Opera Dives Deep: Evolution of an American Musical

By: Lyric Opera Staff

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George Harter, founder of Kansas City’s own Music Theater Heritage joined Opera Dives Deep on Monday, October 16, 2023 to prepare audiences for The Sound of Music. His presentation, entitled Evolution of a Classical American Musical, explored the role of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II on the transformation of American musical theater from vaudeville sketches to the soaring score of the The Sound of Music. Harter’s presentation in full is available on YouTube.

Harter truly dove deep throughout this lecture, with insight and fun facts previously unknown to participants. Here are just a few of the fun facts we walked away with:

  • Long before the days of physical records and CDs, Broadway shows relied on selling sheet music after their performances, allowing fans to take home the tunes they had just enjoyed.
  • Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics for Showboat, the first musical driven by a central plot. Many consider American musical theater as divided into everything “before” and everything “after” Show Boat.
  • Composer Richard Rodgers' musical style underwent a dramatic shift when transitioning from his first partner, Lorenz (Larry) Hart, to his second, Oscar Hammerstein. As Harter put it, Rodgers’ music transformed from the world of “martinis and cigarettes” to the charm of “surreys with the fringe on top.”
  • Contrary to popular belief, Rodgers and Hammerstein were not close friends. In fact, the first set of lyrics from Oscar was delivered to Hammerstein through a messenger service.
  • While Oscar Hammerstein would spend weeks meticulously crafting lyrics, Richard Rodgers’ creative process was lightning fast, often producing a tune in mere hours.
  • When Lorenz Hart, Rodgers’ former lyricist, attended the Broadway production of Oklahoma!, he was removed for drunken and disorderly behavior.
  • In a time when audiences were sensitive to the aftermath of World War II, Hammerstein made subtle but significant changes to The Sound of Music, altering the costumes of SS troops from brown to blue, reducing the number of Nazi characters on stage, and removing the name “Hitler” from the dialogue.
  • “Edelweiss,” one of the most touching songs in The Sound of Music, was written during the previews of the musical, just months before Hammerstein's passing. It was the last song Rodgers and Hammerstein would write together.
  • People believed that “Edelweiss” was an authentic Austrian tune, and even claimed to remember it from their childhood!