Was Agnes de Mille an Advocate for her Creative Insights, or a Pain in the Ass?

Agnes de Mille
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Sometimes, a creative insight comes from a collaborator with a strikingly different point of view and approach to the work. This can lead to tensions among collaborators. Agnes de Mille’s Broadway collaborations with Rodgers and Hammerstein represent a case in point. Oklahoma! and Carousel catapulted the careers of these three artists to new heights and they undoubtedly made a successful team. Oklahoma! ran for five years and to date has seen five New York revivals. Carousel ran for two years and has also seen five New York revivals. De Mille’s unique contributions to these two productions made dance an integral part of the storytelling, and in that way she left a legacy on the genre of the musical itself. But despite this success, after a period of time, her collaborative relationships with Rodgers and Hammerstein became unsustainable.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had a tight relationship that continued well beyond their collaborations with de Mille. When she worked with them, de Mille relentlessly advocated for the inclusion of her ideas into their productions. Rodgers and Hammerstein recognized that de Mille’s insights added a unique perspective. They also saw the benefits of using dance as a medium for character development and storytelling. But as a choreographer, de Mille’s contributions were relatively restricted. On Oklahoma! and Carousel, she was assigned dance numbers at specific points in the script. For those assigned dance numbers, she had relative freedom, although on Carousel de Mille felt Rodgers was especially intent on keeping her in her place. As the choregrapher/director for Allegro, de Mille had the added responsibility of staging the dialogue and the songs. She had more creative control over that production, but it did not go smoothly. Rodgers found it increasingly difficult to work with de Mille. Dorothy Rodgers claimed that her husband thought she was “intimidating and demanding, and she had no tact.”  His daughter went a step further, saying “My father thought she was a pain in the ass.” (Carol Easton, No Intermissions, 241). 

Was de Mille a “pain in the ass” because, as a woman in the male-dominated world of Broadway in the 1940s, she had to fiercely advocate for her perspective to be included? Did she become more ambitious for creative control over time, leading to more conflicts? Or did she just have an abrasive personality? We will never fully know the answer to these questions, or whether de Mille’s abrasiveness resulted from the resistance she encountered. We do know that after Allegro, her collaborative relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein could not be repaired. In 1955, she adapted the Oklahoma! dances for the Hollywood film. But after Allegro, she did not create any more stage productions with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and they did not invite her to adapt the Carousel dances for the 1956 film.  

On Oklahoma!, de Mille contributed creative insights within boundaries

Oklahoma! represented de Mille’s first collaboration with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Produced by the Theater Guild in 1943, it remains one of the most frequently revived and successful musicals in Broadway history. De Mille contributed unique insights to the creative team.

When de Mille joined Rodgers and Hammerstein to work on Oklahoma!, she was a newcomer to Broadway. She had choreographed one dance in a prior Broadway show, Flying Colors, although she became well known for her ballet Rodeo in 1942. Rodgers and Hammerstein, in contrast, each had a number of prior Broadway hits. Before de Mille’s first day on the job, Hammerstein had already drafted Oklahoma!’s libretto (see Telling Stories in Broadway Dance, 25-26). He outlined where the dances would go and roughly what they would portray. De Mille had a particular and conscripted role to play in telling Oklahoma!’s story, but within those boundaries, Rodgers and Hammerstein both gave her free rein. This first collaboration was relatively conflict-free. 

De Mille created five dance numbers for Oklahoma!. The dream ballet at the end of Act I was the lengthiest and it had the strongest influence on the narrative of the production. De Mille had unique creative insight into the character of Laurey. In the draft libretto, Hammerstein indicated that he imagined a “ballet . . . which states, in terms of fantasy, the problems that beset Laurey” at the end of the first act. He left most of the responsibility in the hands of the dance director whom he considered “co-creator of this entire sequence.” (Telling Stories, 30). With Hammerstein’s blessing, de Mille decided to depict Laurey’s dream, an exploration of the character’s subconscious attraction to the dangerous Jud Fry. This insight was shaped by de Mille’s interest in Fruedian analysis and her own understanding of feminine sexuality. At the end of the dream ballet, Jud strangles Laurey’s love interest, Curly, and carries her limp body off the stage like a trophy. The real Laurey wakes up with the real Jud hovering over her, and Act I ends suspensefully, leaving audiences to wonder what will happen when they return from intermission. 

Hammerstein allowed de Mille significant freedom as she developed the story for the dream ballet, and Rodgers took a similar approach. In her memoir And Promenade Home, de Mille says she asked Rodgers for ballet music to use during rehearsals. He replied, “you have all the songs, haven’t you?” and left de Mille to invent the ballet score with her rehearsal pianist (p. 237). The melodic references to earlier songs combined with the dance steps to create a layered set of associations for audiences. The ballet music represented another creative insight that de Mille, working with her accompanist and orchestrator, contributed to the production. 

On the whole, de Mille’s collaboration with Rodgers and Hammerstein for Oklahoma! remained smooth throughout rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts. She felt grateful to both men for the career-changing opportunity, and in turn, they allowed her to make creative decisions within the boundaries of her role as choreographer. 

With Carousel, de Mille’s relationship with Rodgers became strained

After the enormous success of Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein, along with the Theatre Guild producers, were eager to repeat the formula. De Mille had earned their respect and they hoped her creative insights would help guarantee another hit. They hired her to choreograph dances for Carousel, an adaptation of the Molnár play Liliom. 

Rodgers and Hammerstein followed a similar approach in working with de Mille on Carousel. Hammerstein drafted the libretto and decided on the points in the production when dance would play an important role. Rodgers left the creation of the dance music up to de Mille and Trude Rittmann, her rehearsal pianist. 

Carousel tells the story of a young woman, Julie Jordan, who falls in love with a carnival barker, Billy Bigelow. After they marry, Billy is rough and abusive to Julie, but he does have a soft side. The depth of his character gets revealed in the song “Soliloquy” in which he expresses his feelings about impending fatherhood. Billy commits suicide after a botched robbery before the birth of his child. The second act depicts Billy’s path to redemption after his death.

Rodgers and Hammerstein asked de Mille to choreograph three dances for Carousel. Hammerstein designated an especially significant moment for dance to tell the story in the second act. He asked de Mille to create a ballet to depict the life of Billy’s child, Louise, so that Billy could understand the impact of his behavior on his daughter. De Mille wrote to her husband, “they’ve given me the damndest thing to do… Billy’s perception of the first 17 years of his child’s life while he’s climbing up the stairs for his interview with God” (Telling Stories, 96). 

Aided by the talented dancer and actress Bambi Linn, who performed the role, de Mille relied on Freudian theory and her own coming-of-age as a young woman to understand the character of Louise. Using movement as her medium, she depicted Louise’s feelings of alienation growing up as the daughter of a criminal in a small New England town. Louise is shown as a young child, crying after being bullied and teased by the wealthy Snow children. Growing older, Louise falls for a carnival barker who shares many of her father’s traits. He abandons, her and Louise’s pain feels palpable as the carnival troupe leaves her collapsed, sobbing, and alone. Once again, de Mille’s unique creative insight added depth to the story of the Carousel musical. Billy witnessed his daughter’s struggles and tried to help her. Audiences empathized with Louise and felt moved by Billy’s connection with his daughter. These key aspects of the storytelling would have been altered without de Mille’s second-act ballet.  

Rodgers and Hammerstein remained broadly supportive of de Mille’s work on Carousel, but Hammerstein was more of a partner to her than Rodgers. After the first out-of-town tryout in New Haven, the second-act ballet got trimmed down and Hammerstein rewrote the scene leading into it to provide more context. This was done with de Mille’s full agreement and represented a mutually respectful, inclusive collaboration between her and Hammerstein (Telling Stories, 99). Rodgers’s behavior was less supportive. He did leave the composition of the ballet score to de Mille and Trude Rittmann, but he reportedly interfered with de Mille’s work in other ways. She wrote to her husband that Rodgers “held up my work for an entire week because he wished me to compose one kind of a dance where I felt I should compose another.” De Mille said he was “cold and rude and disapproving” throughout the Carousel collaboration. At the outset, he told her to “climb off my own band-wagon” (Telling Stories, 106, 96). Perhaps he wanted to ensure that Oklahoma!’s success wouldn’t lead her to step out of her place and demand an equal partnership. 

Allegro was de Mille’s final Broadway partnership with Rodgers and Hammerstein

After Carousel, Rodgers, Hammerstein, and de Mille collaborated on one final Broadway production – Allegro. De Mille served as both choreographer and director. Unlike Oklahoma! and Carousel, the libretto was not an adaptation but an original script authored by Hammerstein. It told the story of a small town doctor (Joseph Taylor Junior) from birth through marriage and adulthood, with all of its loves, losses, successes, and failures. 

Allegro’s script built on some of de Mille’s Freudian ideas because it focused on the inner life of the main character. Hammerstein and de Mille hoped to take an innovative approach to staging that would use physical space to make a distinction between Joe’s fantasy realm and his reality. It was an imaginative creative insight that Hammerstein and de Mille devised together, but the concept never came to fruition. Hammerstein found himself continually rewriting the second act. Rodgers composed some lovely songs, but none of them became hits that equaled the success of Oklahoma! or Carousel.  

Allegro had a respectable run, but it represented a downturn for Rodgers and Hammerstein. In Musical Stages, Rodgers put some of the blame on de Mille’s shoulders: 

“To achieve a smooth interflow of narrative, song, and dance, we were convinced that a single guiding hand should be in charge of every element of the production. This led us to Agnes de Mille. She is supreme as a choreographer, but to our dismay we found that she was unprepared to take on the additional chores of directing the dialogue and staging the musical numbers” (p. 251).

Rodgers and Hammerstein ceded more control to de Mille on the Allegro production and, by Rodgers’s account, she could not rise to the challenge. They recovered quickly from their setback and went on to create South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Although The King and I featured dance prominently, they hired Jerome Robbins as the choreographer instead of de Mille. 

Learning from de Mille’s story

The collaborations between Rodgers, Hammerstein, and de Mille show us that when individuals bring unique perspectives and ways of working to a team, things do not always go smoothly. In fact, recent research suggests that diverse teams feel less comfortable, even though they typically lead to stronger performance. Highly effective teams do not always practice inclusive collaboration with ease. When we encounter people who bring different approaches to a problem or creative enterprise, it can feel unsettling. 

In the high stakes, male-dominated realm of Broadway in the 1940s, Agnes de Mille and her novel approach made her collaborators so uncomfortable they could not continue working with her, despite her track record for success. It’s likely that Rodgers, Hammerstein, and de Mille shared responsibility for Allegro’s weaknesses. Yet Rodgers and Hammerstein stayed together while de Mille was pushed aside. Her reputation may have been damaged by what Rodgers perceived as volatile or caustic behavior. But her persistent self-advocacy ensured that her unique creative insights shaped two of the most successful productions in Broadway history.

Photo Credit: Photographer, Fred Fehl.
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. (1947). Richard Rodgers (music), Agnes De Mille (director and choreographer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) at rehearsal for Allegro Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/710831a9-95b8-cdfc-e040-e00a1806242e

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Lana Master

    Bravo Kara! Fun to read.

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