When “The King and I” hits the Hancher stage Tuesday through Oct. 14, Iowa City audiences will see the staying power of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
They continue to entertain viewers in professional and community theater realms alike, and provide lessons as today’s writers and composers continue getting to know all about them, said Ted Chapin, president and chief creative officer for Rodgers & Hammerstein since 1983.
The organization, based in New York City, owns the rights to the iconic musicals penned by the late Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific” to “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I.” It also serves as a music publishing company and a theatrical licensing agency for more than 5,000 songs, 900 concert pieces, 200 writers and 100 musicals from various artists, including Irving Berlin and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
And Chapin is their biggest fan.
“My feeling, now that I’ve worked where I’ve worked for a long time, is certainly the properties that we represent here are extremely well-constructed works of theater,” he said by phone from his office in New York. “Something I’ve said for years, if you’re good to Rodgers and Hammerstein, they’re very good to you — which means direct them well, cast them well, sing them well, mount them well and audiences will be captivated by the storytelling, the emotional ride that they’re on. They’re just really, really good shows.
“The role that good revivals can do is to always remind people how musicals were constructed at a time when they were really forming themselves into what was never considered an art form, but then became an art form, an American art form,” he said.
“What I find is, the smart modern people like Lin-Manuel Miranda have studied Rodgers and Hammerstein inside and outside. He knows how they tick, so he can construct his shows just with knowing the way a certain style of storytelling works, so he can do his own, but he also has that as a reference point.”
And while it’s gratifying when a revival like “The King and I” receives critical acclaim and Tony- and Drama Desk awards, Chapin doesn’t rest on those laurels. Instead, he said his reaction is: “Job well done — what’s next?”
“I’ve been involved with the American Theater Wing for many years, so when these productions have a Tony Award profile, I get as excited as anybody does at the possibility there might be Tony Awards coming our way.”
He’s also disappointed when they don’t, as with the 2002 Broadway revival of “Oklahoma,” which had seven Tony nominations, but only took the top honor for Shuler Hensley as the ominous Jud Fry.
“Those are the disappointments that go with the theater, period. You can’t let any one of them get you down — you just have to move on and see what the next one’s gonna be,” he said.
“Part of the fun of the job, and part of why I’ve enjoyed staying here so long, is you never can tell what’s gonna come next, you really can’t.”
He knows that firsthand, when a phone call from a family friend changed the course of his career.
Chapin, now 67, wasn’t even 30 when Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary called him. A writer herself, she composed the music to “Once Upon A Mattress,” and was a friend of Chapin’s parents. She proposed that he join the Rodgers and Hammerstein staff and spend a year or so learning the ropes so he could take over. He came onboard in 1981, moved into the top spot two years later, and has kept the family flame burning brightly.
“I built a career on that phone call,” he said.
Well versed in the performing arts, his father was Schuyler Chapin, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and his mother was Elizabeth Steinway, from the family that created Steinway & Sons pianos. “I can play the piano moderately,” he said.
Chapin began carving his own arts path as a production assistant on several Broadway shows, including “Follies,” about which he wrote a book. Even though Rodgers and Hammerstein doesn’t officially serve as a producer for current shows and revivals, he still has a proactive role in bringing shows to Broadway and television, including “The Sound of Music Live” on NBC in 2013 and the 1997 barrier-breaking “Cinderella” starring Brandy, Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg and Bernadette Peters on CBS. He also serves on a multitude of performing arts boards, including the American Theater Wing, which sponsors the Tony Awards
His goal is to bring a revival to Broadway every couple of years. “It’s good not to be away for too long,” he said.
He’s especially fond of the touring version of “The King and I,” coming to Iowa City.
“I think it’s actually better than it was in New York,” he said. “The cast is really good. People will have a very good time at it.”