The John Wilson Orchestra Plays Selections From Rodgers and Hammerstein
By Norm Robins
Almost everything about this beautiful music is perfect. John Wilson has assembled a symphony-sized orchestra complete with chorus and musicians recruited from the world’s best orchestras. The British and American singers are the best Broadway and London’s West End have to offer. The venue the Royal Albert Hall is sublime.
Let’s talk about the Royal Albert Hall for a minute. It is one of Britain’s national treasures. It was built in 1871 by Queen Victoria and named after her beloved husband Prince Albert. Britain industrialized roughly around 1790. The U.S. and Germany didn’t industrialize until the 1870s, or the time this was being built. The Brits were way ahead of us. It is a cavernous place that can seat 5272 people. The discs at the top of the nearby picture are fluted aluminum sound absorbers to help make the acoustics perfect. They were built to address the Hall’s originally horrible acoustics. Before the acoustical corrections it was said the Hall was “the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice”. Ouch!
This is 1 hour 46 minutes of sublime music. It is anodyne music. It will upset nobody and give joy to everyone, something I mark as a welcome break from what we see on the news and hear from our friends and neighbors these days.
On the other hand, I call this music anodyne because Wilson carefully skirted the controversy that came from some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music. For example, the South Pacific plot follows a nurse who falls in love with a French planter on a South Pacific Island. It deepens when she finds out he has mixed race children, Tonkinese and white.
A secondary plot follows the love affair between a U.S. Marine lieutenant and a Tonkinese woman. The marine and the French planter discuss the social ramifications of a World War II-period mixed marriage. The planter says to the lieutenant, “Why do you have this feeling you are ashamed. I do not believe it is born in you.” The marine says, “It’s not born in you.” He breaks out into song:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
And with that we were off to the races. Rodgers and Hammerstein risked the entire future of the play and the venture to keep this in. While the company was on tour in the Southern U.S. the Georgia legislature introduced a bill outlawing entertainment that contained “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow”. That was just one piece of it. James Michener, upon whose book Tales of the South Pacific it was based, stood up for it and said, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” Bless you, Rodgers and Hammerstein, you were both men of honor and nobility that outlasted your detractors. You had the guts and the grit to stand by your ethics.
If you would like to see this part, you can find it on YouTube by searching for “South Pacific you’ve got to be carefully taught”. It is touching.
Ditto for The King and I. A secondary plot has the young, beautiful Tuptim given as a present from the King of Burma, Thailand’s traditional enemy, to King Mongkut, or Rama IV, of Thailand. But Tuptim falls in love with the young, handsome scholar Lun Tha. To express her pain at being what today would be called a sex slave, Tuptim wrote about slavery in America from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin given to her by Anna Leonowens, the school teacher hired by King Mongkut. The write-ups on this call Tuptim a minor wife. Minor wife comes from the Thai term mia noi, literally minor wife. It is a euphemism in both languages. “Minor wives” aren’t wives at all. They are slaves.
Tuptim performs Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or as she called it “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” as a play within a play, for King Mongkut. The small house of Uncle Thomas is in the Kingdom of Kentucky and ruled by the most wicked King in America Simon of Legree. The people there are happy, happy, happy. But one person is not happy, the slave Eliza. King Simon of Legree sells Eliza to the King of Ohio, but she is still in love with another. She escapes. The players sing, “Run Eliza. Run Eliza” Eliza runs through rain storms and over mountains. If you wish you can find this on YouTube by searching for “The King and I small house of Uncle Thomas”. It is likewise touching.
But none of this is portrayed in Wilson’s repertoire making this a concert that is simply a joy to watch and anodyne to its toenails. Watching this is a lovely way to spend a beautiful spring evening. If you would like to watch it on your smart TV, you can find it at:
If you click on the link above to watch, please make sure to move the little red ping-pong ball at the bottom back to 0:00. Enjoy!