Write Your Very Own R&H Musical

Steven Sauke
Several years ago, I watched a monologue by Anna Russell giving detailed instructions on writing your very own Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. She had much of the plot worked out for hers, detailing the exploits of the lovely maid Pneumonia. There was a patter song and a contralto involved. She observed that most of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas were basically the same, with all the same elements.

You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYCXO_FZj5k

It got me thinking… Rodgers & Hammerstein were another classic pair of composers. They also had similarities in style and story elements in all or most of their musicals. A few years ago (more recently than when I watched Anna Russell), I wrote some tips on writing your own Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Unfortunately, I don’t know where I put it, but I remember enough that I think I can recreate it from memory (all alone in the moonlight… oh wait, wrong composer).

First of all, the music. Your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical must have the same style as every other Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. It can have varieties in instruments (for example, The King & I uses a Thai-sounding style, and The Sound of Music involves yodeling), but the songs from one musical to another must sound like they could easily be from the same musical.

The plot. Your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical must involve a somewhat controversial plot. South Pacific addresses interracial relationships (more controversial at the time than it is now), racism and a “good” character who had to flee for his life because he killed a man. Flower Drum Song involves a mail-order bride. Oklahoma! sees a main character taking a hallucinogen, and also involves abuse and a fight to the death. Carousel also addresses abuse, adding murder and stealing to the mix. The King & I involves slavery, a harem, and violent punishment (although Tuptim being whipped was less violent than the real story, in which she fled the palace, posed as a monk, and was subsequently beheaded). The Sound of Music involves Nazis.

The vocabulary. There are certain words that must be used in your Rodgers & Hammerstein musical:

Cockeyed. This can mean crooked, askew or absurd.
“They call me a cockeyed optimist.” (South Pacific)
“While somersaulting at a cockeyed angle, we make a cockeyed circle round the sun.” (The Sound of Music)

Dope. This is the older definition of the word, as in a silly or stupid person.
“I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope.” (South Pacific)
“I sit around and mope, pretending I am wonderful and knowing I’m a dope.” (State Fair)
“The gentleman is a dope!” (Allegro)
“The world is full of zanies and fools who don't believe in sensible rules, who don't believe what sensible people say, and because those daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day!” (Cinderella)

Gay. Again, this is an older definition of the word, as in happy or fun.
“I feel so gay in a melancholy way that it might as well be spring.” (State Fair)
“Younger than springtime am I. Gayer than laughter am I.” (South Pacific)
“The games they played were bright and gay and loud! They used to shout, ‘Red Rover! Red Rover, please come over!’” (Flower Drum Song)

Louise. It is important for a character to be named Louise or a variant on that. Julie Bigelow names their daughter Louise in Carousel. Anna’s son in The King & I was Louis. When writing The Sound of Music, none of the children’s names were anywhere similar. We can’t have that! The solution was to change the names of all seven children so that one of them could be named Luisa. (I’m more inclined to believe that their names were changed because the real “Luisa” was named Maria, and that could lead to confusion in the storytelling. It caused enough confusion when she died a couple years ago, and a lot of people thought it was a different Maria von Trapp who died. I’m not sure why they changed the names, but that’s my theory.)

The haunting plea. In South Pacific, Bloody Mary decides that Lt. Joe Cable would make a great husband for her daughter Liat, and thus expounds on the virtues of her island “Bali Ha’i” to him. The tune is slow and haunting. In The King & I, Lady Thiang realizes that Anna is the only person who can help the King in his current predicament, but as Anna is currently angry with the King, Lady Thiang sings a haunting ballad about how the King can be infuriating at times, but sometimes he can do “Something Wonderful.”

The advice. In The King & I, Anna advises Louis to “Whistle a Happy Tune” when he is afraid. In The Sound of Music, Maria reveals her strategy in a similar situation is to think about “My Favorite Things.”

The lovers. Their song(s) must start with one lover singing a verse. Then the other lover must repeat back almost verbatim what the first lover sang. Certain adjustments are all right. For example, “You are sixteen going on seventeen” in the first verse becomes “I am sixteen going on seventeen” for the second verse. Sometimes the verses are almost completely identical. For example, “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in a Shadow” from The King & I, “Do I Love You Because You’re Wonderful?” and “Ten Minutes Ago” from Cinderella. The Sound of Music mixes this one up a bit with the song “How Can Love Survive,” as the duet is about the lovers, but only one of the lovers in question is actually singing. Interestingly, that love does not survive, as the Captain later realizes that the Baroness is far too willing to compromise on important matters. Flower Drum Song flips the formula, in which two characters try to convince the other: “Don’t Marry Me!”

Denial. In Oklahoma!, Curly and Laurey give each other advice on how to behave, as they aren’t willing to admit publicly that they’re dating. They worry that “People Will Say We’re in Love,” so they decide to pretend they are not. In Carousel, Billy and Julie (played by the same actors as the previous couple in the classic movies) aren’t willing to admit to each other, let alone publicly, that they’re in love, so they tell each other what they would do “If I Loved You.” It just so happens that what they sing about doing is exactly what they are doing. They end up not verbalizing their love for each other until it’s too late. (“Make Believe” from Show Boat also fits in this category, and that musical was by Oscar Hammerstein, though he composed it with Jerome Kern rather than Richard Rodgers.)

The breakup. At least one of the lovers decides they can’t go forward in this relationship. After learning of his children by a Polynesian woman in South Pacific, Nellie decides she cannot get past that and resolves to “Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair.” Emile quickly manages to help her get over her racist attitude, and that resolution falls flat. In The Sound of Music, Maria counsels Liesl what to do when she realizes that Rolf doesn’t love her as much as she thought, in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen (Reprise).” (Again, Show Boat fits into this category, as Gaylord Ravenal leaves and Magnolia must raise their daughter on her own. He eventually returns, but their daughter has grown up by then.)

The breakup sometimes leads to the women singing about their frustrations with men and marriage. “Give It to ’Em Good, Carrie!”, “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone”, “Many a New Day”. These songs often don’t work to convince her to foreswear her love. Either the lovers get back together, or they never stopped loving each other in the first place and were just in denial or pretending.

The soliloquy. A character should ponder their options, as they have a difficult choice ahead of them. In his “Lonely Room” in Oklahoma!, Jud Fry considers how to proceed in his relationship with Laurey and resulting rivalry with Curly, having just been taunted and threatened by Curly. Jud’s decision ultimately leads to his death. In Carousel, Billy Bigelow walks along the beach singing his “Soliloquy” dreaming about his child and pondering how he is going to provide for him or her. Again, his decision ends up resulting in his death. On the other hand, the “Twin Soliloquys” in South Pacific combine the love song and soliloquy. Nellie and Emile are pondering their options related to their budding romance. They sing nearly verbatim what the other person sings, but they are pondering these things to themselves rather than singing to each other. Unlike the lone soliloquys mentioned above, their decisions do not end up in their deaths. Another variation is near the beginning of the musical, as the character sings a soliloquy about their current situation, such as “In My Own Little Corner” from Cinderella and “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair.

The ballet. Carousel, Oklahoma! and Flower Drum Song have dreamy ballets. The one in Oklahoma! is particularly important to the plot, as it helps Laurey realize the extent of the danger she is in from Jud’s abuse.

Careful, awkward wording. A character is put in an awkward situation where they must word their requests very carefully. In South Pacific, Nellie is set the task of asking Emile why he killed a man. This is a red flag in the mission the US army has in mind for him, and they need to be sure he is trustworthy. But for Nellie, who has feelings for Emile, she doesn’t want to damage their relationship, and she can’t reveal why she is asking. In The King & I, Anna must give the King advice without seeming to. She resorts to “guessing” what the King is going to do, thus preventing an international incident. In Cinderella, the title character tells her stepfamily about the “Lovely Night” she just had at the ball, but can’t reveal that she was actually there. So she acts like she’s dreaming about how it would have been had she gone.

Singing about the location of the musical. Oklahoma! has an enthusiastic song about the virtues of their territory that will soon be “a brand new state!” State Fair has a similarly enthusiastic song about “All I Owe Ioway.” In both of these examples, they spell out the name of their state/territory in the song. When State Fair was revamped and reset in Texas, “All I Owe Ioway” was replaced with “The Little Things in Texas.” The similar tribute in The Sound of Music doesn’t mention Austria by name, but “Edelweiss” does ask to “bless my homeland forever.” Flower Drum Song gets very specific with its song about “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA!”

The smaller story within the story. Characters tell a story. Sometimes they reenact it. Tuptim composes a play called Small House of Uncle Thomas, based on the classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in The King & I. Maria and the children sing the story of “The Lonely Goatherd” (using marionettes in the movie, but not in the stage version) in The Sound of Music. We learn (very briefly) about “Fan Tan Fanny” in Flower Drum Song.

The big dance. This is different from the ballet. It is much more enthusiastic, and is accompanied by a song sung partially or entirely by the full company. I’m talking “The Farmer and the Cowman” (Oklahoma!) “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” (State Fair), and others

The finale. No matter the subject matter, the title of the song must be “Finale Ultimo.” While not necessary, it is a good idea to have the audience incredibly moved at this point. They could be grieving a lost main character. Maybe the wedding was just that powerful. It could be any variety of reasons.

I hope this gets your creative juices going, and I look forward to seeing everyone’s Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals on Broadway someday!

Steven Sauke grew up watching Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. He has performed in two of them.