10/7/09 - raising money

In today's excerpt - in 1942 in spite of over twenty years of success on Broadway primarily in songwriting partnership with Larry Hart Richard Rodgers and his sponsor the Theater Guild found themselves struggling and groveling to raise the $83,000 ($1,000,000 in today's dollars) needed for his new play Oklahoma! in part because of his new and lesser known songwriting partner Oscar Hammerstein. Oklahoma! of course went on to be one of the greatest financial successes in Broadway history and Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to be its most successful songwriting team with a long string of triumphs including South Pacific, The Sound of Music and Carousel:

"Oscar Hammerstein's first choice of title, for the musical Oklahoma!, was discarded lest backers assume the show was about 'Okies' in the Depression. Cherokee Strip, an alternative suggestion ... was likewise abandoned for fear people would think it was a burlesque show. So, although no one really liked it ... the safer Away We Go!—borrowed from square dancing lingo—became the working title. ...

"At first, the Guild's lack of funds did not worry the composers; they had a half-century of experience between them, a string of great successes behind them. The money would come. But no matter how industriously [director Terry] Helburn tried, the major producers would not touch the show with a ten-foot pole, and it was not difficult to see why. Apart from Rodgers none of the principals involved had much to commend them to investors. Hammerstein hadn't written anything successful for a decade. ... Choreographer Agnes de Mille, a niece of the film director Cecil B. de Mille, had choreographed only two shows in the past half-decade, neither successful. Nothing there to attract the money men.

"Feeling that established stars might encourage investment, Terry Helburn had suggested Shirley Temple for the role of Laurey and Groucho Marx for the part of the leering peddler, Ali Hakim. Rodgers and Hammerstein ... held out for singers and actors who would be right for the parts, regardless whether their names had box-office appeal. Innovative, perhaps, and courageous, certainly, but not the stuff to attract an $83,000 investment. Do another show with Larry Hart, Rodgers was urged. Give us another [hit] ... but not, for God's sake, a musical about two cowboys competing to take a farmer's daughter to a box social.

"These reactions forced Rodgers and Hammerstein into what must have been one of the most humiliating experiences of their lives. With half a century of hits behind them, a formidable record of writing successfully for both stage and screen, they were reduced to working the 'penthouse circuit' cap in hand, trying to raise money for the show. It was no fun, as Hammerstein recalled. 'It was hard to finance, all right. We didn't have any stars, and those who were putting up money for plays felt you had to have stars. Dick and I would go from penthouse to penthouse giving auditions. Terry Helburn would narrate the story. Dick and I would play and I would sing 'Pore Jud Is Dead'. We weren't hugely successful.' ...

"Even when they augmented their penthouse performances with the singers, the process of raising money remained totally unreliable and painfully slow. Often, they would provide an evening of music and story for the beautiful people in their glittering palaces—and raise not a penny. ...

"Through producer Max Gordon, the Guild approached the forceful, leather-tongued Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, and got him to attend an audition at Steinway Hall. Cohn loved what he saw and promised to put up the money MGM had refused. For a few days, everyone thought their troubles were over, but then Columbia Pictures's board of directors disagreed with Cohn. The offer was withdrawn, although Cohn did invest $15,000 of his own money. Seeing the hard-headed Cohn put that kind of money into the show persuaded Max Gordon also to invest.

"Agnes de Mille related how the last of the money was raised. Terry Helburn went to see S. N. Behrman, a playwright who had won great acclaim with plays produced by the Guild. 'Sam,' she said, 'you've got to take $20,000 of this because the Guild has done so much for you.' And he said, 'But, Terry, that's blackmail.' 'Yes,' she said. 'It is.' "


Frederick Nolan


The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein


Applause Theatre & Cinema Books


Copyright 2002 by Frederick Nolan


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