sit through the infuriating “Carousel” and yet I was riveted to every frame of “South Pacific” which I found timely and expertly done. I thought that Mitzi Gaynor’s performance was nuanced and delightful—why had I dismissed her all these years?
“South Pacific” was adapted by Rodgers & Hammerstein from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Tales from the South Pacific.” The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1949 and dealt with the nearly taboo subject of racial prejudice, also won the Pulitzer Prize as well as 9 Tonys including the never repeated feat of winning every single acting award that year. The number of songs from this show that have become standards is mind-boggling, “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” among them.
The story takes place on an island in the Pacific during the throes of World War II. A young U.S. Army nurse from Arkansas named Nellie Forbush is stationed there and falls in love with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner who lives on the island. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Joe Cable of the U.S. Marine Corps arrives to plan a secret spy mission that might turn the tide in the war with Japan. While on the island, he meets and falls in love with a young Polynesian girl named Liat. As the story progresses, Nellie and Joe’s latent prejudice rears its ugly head. Nellie finds out that Emile’s late wife was Polynesian and his two children are biracial. For an Arkansas girl, the idea of becoming stepmother to these two half-breeds is abhorrent and she backs away from Emile. Oh, Mitzi, Mitzi, we hardly knew ye! Although in love with Liat, Joe can’t fathom marrying his dark-skinned girl either, even if it means saving her from a loveless match to a much older man. Though they both feel bad about their bigotry, neither Nellie or Joe think they have a choice in the matter. Cable then sings a provocative song that the censors tried to cut from the play and film because of its sensitive nature. Luckily, Rodgers and Hammerstein fought for the song and it remained.
Youve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Pretty damn daring for that time and I’m guessing a song that resonated with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Jewish backgrounds. I found this film to be challenging and profound and wildly entertaining, even with the damn filters that, to his credit, director Logan later said was the worst mistake of his entire career.
Tonight, as we gather in our synagogue to hear the haunting Kol Nidre prayer, the museum will be screening “The King and I,” another tale of bicultural relations and prejudices. Tomorrow they’re showing “Oklahoma!” featuring repeat performances by Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. Macrae’s Curly is just as arrogant as Billy Bigelow but has other redeeming characteristics, thank God. None of the characters in “Oklahoma!” would have recognized a Jew if he slapped them in the face, although the traveling Persian peddler, the exotic and slightly shady Ali Hakim, might as well have been Jewish. In the Broadway version of the play, Hakim was played by a well known star of the Yiddish theatre while in the movie, the odd decision was made to cast the Aryan-looking Eddie Albert in the role. The dangerous Jud, played by Rod Steiger, also evoked the Jew’s outsider status in this country. Professor Andrea Most, writing about Jews and the history of musical theatre, maintains that Rodgers & Hammerstein's “Oklahoma!” symbollically pitted Jews against African Americans even though there were no Jews or blacks in the show:
But there are two outsiders who need to be assimilated: the peddler, Ali Hakim, and the threatening farmhand, Jud…The peddler ends up marrying into the extended Oklahoma family, while the “bullet-colored” Jud—described in the stage directions as singing “like a Negro at a revivalist meeting”—must ultimately be expunged. While Ali represents Jews’ hopes of moving into white America, Jud personifies the qualities that Jews feared would make them black.
Next week the festival will be screening “Flower Drum Song,” yet another tale of the benefits and pitfalls of assimilation, and “The Sound of Music,” a story about Nazis and World War II without a single mention of Jews (but with plenty of hidden Jewish content).
And now I must get ready for our services tonight in which my list of transgressions may come close in length to Billy Bigelow’s. Surely, the Rodgers & Hammerstein song that is the focal point of Billy’s redemption scene at the end of “Carousel” is the pair’s most Jewish song of all. It could almost be considered an anthem for Jews everywhere.
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone,
You’ll never walk alone!