What makes a Broadway musical a classic? Most people would suggest that a musical’s shelf life is a big part of what elevates it to the status of an enduring masterpiece. Does a musical have staying power? Others might suggest that a memorable score full of hits would do the trick. Still, others insist a strong story and relatable characters create the perfect storm. This spring, Broadway audiences find themselves looking forward to two revivals of classic musicals that continue to endure the test of time: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Both proved to be game-changers in the history of American musical theater and helped the art form to evolve. What is it about these favorites that has allowed them to achieve the status of masterpiece? Let’s look at each of their histories for a better understanding.
In 1943, after an ecstatic response to their first collaboration, Oklahoma! (a musical that established a new structure and formula for musical-theater writing), the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein set about looking for a property for their next project. They turned to Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play Liliom, about a carousel barker and a young maid in Budapest, Hungary, who fall in love and then face a relationship of tragedy, heartbreak, and domestic violence. The play was not well received when it first opened in Budapest, but when it traveled to America in 1921 to play on Broadway, it was a major success.
Rodgers and Hammerstein understood that Liliom would need some alterations for it to be successful as a Broadway musical. One of the chief changes that was made was to move the locale from Budapest to a New England fishing village in the late 1800s (though they had contemplated setting it in rural Louisiana). The name of the male lead was changed from Liliom to Billy Bigelow, and the character of Julie (retaining her name) went from being a maid to a mill worker. The new musical that emerged was dubbed Carousel, and in it, Rodgers and Hammerstein perfected on the form and revolutions that they established with Oklahoma!
Opening at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre (the current home of The Phantom of the Opera) on April 19, 1945, Rouben Mamoulian helmed Carousel as director and Agnes de Mille created the legendary choreography. Both, of course, had done the same for Oklahoma!, but Carousel offered them an opportunity to dig deeper and create more confidently, seamlessly tying staging and dancing, elegantly letting them flow in and out of one another. Rodgers and Hammerstein also flourished with Carousel, taking the integrated score to new heights, perhaps never more breathtaking than in the “Bench Scene/If I Loved You” sequence, where dialogue, recitation, and full-on musical theater blended in an exquisite symphony of magic.
Carousel featured a score that was brimming with what would become some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved standards. The aforementioned “If I Loved You,” sung with palpable angst and dreamy hope by Jan Clayton and John Raitt, was a highlight. Raitt made a tour de force out of the emotionally vacillating monologue “Soliloquy,” and Clayton broke our hearts with “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” Skipping an overture to open the show, the curtain rose on the innovative action-in-progress, staged without a dance number, the infectious “Carousel Waltz.” One cannot speak of Carousel without mentioning its anthem of hope, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song of perseverance and fortitude that became a standard well outside the confines of the show.
Carousel is often pointed to as the greatest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. It was certainly a favorite of Rodgers, who thought it was the best score of his career. In its initial run, Carousel ran 890 performances (the fifth longest of the decade), though it never found the endurance that Oklahoma! did (2,212 performances). It remains, however, one of the most revived musicals in the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection. Its subject matter is grittier and darker than most of the other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, and that may be why it seldom runs as long as their other hits. That reason, however, is arguably what attracts interest in revivals of Carousel. It is a complex piece of musical theater about imperfect human beings being human.
If Carousel seemed to be an easy transition from play to musical, My Fair Lady had a harder time coming to fruition along that path. George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion is about a Cockney flower girl who is given lessons in being a high-society lady by a chauvinistic phonetics professor who believes he can change her social status by perfecting her articulation. A Hungarian film producer named Gabriel Pascal believed that Shaw’s play had all the makings of a musical, a Cinderella-type story with a message about social class structure. As Pascal shopped around for composers to take on the project, he soon found that many composers and lyricists were either not interested in “musicalizing” Pygmalion or they took a stab at it, only to decide that it couldn’t be done. Among those who passed: Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had found some modest success in writing for the Broadway stage. Up to then, their biggest hit had been the 1947 fantasy musical Brigadoon, which has itself proven to be an enduring classic. This was followed by the 1951 also-ran Paint Your Wagon, a musical with a superior score that lasted 289 performances. They were a respected duo of the musical stage, the heirs apparent of Rodgers and Hammerstein in style and form. When faced with the opportunity to turn Pygmalion into a musical, Lerner and Loewe were intrigued at the possibilities and set about to write what many thought would prove to be the end of the duo’s careers on Broadway.
By this point, the Rodgers and Hammerstein format for writing musicals — having the music and lyrics grow out of the plot and characters’ experiences — was the way musicals were typically written. Lerner, as both book writer and lyricist, was the sparkling match of wit and wordplay to Shaw’s style. Indeed, it is hard to know where Shaw leaves off and Lerner picks up in musical numbers such as “Why Can’t the English?,” “I’m an Ordinary Man,” “A Hymn to Him,” “Without You,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face.” To add to the class and charm of the piece, Frederick Loewe brought a European grandeur to what was now titled My Fair Lady. The lush melodies of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live” are indicative of Loewe’s “Old World” style and contributed to the score’s popularity.
My Fair Lady opened at Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theatre on March 15, 1956. Playwright and director Moss Hart directed the show, with Hanya Holm taking care of the choreography. Among the cast were the clarion-voiced Julie Andrews in the role of Eliza Doolittle. Rex Harrison was cast as Professor Henry Higgins, a role for which he would become forever synonymous, winning a Tony and eventually an Academy Award for the film version, playing this fussy, grumbling, petulant professor of phonetics. Rounding out the trio of leading players was English music hall comedian Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father, who would introduce the showstopping “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Carousel had opened in a time before Tony Awards were handed out (missing it by just a few years). My Fair Lady, on the other hand, opened after the Tony tradition had started and it took home the award for Best Musical. My Fair Lady ran for a record-breaking 2,717 performances and went on to become an Oscar-winning Best Picture in 1964 (with Audrey Hepburn playing Eliza Doolittle and Harrison and Holloway reprising their roles).
Clearly, both My Fair Lady and Carousel are classics of the American musical theater. No one factor can be held responsible for their successes. It is a combination of inspired writing, memorable music, and brilliant staging that has given both these musicals the distinction of becoming masterpieces. They are elastic enough in their themes and story lines to endure the test of time, to be reinterpreted through revival after revival. We look forward to seeing Carousel and My Fair Lady assume their latest incarnations this spring on Broadway.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals and maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.