Some time between The King and I and The Sound of Music, Oscar Hammerstein II acquired a reputation as a milquetoast: Too slurpy and sentimental, said detractors, reserving special scorn for the lyricist's larks learning to pray, hundred million miracles, and eagerness to climb ev'ry mountain while whistling a happy tune. Even friends and colleagues took potshots: When Rodgers and Hammerstein's bordello musical Pipe Dream flopped, source material author John Steinbeck complained that the trouble was, "Oscar Hammerstein has never been to a whorehouse in his life!" The fabulously successful movie of The Sound of Music only made matters worse; to this day, Hammerstein is thought of by many people as too mainstream, too moralistic, too much the product of a repressed 20th century popular culture.
That this is an unjust thumbnail psychological sketch is borne out by the original cast album of Carmen Jones (1943), newly remastered on CD by Decca Broadway. (Previous CDs of this material are pirated versions, incomplete and aurally inferior.) Carmen Jones was Hammerstein's all-black-cast reworking of Georges Bizet's Carmen, transplanted to the American South in wartime. Carmen, the cigarette-girl femme fatale, became Carmen Jones, an independent-minded sexpot in a parachute factory; Don José became Joe, a clean-living, naïve corporal seduced and destroyed by Carmen; toreador Escamillo became (don't you love this?) Husky Miller, the prizefighter Carmen leaves Joe for; and peasant girl Micaëla became Cindy Lou, abandoned by Joe for Carmen. In writing new English lyrics to Bizet's melodies, Hammerstein deviated scarcely a note from the originals and found persuasive modern parallels for Prosper Merimée's hoary, 19th century melodramatics. He was rewarded with a hit: Carmen Jones ran 502 performances, was made into a popular movie a decade later, and yielded one of Decca's first original cast albums.
Hammerstein called Carmen "a perfect wedding of story and music," and Carmen Jones is scarcely less so. What has been little noted over the years is how he improved on Meilhac and Halévy's original lyrics, particularizing the situations and infusing them with a sexiness that will surprise those who know only the cockeyed optimist Oscar.
Consider Carmen's "Quintet," wherein the original Carmen's gypsy friends sing generally and pointlessly about what fun-loving rogues they are. Here it's transformed into "Whizzin' Away Along de Track," in which Carmen Jones' cronies slyly try to persuade her to come to Chicago with them for their own selfish reasons. Carmen is a tough customer -- she's in love with Joe and wants to stay with him -- and the ensuing back-and-forth musical argument rivals, say, Sondheim's "A Weekend in the Country" for pointed characterization and lyrical ingeniousness. Or take the "Habañera," with Carmen flipping her hips and singing a laundry list of love's qualities; Hammersteinized into "Dat's Love," it allows Carmen to snarl: "One man gimme his diamond stud / And I won't give him a cigarette / One man treats me like I was mud / And all I got, that man can get!" (And you thought Oscar had the sensibility of a schoolmarm!)
Many a mezzo has gotten away with playing Carmen as a standard-issue mantrap, but Hammerstein gave Carmen Jones more to act: She's a free-spirited woman in a culture that doesn't know what to do with self-sufficient females, and eventually she chooses death over subservience. "While I can fly around, I'll do my flying high!" she defiantly sings in "De Cards Don't Lie" (one of two original-cast tracks omitted from the LP and restored to CD); "I'm gonna keep on livin' up to the day I die."
The cast album, cleaned up for CD but not without hisses and pops (it has a flatter, less full-bodied sound than Decca's other famous cast album of 1943, Oklahoma!), is an invaluable artifact but doesn't entirely convey the splashy, go-for-broke vibrancy that Billy Rose's original production must have had. Staged by expert Broadway hand Hassard Short, it had an exciting visual concept. The opening scenes were bathed in midday yellow; then the color scheme changed to purple for the rowdy roadhouse where Carmen and Joe rendezvous, blue for the fanciful country-club setting of Act II, and finally to stark black and white for the tragic denouement. The CD's black and white photos show a huge, crowded stage, but you don't really get a sense of the stylish design that wowed critics and audiences.
Rose daringly cast the show with unknowns. Muriel Smith, the first Carmen Jones, had worked in a camera shop; Luther Saxon, her Joe, was a shipyard timekeeper; Glenn Bryant, the Husky Miller, was a New York City cop. All sing impressively but bow a little deeply to high art, slightly overeager to prove their opera chops. Smith's Carmen is less engaging than that of the young Marilyn Horne, who dubbed Dorothy Dandridge's vocals on the movie soundtrack. Horne is earthier and more natural, and the soundtrack album also boasts a sensationally insinuating Pearl Bailey in a supporting role. Unfortunately, it's unavailable on CD, though the film itself has been splendidly transferred to DVD.
Any true Carmen Jones fan will probably want every scrap of the score, and each of the four major recordings has material that is missing from the other three. There's a CD of the hit West End revival from a decade or so ago, with silky vocals by Wilhelmina Fernandez but annoyingly reduced orchestrations. And Grace Bumbry had a go at the part in a 1960s studio cast version. She's a little too grand for this Southern hellcat, but the long-out-of-print recording -- soon to make its CD debut on the DRG label -- will please Carmen Jones completists.
Till Bumbry and Horne turn up on compact disc, this Broadway Carmen Jones will do very nicely. In addition to the two restored tracks, it features a bizarre bonus track, "Beat Out Dat Rhythm On a Drum" as rendered by Decca's house soprano, Kitty Carlisle: "Tonight we's in de groove together!" exults Mrs. Moss Hart, fooling no one. But the rest is authentic and revelatory. Like the thrilling Musicals in Mufti staging of Carmen Jones a couple of seasons back, it reveals the material to be hot-blooded, raunchy, and eminently revivable. Sure, it's less than totally PC, and NAACP types over the years have expressed displeasure with Hammerstein's unique brand of ebonics. (They might note that Hammerstein's white farmers and cowmen of Oklahoma! were handed phonetic lyrics, too; the man was a fastidious craftsman, that's all, and he knew how he wanted his words to sound.)
If the naysayers listen past the "dese"s and "dat's"es, they'll be treated to three-dimensional characters singing superb lyrics to timeless melodies. "I look at life straight in the eye!" the doomed Carmen sings triumphantly in the finale. So, Carmen Jones proves, did Oscar Hammerstein II.
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