Wednesday, October 07, 2009 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

"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
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 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. For a few days, everyone
thought their troubles
were over, but then Columbia Pictures' 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

"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, Applause, Copyright 2002 by
Frederick Nolan, pp. 13-16.


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