On March 15, 1943, my parents, newlywed for less than a year, decided to attend a musical production preview at Boston’s Colonel Theatre entitled Away We Go! It was wartime then, and Dad knew that he would soon be off to fight in the South Pacific. Accordingly, Mom got them the best tickets available.
As my parents got settled into their front-and-center seats, they soon noticed that sitting in the row in front of them was the production’s songwriting team, the venerable Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Dad, who was wearing his Lieutenant Commander’s Navy uniform, greeted them both excitedly, exclaiming, “We’re very much looking forward to your show!”
The musical duo shook my father’s hand warmly, greeted my mother profusely, and they all chatted for a spell.
Mom and Dad on April 11, 1942 – their wedding day.
As the Overture to the Away We Go! began, both composer and lyricist commenced taking copious notes throughout the two-act program. When a melodic yet sedated love ballad entitled “People Will Say We’re In Love” concluded the show, the audience, including my parents, sat in stunned silence and then commenced to clap vigorously. My mother, who was an intensely curious person, then overheard Richard Rodgers bellow out to Hammerstein: “Oscar, we definitely need an upbeat song to conclude the show. ‘People’ just doesn’t work as an ending here!”
Later that evening, after further encouragement by choreographer Agnes De Mille, Rodgers and Hammerstein gave in and began to compose a decidedly more upbeat number. Toiling away in Rodgers’ suite at the Statler Hotel overlooking Boston Common, Hammerstein later said that he hoped that they could bring all of the show’s themes together “with more muscle” as Agnes De Mille stated years later.
By the following morning, they had retitled Away We Go! with the name of their brand-new closing tune, “Oklahoma!”
When Dad returned from the South Pacific in the fall of 1945, my parents attended Oklahoma on Broadway on their way to a planned vacation in Virginia. “I am curious to see if the show we saw in Boston is any better now that they added a closing song!” Mom quipped when she purchased the tickets to what had become part of Americana, an incomparable theatrical production that had broken all records for musicals for that time.
“This is even better than Away We Go!” Dad joked as they left St. James Theatre on 44th Street. As Mum guffawed, he joked, “This version just might do some decent business.”
Four years later, on April 24, 1949, my parents strolled into the stately Shubert Theatre located at 263 Tremont Street to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most recent musical at the time. My father, in particular, couldn’t wait to see the show. After all, he had ended up serving in the South Pacific as a Naval officer and had seen action at both Iwo Jima and the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Three hours later, after Mary Martin, Enzio Pinza, and the cast of South Pacific had taken their fifth and final curtain call, Dad turned to Mom and stated, “I don’t think Rodgers and Hammerstein will have to tinker with this one at all!”
Decades later, when I played Columbia Records’ Original Cast Recording of South Pacific on their old stereo on Cape Cod, my mother told me this story. “Every time I hear “The Overture” to South Pacific,” she smiled wistfully in 2004, “it’s almost as if I am listening to the soundtrack of my generation.” By that time, Dad had been dead for 18 years, and my mother would pass on a year later.
When I think of my parents these days – and it is nearly every day – I inevitably hear the strains of South Pacific or Oklahoma! playing in my head. As I have come to comprehend over time. music replays past memories and awakens our forgotten worlds to such an extent that those who have died are suddenly alive once more.