Jim and Ginevra Ralph (pictured above) present another of their Oregon Festival of American Music events. I have written about them many times. You will find an ongoing series of reviews, interviews (not only be me) and articles about this year’s festival. I will also be publishing an article left over from a festival of some year’s back about Hammerstein.
I asked Jim Ralph, OFAM executive director of to describe this year’s program.
Manoff: Can you describe the general theme of this year’s festival?
Ralph: As you know, each year’s festival is thematically-based and I’m pretty religious about making sure that what is IN the festival proper is close to that theme. This is true for this year as well. But I want to point out that we’ve made a change this year and that while our summer musical is parallel to OFAM once again and is offered to our OFAM patrons if they want to make a package, we aren’t asserting it as being a part of the festival — THE KING AND I is, by no stretch of the imagination, related to this year’s OFAM theme, LE JAZZ HOT: America In The City of Light, 1919-39.
Manoff: What was the inspiration for this year’s theme?
Ralph: For 20 years an important strategy for us has been to present the music we do “in its historical and cultural context.” There are a number of ways of going about this – one GOOD way is to look at a milieu that has great potential for this sort of contextualizing and go for it. We’ve done that a number of times with Oregon Festival of American Music over the years – the Harlem Renaissance (1993), Louisiana & New Orleans (1997), the age of Ragtime and early Jazz (1998), Popular Music in The Great Depression (2008), and Paris between the Wars (2000). This year’s festival returns to that last theme. Why? It was an awesome time and place, culturally, with plenty of musical cross-currents converging from around the world. Ken Peplowski, OFAM’s current music director, wasn’t at our original “Le Jazz Hot” in 2000 and I’ve always kidded him about it, since it is quintessentially his music (hot jazz) and since he has a love of the classical currents in France at that time. That, together with the fact that patrons keep on asking to do that theme again, led us to take it on a second time.
We are covering a lot of similar territory that we covered back then – Sidney Bechet, Cole Porter, Django Reinhardt, Les Six…you pretty much can’t help touching upon these. But we’re also covering some new ground that we weren’t able to get to back then – Siri Vik has put together a great program of French music hall and cabaret music from the mid-1910s to the late ‘30s. Ken’s doing an in-depth survey of the “near-jazz” music of the French Antilles, and we’re doing a jazz party in the spirit of Bricktop’s Montmartre nightclub.
Manoff: What is this year’s connection to your ongoing exploration of the “American Songbook?”
Ralph: What we call the “classic American Songbook” was THE principal popular music of this period in America. What is so interesting about this milieu is how international musical culture was at that time…especially in the cosmopolitan centers. Sure, there was regionalism (still is), but by the 1920s and ‘30s, technologies of mass culture (sheet music, recordings, radio…and better transportation), had made the world a lot smaller. What was going on in America – in New York/Broadway and Hollywood especially—was having an impact on England and France….and vice versa. It was all happening very rapidly too. So the great songs of being written during those decades in America were all over France…and many songs written in France (and England, and Austria especially) were finding their way into popular culture in America (songs like “My Man” and “Just A Gigolo”, for instance, were European transplants).
A massively important vehicle for the introduction of American popular song into Europe was jazz and that’s a lot of our story here. And it’s a story of one very specific type of jazz performance practice, “standards-based” jazz… Ragtime (which isn’t jazz) is a composed music and, thus, self-contained and of limited impact – it’s pretty cool and contained some elements are related to jazz, but that’s it. As improvisational jazz developed (with all of its other characteristics, such as swing and blues, etc.), there would be composed jazz pieces too. But a huge amount of what jazz was about during this period was jazz treatment of popular song (both Tin Pan Alley and Broadway/Hollywood…the standards). Jazz really did find a place for itself in France especially during these years, and the greater part of that was this song-based form….in other words, “jazzing” the classic Songbook, as we’ve come to define it.
So a lot of looking at popular music in Paris between the wars is about looking at the reach of the classic American Songbook into Europe and, as well, the impact of European popular music on the classic Songbook.
Manoff: I wondered about another Hammerstein show when you’ve demonstrated so clearly two years ago that his work comes up rather trite when compared to Lorenz Hart .Also I have never trusted Hammerstein’s stance against racism. My thinking on this (I will link to it in the next weeks) is that Hammerstein was a “self-hating” Jew — I’m not the only one who has gone into this territory. Although he was raised in New York’s Jewish Theater Culture, his mother raised him as an Episcopalian.
Ralph: Well, you could be right about this, and no doubt you are. My own interest in Hammerstein is with his work as an intellectual (and he WAS an intellectual) lyricist and librettist. As you know, I frankly prefer Hart to Hammerstein just because Hammerstein can be so darned preachy. But he DID care about social causes, about issues of racism, intolerance and justice. And I sure can’t fault him for that.
(Manoff: I suggest that he was trying to make-up for his own racist feelings. )
Our doing THE KING AND I is, as I noted above, a part of The Shedd Institute’s ongoing initiative to get as much of the classic American Songbook out there in its original context as we can. At first we just did it as a part of Oregon Festival of American Music (our flagship project for 21 years now), but as we developed our capacity to do musical theatre, we outgrew that festival, so we’ve set up a new series, SHEDD THEATRICALS, wherein we keep up this project on a larger scale. For the past 2 years we did 3 historic properties either from the golden age of musical comedy (roughly 1924-43) or the golden age of musical theatre (roughly 1943-65). This year we’re doing 4. Our season is June-December and we do 1 large-scale production that is usually from the musical theatre period, and 3 from the period of musical comedy — my favorite, because this was the context wherein MOST of the classic Songbook was created. Anyway, a part of this project is doing all the great musicals, which, as you’ve seen over the years, means a LOT of Rodgers and Hammerstein (we’re looking at doing CAROUSEL next year during August). The other shows we’re doing this year have/will be SWEET CHARITY (1966), LADY, BE GOOD (1924) and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). And you know what we’ve done in the past.
So this is the context within which we chose to do THE KING AND I. It is actually a hulluva good property. I frankly was immediately taken by OKLAHOMA! in its stage form, and I’ve got to admit that I fell in love with the original stage libretto for THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I still like Hart’s lyrics better, and I still prefer Rodgers’ melodies with Hart, but I respect Rodgers and Hammerstein.
I expect more interchanges with Jim Ralph as coverage of this year’s festival continues.
Do not miss Siri Vic’s recital at this festival !