“My Favorite Things”: From Hammerstein’s Desk to Holiday Hit

This piece first appeared as a blog post on The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

The Sound of Music may very well be the most beloved musical in America thanks to the massive popularity of the 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews. The film’s soundtrack spent 109 weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart, making songs like “Do-Re-Mi,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “My Favorite Things” household tunes. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s final stage work produced songs that are magically both classic and malleable at the same time. The journey of “My Favorite Things” from showtune, to jazz standard, to Christmas song and then pop riff illustrates their music’s longevity and flexibility.

“My Favorite Things” first reached audiences as performed by Mary Martin in the original 1959 Broadway production. Archives at the Library of Congress suggest that Hammerstein once had a different song title in mind: “Good Things.” The deceptively simple song took Hammerstein a few days to write, and an early draft of the lyrics hints at the ultimate rhythm of the text, even though the words seem a little clunky:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,
Curling my fingers in warm woolen mittens,
Riding downhill on my big brother’s bike –
These are a few of the things that I like.

Hammerstein eventually rewrote the lyrics to rhyme with his new title, “My Favorite Things,” but it was actually Rodgers’ melody that gave the song a life outside of the musical. Jazz musician John Coltrane recorded his own version as the title track of his 1960 album. His interpretation runs over 13 minutes long, but a shorter LP version sold 50,000 units in its first year – a significant achievement for a jazz album. Coltrane improvised over Rodgers’s melody on a soprano saxophone, and the LP’s success re-popularized that instrument in jazz music, where the tenor saxophone reigned supreme.

The following year, Julie Andrews performed “My Favorite Things” on a holiday episode of The Gary Moore Show, years before she was cast in the film and years before the song became associated with Christmastime. Pop crooner Jack Jones was the first artist to include “My Favorite Things” on a Christmas album in 1964, a few months ahead of the film’s 1965 release. Film executives feared the movie would flop without an advance radio hit, so they approached Jones’s record label for publicity. They pitched “My Favorite Things” for Jones’s album, suggesting, “Just add sleigh bells.”

The popularity of both Jones’s rendition and the film cemented “My Favorite Things” in the holiday canon. Major recording artists across genres and generations have recorded the song on their own Christmas albums, including The SupremesBarbra StreisandHerb Alpert & The Tijuana BrassCarole KingKelly Clarkson and Mary J. Blige. Other respected names have put a non-festive spin on the song, like Rod Stewart during his American Songbook phase and OutKast remixing John Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece. Independent artists have also released their own versions; consider the covers by viral pop duo Pomplamoose or “TrapHouseJazz” artist Masego.

Earlier this year, pop princess Ariana Grande received permission from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to borrow the melody of “My Favorite Things” for her smash single “7 rings.” The music video for “7 rings” has over 637 million views (at press time). Though the original stage musical opened 60 years ago, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s score to The Sound of Music remains an inspiration for musicians of all kinds and a favorite of listeners all year long.

The Sound of Gesamtkunstwerk: Wagner to Kern to R&H

My article appears in the Fall 2019 edition of The Glimmerglass Festival’s Fanfare magazine. It starts with Wagner’s idea of a “total work of art” and then traces his influence on American musical theatre. The article ties Glimmerglass’s past and future productions together: Wagner’s Die Feen (2020), Rodgers & Kern’s Showboat (2019), and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (2020).

I also wrote a sidebar chronicling the changes made in adapting The Sound of Music for film. It previews the stage/screen hybrid version to play at Glimmerglass in Summer 2020.

You can read the article here.

“Look at dat little gal shuffle!”: Magnolia Dances into Her Sex

Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.

This piece first appeared as a blog post on The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat may truly be the first musical to unify script and song, with the musical numbers driving the narrative. Dance, however, does not find its equal footing in storytelling on Broadway until Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the first integrated book musical. Though Sammy Lee’s original choreography for Show Boat did not withstand the test of time, dance still serves a purpose in furthering plot and character in the musical.

The first dance break in Show Boat comes during “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a black folk song that mixed-race leading lady Julie sings to Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy. Magnolia confesses her first crush to Julie, but Julie warns Magnolia to tread cautiously out of fear that she will fall too quickly and too deeply in love. Magnolia has heard Julie sing this song many times before, but this is the first time she personally relates to the song. In this moment of sexual awakening, Magnolia embodies her new self-awareness and sexual desires by dancing the shuffle with the African-American dockworkers.

The shuffle originates from enslaved West Africans living in colonial North America. Lacking a common language, slaves used music and dance to communicate with each other and preserve their histories. Many plantation owners outlawed dancing. Since dancing was defined as lifting one’s foot off the ground, some slave communities circumvented this rule by shuffling their feet. Many traditional African-American dances feature the shuffle along with other movements.

Though the human body is not limited to specific movements based on race, the body and its movements are racialized. The shuffle and other dances became one identifier of what white Europeans considered “African primitivism.” As Colleen Dunagan and Roxane Fenton write, “Reaching back to the period of slavery, Euro-Americans both distanced themselves from and were fascinated with African American music and dance. The trope of the primitive identified particular characteristics that were in conflict with middle- and upper-class European social and religious norms, and associated them with Africans, African Americans, and their cultural forms.” Euro-Americans considered blacks to be libidinous and sexually promiscuous, therefore not as “evolved” or “refined” as whites. White people continuously used this idea of the African primitive to justify racism and oppress black people for years.

The shuffle held associations of hyper-sexuality ascribed to the black bodies that performed it. As Magnolia begins to mature into womanhood, she finds her footing in the shuffle, mapping that sexuality – and its corresponding blackness – onto her body. Unlike the black dockworkers also reveling in song and dance, Magnolia can cast off her assumed blackness and its oppressed state; once the dance ends, she resumes her whiteness and its privileges.

But for a brief moment, racial differences between Magnolia and the dockworkers are elided through dance. Such is the paradox of social dance: its ability to both build community and erase the boundaries that differentiate groups, as Camille A. Brown explains. In social dance, a strong potential exists for greater cultural empathy. Magnolia may use the shuffle to safely explore and embody her gender and sexuality, but the dance also brings her closer to Julie and the black workers. Magnolia later begs her father to keep Julie on the boat despite Julie’s mixed race posing a legal threat to his business. Though the musical may employ the African primitive trope, Magnolia’s act of advocacy must have been radical at Show Boat’s premiere in 1927 and still resonates in our racially-charged America today.

Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Song

Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.
Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.

This piece first appeared as a blog post for The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is one of many songs from Show Boat that lives on in popular memory, second only to the masterpiece “Ol’ Man River.” As Todd Decker writes in his book Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”?, “Black or white, male or female – anyone who sings ‘Ol’ Man River’ must confront and consider its charged racial content and activist history.” Though “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” does not have the same activist legacy, it does have a similar specific racial content that must be negotiated in performance, whether that’s within or outside of the context of the musical.

In Show Boat, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” plays a central role in the subplot surrounding Julie, the leading lady onboard. She reads as white, but her performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” hints at her mixed-race background. After Julie sings the chorus, Queenie, the boat’s black cook, immediately becomes suspicious, commenting that she has only heard black people sing that song.

Not only does Queenie draw a musical color line, but the music and lyrics of the song itself also suggest blackness. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics in a stereotypical black dialect, replacing th’s with d’s (“dat” for “that”), dropping the endings off of words (“lovin’” rather than “loving”), and intentionally misspelling words to approximate speech patterns (“sumpin,’” not “something”). Kern’s music also reflects what was considered a “black” sound: “many blue notes and a verse built on the twelve-bar blues realized in the full-voice quarter-note chords typical of bluesy Broadway songs at the time,” as Decker explains in Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical.

It’s up to the singer to decide how to perform the song. Black American jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday both opt for a more standard pronunciation than Hammerstein’s written dialect, but they retain a bluesy vocal tone; Charlotte Church, a white Welsh recording artist, does the opposite. Though none of these singers completely rid the song of its color, their choices create different effects. To fully deviate from the inscribed blackness of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” erases the racial tension between performer and song that makes the piece so crucial to the story. Without its racialized content and delivery, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” fails to signify blackness; it is simply a musical number.

We see this shift later in Act II. Julie’s white friend Magnolia uses “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” as her audition song for the Trocadero nightclub in Chicago. Though she grew up hearing it as a black folk song, Magnolia sings it squarely on the beat, pitch-perfect, at a drowsy lento tempo. Her approach fails to impress the nightclub owner, so she attempts the song again as a rag: lively, syncopated, rollicking. Ironically, the club prefers “Can’t Help” in another black musical idiom – ragtime – in order to prove the song’s (and Magnolia’s) viability as palatable entertainment for (presumably) white audiences.

During Magnolia’s audition, Julie quits the Trocadero and exits the musical altogether, taking with her the song’s original black folk context. Julie’s exit opens a job for Magnolia at the nightclub and opens the song to anyone’s interpretation and appropriation. The country’s racial issues still remain, even if the song itself is no longer racialized.

90 years later, our country continues to grapple with race relations. Renowned singers of various backgrounds have since performed the song, including Lena HorneBarbra StreisandAnnie LennoxKiri Te Kanawa and Natalie ColeBjörk and Cher. See what choices each singer made to navigate the song’s intrinsic blackness.

I graduated!

Ta da! I did it! I graduated summa cum laude from Florida State University with a B.A. in Theatre and a Spanish minor. These past four years blew by so quickly, but I loved just about every second of it! I am honored and privileged to call myself an alumnus of Florida State.

Since I owe you all an update, here’s a brief brag list of my activities/accomplishments this past year:

  • Performed in the opera chorus for Florida State Opera’s La Traviata and Prince of Players – the academic premiere of renowned American composer Carlisle Floyd’s latest opera. Prince of Players marked my 10th production with Florida State Opera!
  • Performed as The Witch in Florida State Opera’s outreach production of Hansel and Gretel, which toured Leon County elementary schools.
  • Cast in my first ever film at FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts.
  • Inducted into the Garnet and Gold Scholar Society for my engagement with leadership, international experiences, and research during my undergraduate career at FSU.
  • Named Theatre Forum speaker by my peers for the School of Theatre’s Class of 2017. (Thanks guys!!!)

As for my upcoming plans, I’m currently wrapping up another week of outreach performances as The Witch in Hansel and Gretel. Afterwards, I’ll substitute teach various levels of Spanish for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. I’m currently awaiting some news that will decide my future for the next few years…I can’t say much yet (I don’t want to jinx it!), but I’ll be sure to share it here if/when it becomes official!

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GO NOLES!

 

New Headshots!

(Photo credit: André Peele Photography)
(Photo credit: André Peele Photography)

Does the home page look a little different to you? This new photo of me is from my recent photoshoot with André Peele. His work is absolutely fantastic!

All of my new headshots are now posted in my gallery – click here!

To see more of André’s work, check out his website.

P.S. I still owe you an update on my life from this past fall. I’ll share it here as soon as possible!

Updated Résumé

Wow, this semester has absolutely flown by! I’m due for a big post detailing all of the wonderful things that happened this fall. I promise I’ll write it soon; in the meantime, my updated résumé is currently live on the site. It’s also available as a PDF and Word Doc to download. (It’s a nice sneak peek of my work this semester!)

Thanks,
Nick

The reviews are in!

Local critics and audiences alike are loving Schoolhouse Rock Live! (Even our creative team is shocked by the great reception!) I’m honored to have made an impression on our critics. Check out the press below:

From AltDaily: “Standouts include…Nick Richardson, who finds some great moments of humor with some nice choices of line delivery, and gets to don the largest costume piece as the titular character in ‘Just a Bill.'”

From Outwire757: “The entire ensemble helps to bring the story to life on stage, but two performances stand out: Nick Richardson’s and Kai White’s. Mr. Richardson’s energy level is one every performer should strive for. He committed to every character and performance and was a joy to watch.”

I’ll update this if any new reviews are published!

There are still two more weekends to see us at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach! (We sold out last Sunday, so get your tickets today!)

July News

It’s been a while since I’ve last updated my site, and so much has happened since then! Here’s the scoop:

  • I completed my junior year at Florida State University, and I have one more year to go!
  • For the first few weeks of summer, I was a substitute teacher for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.
  • In May, I was cast in Schoolhouse Rock Live at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach. We just had our opening weekend! There are still 3 weekends left (last show: August 7th), so buy your tickets today! (Hopefully I’ll share some reviews with you soon.)
  • I was hired by Trinity Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, VA as a paid soloist/chorister.
  • I just finished my second year working/volunteering as the Creative Team Assistant for Spotlight Productions, a theatre camp for children hosted at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, VA. For the youth camp (ages 8-12) production of Alice in Wonderland Jr., I served on deck crew and I helped design the program. I also designed the program and served as assistant choreographer for Grease, the teen camp’s show (ages 13-19).
  • The abstract to my award-winning scholarly paper “Does the Boot Fit? Understanding Race and Sexuality Representations in the Musical Kinky Boots” appears in the latest edition of Southern Theatre magazine (Volume LVII Number 3, Summer 2016). The online copy isn’t available yet, but you can read my abstract here on Southeastern Theatre Conference’s website.

It’s been such a busy summer already! Time is flying by!