the diagetic song -- 9/1/23

Today's selection -- from Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer. In 1924, the twenty-something Oscar Hammerstein, later of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, was being taught by Otto Harbach a skill rarely practiced in that era -- how to make songs more integral to the plot of Broadway musicals:
"The following year [Hammerstein] wrote a musical with [Rudolf] Friml (and Herbert Stothart), which they called Rose-Marie. A love story set in the Canadian Rockies, this show turned out to be an enormous international hit and made Hammerstein quite wealthy. It ran on Broadway for 557 per­formances, produced five road companies, and enjoyed similar success in London, Sydney, Melbourne, and Paris, where it ran for 1,250 consecutive performances.

"If we saw the show today we would almost certainly not recognize its innovations, but it did have them. Hammerstein said people laughed at him when he said he was writing a musical with a murder in it, so unheard of was that plot point. Further, Hammerstein and Harbach believed they had crafted a score so essential to the drama that they included this note in the program: ‘The musical numbers of this play are such an integral part of the action that we do not think we should list them as separate episodes.’

"The show produced a breakout hit song -- ‘Indian Love Call’ -- which sold a million copies when it was recorded by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, who starred in the 1936 film version (one of three). The num­ber was in fact incorporated into the story in an organic way. Rose-Marie teaches her sweetheart, Jim Kenyon, the supposedly Indigenous love call­ -- ‘When I'm calling you-oo-oo, oo-oo-oo’ -- which is ‘traditionally’ sung out by a Native while standing on a boulder near a valley with a lovely echo. If the singer's sweetheart reproduces the oo-oo's in response, then he knows she is smitten with him as well. Later in the show, Rose-Marie and Jim will signal each other with the love call when they are separated.

"Cheesy as that scene might sound, it shows that Harbach and Ham­merstein were working to remove the seams between score and story. They realized that one technique was to write songs that critics call diegetic, mean­ing music that is sung or played by the characters within the action onstage. The Sound of Music, for instance, is filled with such numbers: as when Maria teaches the children the basics of music (‘Do-Re-Mi’), or when the children perform ‘So Long, Farewell’ for the guests at a dinner party, or when Cap­tain von Trapp sings ‘Edelweiss’ onstage at a festival. Critics in 1924 did not mention diegeses, but they did enjoy Rose-Marie's buffet of feminine beauty. ‘There is a seemingly endless array of costumes,’ noted the New York Times, ‘tasteful, dazzling, colorful; there are platoons and platoons of chorus girls -- 75, the rapid calculators have it -- tireless, graceful, beautiful.’

"Harbach and Hammerstein took each story seriously, no matter how trivial the project. ‘He taught me to think a long time before actually writ­ing,’ said Hammerstein. ‘He taught me never to stop work on anything if you can think of a small improvement to make.’ Even if they were the only ones who cared, the men constantly tried to solve the puzzles of motivation and character. Hammerstein said that Harbach ‘never wanted a song to be put in unless it was germane to the story. He never wanted a comedian to interpolate jokes that didn't belong in the story. However he didn't always win his battles. Very often the producer and the comedian and the director would conspire and overrule him, and the audience might laugh at the joke he'd objected to, but no one knew how dearly one might pay for the wrong joke in the wrong place.’ Under Harbach's guidance, Hammerstein began to see slapdash story as an existential threat to the development of the mu­sical. ‘Because every play has a character, a soul of its own, when you are inconsistent with that character, you're in great danger,’ he wrote. Betray the story and you kill the show.

"As he matured Hammerstein continued to integrate songs into the mechanisms of plot with ever-greater precision. If The Sound of Music is not Rodgers and Hammerstein's best musical, it is certainly their most diegetic. A particularly effective example occurs just after Captain von Trapp, at the urging of his fiancée, is about to fire the governess Maria. She takes the occasion to implore him to be a better father by seeing each of his children as individuals. Just as she finishes her plea, the Captain hears the angelic voices of his children singing ‘The Sound of Music’ in harmonies Maria has taught them. He turns and listens, as if in a trance. In this moment, he reconnects with something he lost when his wife died: his role as a father. Then he joins them just as they arrive at a key change, singing, ‘I go to the hills / When my heart is lonely’ -- a consummation of music and story that many try for and few achieve. (PS: Maria does not get fired.)"



Laurie Winer


Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical


Yale University Press


Copyright 2023 by Laure Winer


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