May 4, 2013

Carousel: What if the "Clambake" number was in every Rogers and Hammerstein show?

These clams don't wish to be baked.... clams on the run...
As Virginia Opera gears up for our season-closing production of Carousel...

Act 2 opens with a choral number, "This was a real nice clambake". It's one of those choruses that crops up in every Rogers and Hammerstein show: either winningly wholesome if you like that sort of thing, or impossibly corny if you don't. To jog your memory, here are the opening lyrics:

This was a real nice clambake,
We're mighty glad we came.
The vittles we et
Were good, you bet;
The company was the same.

It goes on in that vein. Okay, it's not exactly Emily Dickenson in terms of great poetry, but it does succeed at summoning up the character of plain-spoken, no-nonsense New Englanders. Hammerstein was creating theater, after all, not a submission to the Harvard Review.

I recently learned that "This was a real nice clambake" was originally written for Oklahoma as "This was a real nice hayride". In the way of Broadway shows in which out-of-town tryouts beget hurried re-writes, this is a typical development. Sometimes numbers that looked good on paper somehow don't work as imagined when flesh-and-blood performers bring them to life on stage.

The practice of re-cycling musical material is a time-honored practice in composition, Handel being the all-time champ in that regard. So it's not surprising that Rodgers and Hammerstein would have kept "Hayride" in their creative back pocket, so to speak, ready to plug it in where it could do the most good.

But it got me thinking: what if they had skipped over Carousel and inserted this chorus into one of their other classic musicals, tweaking the lyrics to make it fit the drama? I, Glenn Winters, have just found a lost volume of rejected Rodgers and Hammerstein versions of "Real nice clambake".

I found it in my attic - imagine that! I wonder how it ended up there, of all places? Gee, I'll bet if that lost volume  could talk, it would have quite a story to tell. But now, appearing in print for the first time, I share them with you. I might get a Pulitzer for this, right? (Don't answer that.)

From The Sound of Music:
Those were some real bad Nazis,
We're glad we got away.
We almost got lost
When the Alps we crossed;
But now we're all okay!
(Okay, I'll admit - they were wise to axe this one.)

From The King and I:
This was a real nice Buddhist prayer ceremony,
The incense smelled so nice.
It didn't last long,
I helped hit the gong,
And now we'll eat some rice!
(Not bad, but the meter in line 1 doesn't work so it had to go.)

From South Pacific:
This was a real nice luau,
The poi was nice and fresh.
Cinderella: classy... and glassy
A pit we did dig
To roast a fat pig;
That's how it tastes the besh'
(Clearly, "besh" as a distorted pronunciation of "best" was a weak rhyme. One senses that Hammerstein, normally a brilliant lyricist, phoned it in on this occasion.)

From Cinderella:
This was a real nice ball,
The carriages smelled kind of pumpkin-y;
Cinderella looked classy,
Her shoes were all glassy,
She's no longer country-bumpkin-y.
(Unacceptable. Hammerstein wrote this after a few beers, and it shows. Some historians posit that Rodgers himself may have penned this one, explaining why he needed other guys to write the words.)

Admit it: from now on, won't you listen to the "Clambake" chorus with new insight and appreciation? No?

Oh, fine - whatever... You'll change your tune when I'm accepting my Pulitzer...


  1. Would the song have been improved had the show retained the orginial setting? As in...."We had a real nice goulash." But no, you're right - it's not as nice a song as the clambake seemed to be.

    Dwight Davis

  2. Dwight, I would add that "goulash" has limited rhyming potential... :)

  3. Glenn, loved your pre-opera presentation, as always.

    You mentioned that many in the field dismiss Rogers and Hammerstein as being "corny" and "sentimental." This got me to thinking, since I've loved their work since I was a young child, and continue to do so.

    Perhaps this disparity of opinion stems from the show having been written during a highly emotional and passionate time (the very end of WWII), while we reside in a post-modernist age of irony. And perhaps our current culture has difficulty distinguishing between sentiment and sentimentality. My working definition: if a scene earns its emotional content, it's sentiment. If it's over the top, then it's sentimentality. Everyone teardrop in Carousel is more than earned. - Fred Levy (aka Cindy's husband)