Working merch on South Pacific has given me the opportunity to listen to the show a bit here and there. I may be in the lobby but, particularly with the monitors on, that 30 piece orchestra hits and hits hard. There's something to be said for reviving a show and keeping choice elements in tact--such as the orchestrations. I will be the first to step up and endorse smaller pits, chamber pits, rock pits, whatever you want to call Next to Normal's pit, but there's just something about kicking it old school. And I'm sorry but the mega musical pits don't count as old school. Just in case you were wondering. If there's a synth in your pit, you ain't legit.
Long ago at a theatre not so far away, a composer friend of mine made an offhand comment about the lyrics of Howard Ashman elevating the work of Alan Menken. This has been a point of thought for me ever since. I'd never really looked at teams that way. The thing is, Menken has never really been as good as he was with Ashman. The blooming, radiant exception is Hunchback of Notre Dame and its subsequent European stage incarnations. But, to be fair, Ashman is known for very little beyond his work with Menken. The only piece that stands out in my mind at the moment is "Once Upon a Time in New York City" from Oliver in Company.
The pair elevated Disney and musicals at a time generally monopolized by a handful of names. Ashman went to Menken pre-Little Mermaid and said that these Disney films were a new frontier of musical theatre. Of course, when you do good by Disney, Disney puts all its eggs in your basket, as those Pixar boys have learned.
So I apply this same template to Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the man with the short end of the stick never fails to be Oscar. Am I going to criticize the lyrics of one of the defining artists in contemporary musical theatre? No, it's been done. Sondheim said it best, commenting how Hammerstein loved his bird metaphors. When Hammerstein hits hardest he knocks it out of the stratosphere, like with his final composition: Edelweiss. I'm just saying that the driving, striking force here is Rodgers. The music simply speaks for itself. It wasn't that Rodgers knew how to write a pretty tune, though he did. He knew how to surprise and layer. That "Some Enchanted Evening" sighs beneath "This Nearly Was Mine" could purely be the work of the orchestrator, but the songs had to fit somehow and at the time that simply didn't happen in musical theatre scores.
So I feel Howard Ashman carried Alan Menken and I feel that Richard Rodgers carried Oscar Hammerstein (I'm mostly out of metaphors). So I wonder, is there an even match up? A melange of lyricists worked with Jule Styne, and Styne was what Jeanine Tesori is fast becoming: a chameleon. So it's difficult for me t judge there. I don't know Bock and Harnick well enough to judge, but I do love how varied their work is. Then I look at Kander and Ebb and I have to wonder if they don't compliment each other perfectly, hand in hand always. Quintessentially American, stylistically varied, but not so much that their voices disappear, they sit smack dab in the middle of the fray. They aren't as sweeping as their contemporaries but they can be tender and viscerally serious. They aren't brassy but they aren't without their moments of "entertainment." I particularly love the fact that roots of the "jazz hands" idea of what Broadway is, very well came from a Kander and Ebb show and yet much of the "entertainment" in these shows stands more as a parody or an effigy of the light-hearted Ziegfeld or Gershwin days.
I would love Adam Guettel to find his lyrical soul mate. I think he and David Lindsay-Abaire should try each other out. And I'd love for Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner to write together forever. Comden and Green were a pretty even match, I think.