My Favorite Things: Rodgers and Hammerstein hits still enchant – but shame about the luvvie anecdotes

Sublime: Audra McDonald delivered a soul-stirring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain
Sublime: Audra McDonald delivered a soul-stirring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain - Tristram Kenton

Eighty years ago Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II premiered Oklahoma! on Broadway, and changed the course of musical theatre history. They perfected what we now know as the “book musical”: fully integrating songs and dances into the story, and using the form to tackle big ideas and even bigger emotions.

It might seem counterintuitive to mark this anniversary with a concert which pulls those songs out of dramatic context. The message that Rodgers and Hammerstein were revolutionaries was also somewhat undercut by rambling luvvie anecdotes and treacly renditions from Michael Ball, who made his numbers awfully cosy. The addition of superfluous dancers was another odd choice from director Christopher Gattelli.

But, backed by a glorious 40-piece orchestra under Simon Lee, most of these Broadway and West End luminaries did justice to the programme – which included some rarities alongside the well-known musicals. Hearing that canon in full makes you realise that no one else has written with such sincerity, pathos and wryness about the way that love (and sometimes lust) completely overwhelms all reason. Often the lyrics articulate that dilemma while the music envelops you with sheer emotional bliss.

Audra McDonald, who won the first of her many Tonys when Nicholas Hytner cast her in the Broadway transfer of his National Theatre revival of Carousel, epitomised that combination of intelligence and feeling. Although an almighty operatic soprano, she never lost the sense of character, especially in her sublime, soul-stirring Climb Ev’ry Mountain from The Sound of Music.

A commanding Marisha Wallace was blisteringly funny in Oklahoma!’s I Cain’t Say No, Joanna Ampil brought immense fervour to Love Look Away from Flower Drum Song, Anna-Jane Casey delightfully trilled through The Sound of Music’s Lonely Goatherd, and Lucy St Louis imbued State Fair’s It Might As Well Be Spring with crystalline vocals. Maria Friedman reunited with her 2009 The King and I castmate, Daniel Dae Kim, for a charming Shall We Dance, while Aaron Tveit soared gorgeously in South Pacific’s Younger Than Springtime.

Julian Ovenden broke our hearts with the latter show’s This Nearly Was Mine, simultaneously conveying paradise and its loss, and gave the most enjoyable (and very British) speech of the night. He rejoiced in You’ll Never Walk Alone as the anthem of his beloved football team, and praised the great writing team for their combination of rhapsodic singability and beguilingly simple lyrics – creating, essentially, folk songs that we pass down.

Rodgers was the first to “EGOT” (winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards), and we were visited by two more recipients. Andrew Lloyd Webber popped in to proclaim: “I would not even have begun a career in musical theatre without Rodgers and Hammerstein”, while surprise guest Rita Moreno stole the show with ribald tales from The King and I film set. Apparently co-star Yul Brynner called her “Tough Tit” instead of Tuptim, and Deborah Kerr showed Moreno her collection of panties with naughty sayings including, “Fire down below”. That added some welcome sauciness to what was, overall, an enchanted, and enchanting, evening.

The concert will be screened in UK and Ireland cinemas on Feb 14 and 18. Tickets: