Oscar Hammerstein, the librettist behind classics like The Sound of Music and South Pacific, is inarguably one of the most renowned creative geniuses to grace the world of theater.
Still, many don’t realize that the majority of these beloved pieces were penned from the comfort of his quaint, Doylestown-based Highland Farm, where he passed away in 1960.
It was here in Bucks County that Hammerstein experienced the brainwave for Oklahoma!, which premiered on Broadway 75 years ago and introduced songs such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” to audiences. The show was the first collaboration between him and composer Richard Rodgers.
In honor of the musical’s milestone anniversary, and to once again honor its local creator’s legacy, Bucks County Playhouse is hosting, on June 21-22, its fifth annual Oscar Hammerstein Festival, which will feature the benefit concert A Beautiful Dawning: Oklahoma! at 75.
The festival was named in memory of the master writer whose countless accomplishments include mentoring a young Stephen Sondheim (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeny Todd, West Side Story) at Highland Farm. The weekend of events celebrates the importance of lyrics in the creation of new musicals, and is part of a year-long program that offers expert mentorship to early-career composers and lyricists.
According to Playhouse executive producer Robyn Goodman, producing director Alexander Fraser and producer Josh Fiedler, a tribute to Oklahoma! was selected as the festival’s centerpiece this year to acknowledge not only its anniversary, but the impact Rodgers and Hammerstein’s partnership is still making 75 years later.
“When Oklahoma! premiered more than seven decades ago, the Broadway musical was forever changed. Today, as Oklahoma! breaks new ground with a revolutionary new Broadway production, we see how Hammerstein’s genius continues to reshape modern musical theater,” Goodman said. “The Playhouse’s Oscar Hammerstein Festival celebrates this genius while also allowing audiences to get to know promising musical theater writers who are working to create the next generation of musical theater.”
A Beautiful Dawning is based on an original concept and production for New York’s 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists. It stars Justin Guarini (BCP’s The New World and Broadway’s American Idiot, Romeo and Juliet, Wicked, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and In Transit) and a cast of rising New York singers (additional names to be announced), with Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization’s chief creative officer Ted Chapin serving as writer, narrator and host.
Through narration by Chapin, the Playhouse audience will gain a new perspective on the show through performances of its classics, uncover songs dropped from the production during its pre-Broadway run (“Boys and Girls Like You and Me”) and explore, with fresh eyes, the show’s continued relevance 75 years after its history-making premiere, which was dismissed at first by the masses.
“Josh Fiedler and I saw the Oklahoma! at 75 concert at 92Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists and we knew right away it was a perfect fit for our annual festival. Ted, Andy and Parker have unearthed the show’s fascinating history, showcasing that marvelous score,” said Fraser. “Just as the iconic, 80-year-old Bucks County Playhouse continues to provide extraordinary contributions to the cultural and economic climate in our community, Oklahoma!, 75 years old, continues to dazzle with its ability to be exciting and relevant to a new generation of theatergoers. It is a testament to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s extraordinary talent.”
Among the other programming scheduled for the festival is a staged reading of the new production Being Theo. With book, music and lyrics by Michael Patrick Walker, Being Theo is a charming musical comedy that follows the travails of Theo, a socially-awkward young man who is facing a difficult moment in his life. How will he get his girl, job and self-esteem back without losing what he values most – being the best Theo he can be? Walker brings a fresh sensibility to this classic “coming of age” show.
For the second consecutive year, the Playhouse is also partnering with Roundabout Theatre Company’s Space Jam Program by offering two teams of composers and lyricists an artistic retreat in Bucks County. Space Jam is a playwright-support initiative designed to give writers the time and space to work through various types of solo and group writing retreats. This year, the Oscar Hammerstein Festival will preview works by the two teams at a presentation reserved for festival passholders only.
“Bucks County Playhouse is thrilled to once again partner with Roundabout Theatre Company to offer this artistic retreat during our Oscar Hammerstein Festival,” said Fiedler. “Last year, attendees were fascinated to get an inside look at the process of writing a new musical. We look forward to welcoming these songwriters as guests of honor at the benefit concert and to hearing their own work performed as part of the weekend’s activities.”
The general public is encouraged to purchase a two-day pass, which grants access to all weekend events. The staged reading of Being Theo takes place Friday, June 21, at 8 p.m., and A Beautiful Dawning: Oklahoma! at 75 will be held Saturday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m. Single tickets are also available.
VIP passes are $750 and preferred passes are $375. Single tickets to Being Theo are $25. Single tickets to the Saturday night benefit concert, which includes a post-show reception, are $150. To purchase tickets, visit BucksCountyPlayhouse.org or call 215-862-2121. Bucks County Playhouse is located at 70 S. Main St., New Hope. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org