Casting Calls

Just as Rodgers and Hammerstein attracted the best of Broadway, Hollywood royalty came out for their movies. One of the more famous, outrageous casting tales concerns Frank Sinatra, who nearly played the male lead in the film version of Carousel. The crooner agreed to the part and made it all the way to the set before things went awry. After the director, Henry King, explained to Sinatra that he’d be shooting everything in two different formats — so, twice — Sinatra changed his mind. “I signed to do one movie, not two,” he said, before getting in his limo and heading home.

But the stories go back to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first major adaptation: Oklahoma! The way Purdum tells it, just about everyone in town was up for a role. Josh Logan, a frequent Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborator, apparently suggested a young, not yet famous Paul Newman for the lead role of Curly. But director Fred Zinnemann thought the kid was going nowhere. “Paul Newman is a handsome boy but quite stiff, to my disappointment,” he wrote. “He lacks experience and would need a great deal of work. Still, in the long run he may be the right boy for us. He certainly has a most winning personality although I wish he had a little more cockiness and bravado.”

Zinnemann also considered James Dean for Curly, and was kinder on his screen test. Zinnemann called him “an extraordinarily brilliant talent,” but thought he lacked “the necessary romantic quality.” Other names in contention for leads included Montgomery Clift, Van Johnson, Lee Marvin, Debbie Reynolds, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, and Janet Leigh. The movie ultimately settled on the Broadway talents Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones for the lead roles.

The story of how Shirley Jones entered the picture is one of the more uncomfortable anecdotes in Something Wonderful. After dazzling Rodgers and Hammerstein at one of their open auditions at St. James Theatre, Jones landed a chorus role in the stage production of South Pacific. But the duo had bigger plans for her. At the age of 19, she clinched the starring role of Laurey in the film adaptation of Oklahoma!. Rodgers summoned her to his office, where he closed and locked the door. He made a “cold-blooded pass” at her, which Jones apparently brushed off by saying she had a boyfriend and, when that didn’t work, making a joke about Rodgers being her grandfather. “It is a tribute to Richard Rodgers’s professionalism that he didn’t take steps to fire me or ensure that Oklahoma! was the last movie I would ever make,” she later recalled.

That’s a pretty horrifying statement, one that’s completely glossed over in the book, along with the entire story. Jones has talked about the incident before, and journalists have always treated it with a gross levity — in 2013, NPR’s Peter Sagal broached the subject by saying he “love[d] the fact… that Richard Rodgers became first in a long line of show businessman to hit on you.”

So-called casting couch tales of young ingenues entering locked offices with much older, powerful men who can make or break their careers have often been framed this way — as silly, maybe even salacious tidbits of movie trivia and nothing more. But in a post-Weinstein era, it’s wantonly irresponsible to keep perpetuating these ideas. We need to keep having these difficult conversations, and although Purdum acknowledges the story is “dark,” he does not truly grapple with Rodgers’s lecherous qualities. He glancingly references Rodgers’s famous “womanizing” (itself a loaded word) without ever seriously interrogating it, leaving readers with many questions and an uneasy feeling about the book’s subject.

Putting It on the Road

For all their innovation, Rodgers and Hammerstein also played a hand in “killing” the movie musical, at least by some historians’ accounts. As Matthew Kennedy argues in Road Show! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, studio executives saw The Sound of Music as an opportunity to expand the movie musical genre. But they went about it all wrong, interpreting the secret to that movie’s success as excess. It was the grand European setting, the epic story, the roadshow release (including an intermission!) that won over audiences, they reasoned.

So they rushed a bunch of bloated or just plain bad musical extravaganza into production. Doctor Doolittle is one notorious example, a soulless moneypit that embarrassed just about everyone involved. Julie Andrews, high in demand after her star turn as Maria, also headlined two ill-advised musicals: Darling Lili and Star! The latter was such a disappointment that Fox rereleased a shorter version and even changed the name, trying desperately to recoup their losses. Nothing worked. And after bleeding so much money on bad movies, studios concluded that audiences simply didn’t like the genre and dramatically slowed production on new musicals. The days of consecutive Rodgers and Hammerstein hit movies, or consecutive hit movie musicals in general, were over. And they never really returned.

Making Something Wonderful

Purdum’s book offers insight into the minds of two incredibly famous music men. There’s a wealth of information on their creative process, from scrapped lyrics to letters of frustration dashed off to friends. If their outrageous success on Broadway was remarkable, their bumpy path to Hollywood was possibly even more interesting. Despite their lifelong aversion to L.A., the pair impacted the movie musical dramatically, leaving behind a legacy of hit films that moguls are still trying to replicate. Hopefully, they take away the right lessons this time.

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