When I was growing up, my family lived out in the country on a cattle ranch, surrounded by luxurious acres of rolling hills, creek beds lined with ancient trees, and an endless chorus of katydids and bullfrogs that became the background music of our childhood. Perhaps the greatest thing about where we grew up, though, was the fact that our grandparents lived a half mile away — a measly 90-second jaunt down the gravel road on our bikes, refuge from our mother’s chore list in the summertime months.
It was there, in Grandma Simon’s sunken living room — replete with faux-walnut wood paneling and innumerable picture frames that sorely needed dusting — that I came to know (*dramatic pause*) the the-uh-tuh.
Oklahoma! strikes me as the first musical she introduced my sister and me to, but that could just be the fuzzy recollection of twenty-some years gone by. We reenacted Curley’s opening number (“Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day!”) and belted “Oooooooooooooooooooo-klahoma!” at the top of our lungs, most likely whilst racing back home on our be-streamered bicycles.
Grandma showed us The Sound of Music and The King and I and Carousel and South Pacific — I’m pretty sure my sister sang about washing a man outta her hair every time she showered for months after. Rodgers and Hammerstein became the sort of names my sister — who later became a theater major and remains invested in theatrical work to this day — uttered with the reverence one might reserve for May Crowning at church. We lived and breathed musicals during the summer months, when that dratted school couldn’t occupy all of our Grandma-visiting hours.
All this is to say: when I had the opportunity to read Todd Purdum’s newly released biography about the musical gods themselves, titled Something Wonderful, I jumped. And then I dragged my feet a bit, because a year since Grandma’s passing felt too soon to be reading something that reminded me of moments we had shared and cherished so much. When I finally began reading, though, I was thrown into a nostalgic world of musical and theatrical bliss, and filled with a longing to watch the film adaptations of the stories my childhood was steeped in.
Something Wonderful is, through my rose-tinged perspective, truly something darling. Purdum explores the relationship between the composer and lyricist, starting well before the two ever began collaborating and following their paths to the end. This work is an exhaustive look at the achievements (and failures) of the artists’ lives, no mean feat, to be sure. Purdum takes readers on a tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creative works, starting at the beginning and working his way — albeit slowly — to the bittersweet success of The Sound of Music, which surely remains one of the most widely-known and beloved musicals of all time.
Although the work lacked the fluid telling I’ve come to love in narrative nonfiction (there was so. much. detail.), I was compelled by Purdum’s telling, often chuckling or snorting in disbelief or shedding a tear or two at some tragedy or another. Of course, some of this emotional response is undoubtedly connected to my own attached memories; but I ultimately feel that Purdum captured an essence of life in his book.
The thing about works such as Something Wonderful: I always pick up a nugget or two of historical import that come as an absolute surprise and charm me to bits. In this case, Purdum sprinkles in references about actors and actresses that tried for parts in the iconic duo’s Broadway productions, but weren’t selected — names that stand out today as some of the best-known thespians of the 20th Century. (I won’t spoil the fun for you, readers.) These little surprises managed to lighten some of the more tedious portions of the biography — sections in which name-dropping is exhaustive but means nothing to the moderate theater-lover such as myself.
Something Wonderful is a delightful history of two of the greatest theatrical contributors of all time. For readers with an interest in live productions or Broadway, I can’t recommend this book enough. For the moderate enthusiast — proceed for nostalgia’s sake, but keep another book on hand to temper the reading.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with my grandma’s homemade brownie recipe and Julie Andrews’ Austrian foray.
Overall: 4/5 stars.
Henry Holt Books sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are my own and were not influenced in any way by the publisher or author.