ON THE RECORD: Revisiting a "Rhapsody" with Gershwin and Copeland's "Rodeo"

By Steven Suskin
01 Sep 2013

Rodeo was the child of Agnes de Mille, created for the "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo" when they were displaced to the United States during World War II. For this American-themed cowboy ballet, she selected Copland by virtue of his Billy the Kid. Rodeo was an even bigger success, opening at the Metropolitan Opera House Oct. 16, 1942; de Mille herself danced the lead role of the tomboy Cowgirl.

While Copland himself never reached Broadway, Rodeo had an outsized influence on what was to come. Broadway had been a dire experience for de Mille thus far; she had been fired from two major musicals, apparently for being a combination of argumentative and modernistic. One look at Rodeo, though, convinced Rodgers and Hammerstein and The Theatre Guild to hire her for their upcoming cowboy musical, Oklahoma! What might have been just another musical comedy turned into something more when they allowed de Mille to provide a full scale dramatic ballet as opposed to typical show dances.

Hammerstein's idea for the spot was to give Laurey a big circus dream, but de Mille argued that girls don't dream about circuses, they dream about sex — and thus came "Laurey Makes up Her Mind," the psycho-sexual ballet in which Laurey imagines a life with Curly disrupted by the fearsome Jud. Rodgers, as it happened, had already written a full cowboy ballet of his own, long before Rodeo (and also for the Ballet Russe). "Ghost Town" opened at the Met in 1939, choreographed by Marc Platt — who later originated the role of Dream Curly in de Mille's Oklahoma! ballet.

Rodeo is performed here in the full, five-movement version. (For the more frequently heard Symphonic Version, Copland cut the dance hall-sounding "Ranch House Party" movement). It is accompanied by two matching favorites, "El Salón Mexico" and "Danzón Cubano." All are extremely well-played by Slatkin and his friends from Detroit. Also included is the lesser-known Dance Panels. This was a 1959 Jerry Robbins ballet, only Robbins decided — during rehearsals — to cut out Copland altogether and do it without music. Moves, "a ballet in silence about relationships," never got very far; neither did "Dance Panels," which is not something I need to hear again. But Slatkin's new recording of Rodeo has already replaced the version on my iPod.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)