Pipe Dream, Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1955 Musical About Outsiders, Awakens in NYC

By Mervyn Rothstein
23 Mar 2012

William Johnson and Judy Tyler in the 1955 Broadway production
Courtesy of Rodgers & Hammerstein – An Imagem Company

Jack Viertel, the artistic director of Encores!, says that he "has wanted to do Pipe Dream for a long time. It's the Rodgers and Hammerstein score that's not from one of their immortal classics that I love the best."

"The original cast album is not a very good representation of it, for various reasons," Viertel says. "It has always been on our list of shows that we've been interested in. Rob Berman, our music director, has particularly always wanted to do it."

Viertel says he has always loved the two Steinbeck novels about Cannery Row, and the character of Doc, "the sort of hero of this show. I grew up with the books. So leaving the show aside completely, I'm positively disposed toward the material."

Pipe Dream did not get totally negative reviews — they could probably be best described as mixed, or mixed to negative. Brooks Atkinson, the theatre critic of The New York Times, then the most powerful influence on Broadway success, called it "a pleasant, lazy romance," adding that it was "tender and entertaining" with a "beautiful score," one that "retains the melodic richness that characterizes" Rodgers' work. (Although Atkinson did go on to note that it was "minor Rodgers and Hammerstein" and that the show "divided newspaper reviewers into two camps" — those that found the show "pleasant" and those who "regard it as a bore." And that "nobody considers it a worthy successor to Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma! and The King and I.")

Chapin hopes that the Encores! audience will be attracted to that "beautiful score," one that in many ways is typical Rodgers and Hammerstein. "That's what I think the discovery will be for the Encores! audience," he says. "That's what I hope will be a pleasure. They'll hear an overture where they think, yeah, this sounds kind of familiar. We sort of know this. And then we'll see and hear how the songs all work with the characters. It'll be interesting for all of us to see and hear what this one sounds like."

Viertel adds that "one of the really lovely things about Encores! is that you get to hear these scores played by this orchestra," which for Pipe Dream will have 30 members. "And the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization is taking great pains to provide a really pristine version of the orchestrations, which are Robert Russell Bennett's, all except one song. What's remarkable to me about listening to the score is you never for an instant would mistake it for anything but a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. You hear the overture and ten seconds into it you know. It's like you're in a dream. You know you're hearing a Rodgers and Hammerstein overture but you can't identify which one. And I love that quality."

Will Chase and Laura Osnes star in the upcoming Encores! production
photo by Joan Marcus

So what went wrong with the original? One thing was the problem of audience expectation. The billing, Chapin says, was "sort of a mismatch. Starting with the fact that the billing was 'Helen Traubel in Pipe Dream.' That's like saying 'the Mother Abbess in Sound of Music.' Or 'Nettie Fowler in Carousel.' Those characters are facilitators. Those are the kinds of characters that Rodgers and Hammerstein used very effectively all the way through their shows — the older, wiser woman who comes into the story at the point where the lead characters need to be boosted into another area — the characters who sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' or 'Climb Every Mountain.' That shouldn't be the lead."

Chapin also says that Traubel was "a strange choice" for the musical, perhaps selected because of the success Rodgers and Hammerstein had had with another opera star, Ezio Pinza, in South Pacific. "And I don't think she was very good in the show."

Viertel says that "casting Traubel as the madam was a disastrous mistake. Not to take anything away from Helen Traubel the artist. It was just bad miscasting. And then she insisted eventually that all the songs she had be put into a soprano key so she could sound like an operatic soprano. It's like casting Patti LuPone as the Mother Abbess [in Sound of Music], in reverse. It just wasn't meant to sound that way. And so the whole show lost balance because the tone of it suddenly got very confusing. And in the end, I don't know that it would ever have been a smash hit, because it has this relaxed, day-at-the beach quality. It's informal, and fun, and light, and I think audiences had come to expect from Rodgers and Hammerstein something momentous, Earth-changing. And this just isn't that show."

He says, though, that he is "completely fascinated by the idea of Rodgers and Hammerstein trying to wrap their arms around a bunch of sort of indolent but charming lay-abouts as opposed to the characters they usually wrote about who were involved in real life-and-death struggles of one sort or another. This is a very light show. It's almost more like a Rodgers and Hart show in some ways. The meeting of the minds — the meeting of Steinbeck's rambling rovers and Hammerstein's impulse toward strivers — creates a very interesting tension."

That tension was a key aspect. It has long been noted that the grittiness of the Steinbeck novel — after all, two main characters are a prostitute and a madam, figures with which Hammerstein was likely uneasy — was toned down in the libretto. (One doesn't usually think of Hammerstein librettos being inhabited by prostitutes.)

"You can understand," Chapin says, "why Rodgers and Hammerstein were, in the mid-1950s, attracted to the Steinbeck characters, who were much more gritty and much more earthbound than the characters Rodgers and Hammerstein were attracted to in other shows." How Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that "since they were the innovators, why not try to do a show that involves people like this. I remember talking to [producer] Cy Feuer about this years ago, and he said that Rodgers and Hammerstein just did musicals with pretty girls in dresses with bows on them' and it was time for them to do a 'mug show.' Pipe Dream is their attempt to do a 'mug show,' like Guys and Dolls."