In 1938, Our Town premiered on the American stage. Written by Thornton Wilder, it gave a universal outlook to a few lives in Grovers Corners. The rituals of birth, marriage, and death were commented on by a matter-of-fact Stage Manager, played by Frank Craven. Suddenly, small town life gained a cosmic significance. Oscar Hammerstein was influenced by this play, and tried to create a musical that would follow a man from his birth to his death. He chose for his character the son of a rural doctor, and called him Joseph Taylor, Jr. He hoped to show how significant and miraculous one human life was by tracing its early influences, obstacles, loves, career struggles, and, ultimately, decline and death. However, in the middle of his second act, he began to lose focus, so he could not fulfill his goal completely. Yet, his failure resulted in a dynamic, dramatic, innovative, unforgettable musical that in many ways did accomplish some of Oscar’s goals.
The musical begins with the celebration of Joseph Taylor, Jr.’s birthday. The mayor has declared the event a legal holiday, so there is no school. The opening chorus of celebration involves the whole town, from a church choir to drunks, stumbling along to somewhat grotesque rhythms. And even the children cry out: “Look what Marjorie Taylor’s done… Hail him, hail him, everyone! Joseph Taylor, Jr.!” So, the simple birth is magnified in importance, and we feel that the country doctor, Joseph Taylor is quite an important man in the minds of the town’s citizens.
Grandma Taylor introduces the theme of time flow that is so critical to the first act: “The winters go by. The summers fly. And, all of a sudden you’re a man. I have seen it happen before, so I know it can happen again.” Growth is as much a human ritual as birth. In her generalizing, Grandma Taylor sounds like Wilder’s Stage Manager. Growth does occur when Joseph Taylor, Jr. takes his first steps in “One Foot, Other Foot.” Richard Rodgers uses the music from this song as a “growing up” motif, indicating the steps Joe will take throughout the show. Once Joe can walk, he emerges as a truly living character. The play concludes with him taking another major step in his life to the same motif.
During Joe’s childhood, Grandma Taylor dies, though she will appear together with his mother as ghosts during his wedding, and at crucial moments of Act 2. So, now it is time for another childhood rite: the encounter with the opposite sex. In an eerie, often grotesque Children’s Dance, punctuated with fragments of nursery rhymes, Jennie Brinker and Joseph Taylor, Jr. are pushed into each other through a children’s game, displaying the inexorability of fate. Jennie Brinker, the winsome daughter of wealthy lumberman, Ned Brinker, is a beautiful blond with insouciant charm and Joe is smitten immediately.
Soon, it is time for Joe to go to college to study medicine as his father did. The 1920s college atmosphere is evoked through dance music, college cheers, and excerpts from professors’ lectures. But Jennie continues to haunt Joe in his thoughts and desires: “You are lovelier by far, my darling, than I dreamed you could be!” Joe is obsessed with Jennie’s external beauty, but of her deeper motivations he hasn’t a clue.
While in college, Joe meets fellow student, Charlie Townsend, a more worldly hedonist, without Joe’s hometown values. All Charlie can think about is girls, and when Jennie is seeing another boy, Bertram, Joe decides to go out with Charlie’s acquaintance, Beulah for a date. She sings “So Far”, a song about the romantic possibilities of their beginning friendship. However, upon finishing her song, Beulah notices that “the little louse is asleep!” No competition for Jennie!
When Joe returns home, Jennie and Joe become engaged. Shortly before the wedding, Marjorie Taylor and Jennie Brinker have a major argument, and Jennie reveals her true intent by telling Marjorie the plans she has for Joe’s success, and by demonstrating her indomitable will and determination to achieve them. Marjorie is shattered, realizing that Joe has fallen into the arms of a ruthless schemer, but is helpless to change matters. In fact, she dies soon after their confrontation. With her major antagonist out of the way, Jennie is free to control Joe the way she wants. In Act 2, she does just that.
Another ritual: the wedding. “What A Lovely Day For A Wedding!’ is a satirical song, showing how the Brinker relatives and Taylor relatives despise one another as they come from different social milieus and have completely different values and expectations, even Ned Brinker laments: “What I’m about to get, I don’t exactly need. A doctor for a son-in-law, another mouth to feed!” But the wedding must go on. And it does! During the ceremony, Marjorie appears, and her doubts and concerns are voiced. Grandma Taylor, too, is there.
Act 1 ends with a choir wishing the newlyweds well: at first in soft, encouraging tones, then climaxing in daring, shrieking sounds, and the orchestra ends in total discord, hinting at what disasters lie ahead. Grandma Taylor and Marjorie shake their heads in horror as to the coming future. And we, as the audience, can only wait for Act 2!