Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II liked writing, lived for theater and just kept going, said the man tasked with leading their legacy organization.
Ted Chapin is president and chief creative officer of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company, which is based in New York City. When Rodgers and Hammerstein created their first hit together, “Oklahoma!” in the early 1940s, they had each had a career already, Chapin said in a phone interview with The Herald-Sun. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s prolific collaboration also produced “South Pacific,” “Cinderella” and “The Sound of Music,” their last before Hammerstein’s death in 1960. Rodgers died in 1979.
Together, they kept writing a new show for Broadway every other year until Hammerstein died, Chapin said, and also published their own music and produced their own shows.
“It showed an astonishing amount of confidence,” Chapin said. They also told great stories, he said. The national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” is coming to the Durham Performing Arts Center June 6 through June 11.
This production directed by Bartlett Sher won four Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Revival of a Musical. “The King and I,” which features songs such as “Getting To Know You” and “Shall We Dance,” is the story of a British woman in the 1860s who goes to Bangkok as a governess for the king of Siam.
“While some may feel it’s the West coming to tell the East how backward they are, the history is the king asked her to come,” Chapin said. “The King and I” was also a 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. It’s based on a novel that was in turn based on a memoir.
Chapin has given talks about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “art of collaboration.”
“I think the surprise to everybody was they thought the same way about theater,” he said. Hammerstein would write the lyrics first, and Rodgers would quickly write the music.
“The very few times the lyrics didn’t inspire Rodgers, he didn’t write inspiring music,” Chapin said. Hammerstein used humor, he said, including in “The King and I,” and “that’s not a story with a lot of jokes.” But laughs are written in, he said. “They figured out how to write people who were realistic.”
With more than three decades at the helm of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Chapin knows theater.
He just saw the new Broadway play “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and described it as really smart. A musical like “The Phantom of the Opera,” he said, is a brilliant evening in the theater because it just keeps moving.
Set design has changed phenomenally since Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collaborative days. Scenery was painted and looked like a high school production, Chapin said. What can be done today is astonishing, he said.
“I think the technical abilities of today are mind blowing,” Chapin said.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs have long been famous within and outside of their musicals. While the show’s musicians have mostly been unseen for decades, residing in an orchestra pit, Chapin is one who would prefer musicians be seen. Or at least the conductor, he said.
“It’s right there in the name of the genre: musicals,” he said. “The King and I” has a 16-piece orchestra and conductor. Chapin went to see the production when the tour started, because he “wanted to make sure it sounded as it should sound.” He reads performance reports and makes sure the tour has the resources it needs.
Even as president and chief creative officer of Rodgers & Hammerstein for 34 years, every day is different, he said.
GO & DO
WHAT: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I”
WHEN: June 6-11
WHERE: Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St., Durham