There is something distinctly American about the ironic songs and musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Todd S. Purdum in “Something Wonderful” gives a well-researching, sweeping biography of the writing duo that created such legendary pieces like “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel,” “South Pacific”, “The King and I”, “Cinderella”, and “The Sounds of Music.” These great works sparked what he calls a “Broadway Revolution” and have become a staple of American culture, heard not only in theaters across the country (and the world) but everywhere from Main Street in Disney World, to championship sports games, to presidential inaugurations.
Purdum is one of the first to write a sweeping, collective biography of both Rodgers and Hammerstein, providing a narrative of their epic collaboration. However, he also goes into their artistic endeavors before they started working together, their separate projects, and Rodgers’ life after Hammerstein’s death. He also provides detailed information about their wives (both named Dorothy), their mistresses, and their children.
In addition to extensive archival research, “Something Wonderful” contains many interviews with actors, designers, directors, dancers, etc. that worked with Rodger and Hammerstein as well as testimonials from fans and family members. Collectively, all these first-hand accounts provide a more complex and nuanced version of the two men’s lives than previous scholarly work had described. Purdum’s work is also differentiated from other biographies because he does not shy away from the more problematic aspects, be it the racist or sexist of the musical or the adultery or alcoholism of the marriages.
The chapters of “Something Wonderful” are mostly structured around each of the major musicals the pair created. Thus, each gives countless detail on the writing process — always working apart, always lyrics first then music — the casting decisions, the rehearsal room tensions, the opening night reviews, and so on. Every chapter gives a complete picture from start to finish of the amazing effort that went into creating the masterpieces and then tells of the unprecedented response from the public every time.
Purdum’s work feels especially relevant in light of all the recent Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces that have been on Broadway. Just in the past few years, “South Pacific” was revived in 2008, “Cinderella” received its first Broadway production in 2013, “The King in I” was brought back in 2015, and “Carousel” is on Broadway right now. Just as Purdum’s work deals with the darker aspects of the Rodgers and Hammerstein relationship, many of these productions have been more political revivals. In particular, Bartlett Sher’s “South Pacific” and “The King and I” were stripped down, focusing on the dark material and the racism of the characters. The current “Carousel” stars Joshua Henry, a black actor, as Billy and confronts domestic abuse head-on.
Todd Purdum’s work proves the timelessness of Rodgers and Hammerstein, giving a perfect explanation of why both Broadway and local stages are constantly doing productions of favorites like “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music.” Despite some personal tensions and some problematic themes in the musicals, Purdum’s well-written new book demonstrates the undeniable magic, the “Something Wonderful” of Rodgers and Hammerstein.