Food and Book Pairing: Something Wonderful by Todd Purdum

The Book:

  • Title: Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution
  • Author: Todd S. Purdum
  • Publisher:  Henry Holt and Co.
  • Release Date: 4/3/18
  • Genre: Biography/Non-fiction
  • Age Range: Adult
  • Trigger Warnings: Alcoholism, sexual misconduct, depression, cancer
  • Rating: ★★★★
  • Publisher’s Summary: They stand at the apex of the great age of songwriting, the creators of the classic Broadway musicals Oklahoma!Carousel, South PacificThe King and I, and The Sound of Music, whose songs have never lost their popularity or emotional power. Even before they joined forces, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had written dozens of Broadway shows, but together they pioneered a new art form: the serious musical play. Their songs and dance numbers served to advance the drama and reveal character, a sharp break from the past and the template on which all future musicals would be built. Though different in personality and often emotionally distant from each other, Rodgers and Hammerstein presented an unbroken front to the world and forged much more than a songwriting team; their partnership was also one of the most profitable and powerful entertainment businesses of their era. They were cultural powerhouses whose work came to define postwar America on stage, screen, television, and radio. But they also had their failures and flops, and more than once they feared they had lost their touch. Todd S. Purdum’s portrait of these two men, their creative process, and their groundbreaking innovations will captivate lovers of musical theater, lovers of the classic American songbook, and young lovers wherever they are. He shows that what Rodgers and Hammerstein wrought was truly something wonderful

Like many others, I am intimately familiar with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work. Their work epitomizes “the Golden Age” of musical theater. I grew up with The Sound of Music and fell in love with South Pacific when the 2008 revival aired on PBS. I even was gifted the cast albums to nearly all of their shows for my Bat Mitzvah. Of course, more recently, I’ve seen Cinderella, The King and I, Carousel, and Oklahoma! in their recent Broadway productions.

Their work has been especially on my mind lately because the 1997 television adaptation of Cinderella starring Brandy and Whitney Houston FINALLY made it to Disney plus. I also recently read in Julie Andrews’ biography about her initial reactions to the Broadway production of The Sound of Music and her experiences making the film.

While I knew the work they had created, I knew very little about Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves before reading Something Wonderful.

One of my favorite elements of the book is that it tracks the development of several lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein that we have come to know and love. “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music would certainly be different if it was called “The Things that I Like” and “sew, a needle pulling thread” definitely rolls off the tongue more easily than “sow is what you do with wheat.”

This book also left me thinking about so many “what ifs?” What if Rodgers and Hammerstein had written My Fair Lady when they were approached about it? What if they had written The Light in the Piazza 40 years before Richard Rodgers’ grandson adapted the novella into my favorite musical? Lerner and Loewe’s version of My Fair Lady and Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza are both stunning pieces of musical theater, but it is fun to think about!

I appreciated that the book addresses mental health struggles of both Rodgers and Hammerstein. The beginning of the book describes Hammerstein being admitted to a hospital due to his anguish over learning about his first wife’s infidelity. Something Wonderful also describes Rodgers’ deep depression that lead him to be hospitalized for months and put on suicide watch in the 1950s. It is so important to be reminded that even rich, successful white men can struggle with their mental health.

While their work is often covered in a shiny gloss of nostalgia, there are certainly some very unwelcome truths about these men that I was unaware of before reading this book. For instance, I was so disappointed to learn that Rodgers made unwelcome advances on the much younger female stars of his musicals and films. While I’m glad it addressed them at all, I wish Something Wonderful hadn’t skated by these unpleasant elements of the story quite so quickly.

Something Wonderful is certainly a great read for every musical theater fan. It humanized these two giants of musical theater. There is no doubt that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contributions to musical theater are hugely significant, but this book complicated my feelings about the fact that the theater where Hamilton was playing (and will play again) is called the Richard Rodgers.

Food Pairing: Chili and Cornbread

The recent revival of Oklahoma! at Circle in Square served chili and cornbread at intermission, so Rodgers and Hammerstein now have that association for me. Chili and cornbread is also definitively comfort food, and that feels appropriate as a pairing for a book about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work.

I LOVE Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for corn muffins. They are rich and buttery with a nice crumble (but they don’t fall apart too easily). The recipe makes 12 muffins, which is about the right number to accompany a big pot of chili.

The corn muffins pair perfectly with Smitten Kitchen’s Three Bean Chili. I recently learned that Texan chili doesn’t include beans, but as Deb Perlman of Smitten Kitchen and I are both New Yorkers, this recipe works well for me. I love that she includes suggestions on how one can alter the recipe.

Serve your chili with your favorite sides (cheese, tortilla chips, and maybe even a side of the Oklahoma! cast album!)

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