As Chief Creative Officer for Rodgers & Hammerstein, Ted Chapin tends to the catalog of two of the most revered writers in the world of musical theater. Since the pair’s Fifties heyday, a chasm has opened between Broadway and the Top 40, but Chapin isn’t one of those musical-theater-heads who shuns the modern world. “I’ve always felt, keep your ear to what’s going on outside of these four walls,” he says. “We do not want to be fuddy-duddies, or even to be considered fuddy-duddies.”
His principles were tested in December when Ariana Grande’s team reached out looking for permission to release a new song based around the melody of “My Favorite Things,” a Rodgers & Hammerstein composition from the 1959 musical The Sound of Music. “She did it on her own, and we didn’t know about it until it was done and they came to us for clearance,” Chapin says. “We all listened, and our first reaction was, ‘Whoa!’ Then our second reaction was, ‘This is a kind of cool idea.’ Third was, ‘I hope it’s successful.’ Because if it’s not successful,” Chapin worried, “what’s that gonna do [for the reputation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog]?”
The track, of course, was “7 Rings,” and Chapin’s concerns proved unfounded: Grande’s latest single amassed more than 85 million streams in a single week. People who no longer buy music made an exception for Grande — the track also sold close to 100,000 downloads. And pop radio programmers who were already swimming in Grande singles — “Thank U, Next” and “Breathin” are currently in Top Ten rotation — still made room in their tight, Grande-saturated playlists: “7 Rings” reached more than 27 million listeners on the airwaves the week of its release. All this activity led to a Number One debut on the Hot 100, and a remix with 2 Chainz came out on Friday to boost the track heading into its second chart week.
Despite its decades-old core, “7 Rings” fits squarely with current pop trends. There is an ongoing wave of prominent interpolations in Top 40 pop as it attempts to keep pace with sample-friendly hip-hop and R&B. In addition, soundtracks stemming from musical theater or musical-theater-adjacent projects have been enjoying a moment of commercial prominence: Stars flocked to The Hamilton Mixtape, while The Greatest Showman soundtrack sold over a million copies in the U.S and, improbably, another million in the considerably smaller U.K. With “7 Rings,” Grande taps into both surges.
Perhaps unknowingly, she also aided Chapin’s ongoing efforts to reframe the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog in a modern context: This month his organization announced the R&H Goes Pop! campaign, a video series that “aims to preserve the legacy of Rodgers & Hammerstein by inspiring artists to interpret their classics in a contemporary light.”
“It’s a testament to a really valuable copyright: It can be done in ways that weren’t necessarily originally intended, but in the hands of arrangers and singers, they’re contemporary,” Chapin says. “The bones [of the originals] are so strong that they can support it. It’s astonishing how sturdy [the songs] actually are. [Rodgers & Hammerstein] were very good craftsmen.”
Chapin hopes that any of these reinterpretations will pique the interest of younger listeners. “Grab ’em in whatever way you can grab ’em,” he says. “If they become interested and curious, hey, we got a lot more where that came from.”
But that’s not to say that Chapin is open to haphazard, willy-nilly interpretations of the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog. “It doesn’t give us free license to do anything,” he explains. “Over the years, there have been requests that have come in and we’ve said, ‘Noooo, we’re not gonna do that.'” (He did not provide examples.)
In fact, there is only one other contemporary hit based on a Rodgers & Hammerstein melody, according to Chapin: Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up,” which borrowed another tune from The Sound of Music. (Outkast also covered “My Favorite Things” in 2003, though it wasn’t a hit.) “Some people who want to go pretty far out there [with a sample or interpolation] are usually better off asking ahead of time,” Chapin continues. “But people of Ariana Grande’s stature tend to say, ‘Let’s do this,’ and we’ll probably get clearance.” (Although Chapin said he was not aware of the specifics of the clearance deal, he said, “I have a feeling that we have a fair chunk of it.”)
Now that the melody of “My Favorite Things” is reaching millions of people — especially young listeners — every day, Chapin suspects that “7 Rings” might jumpstart internal conversations about an album of modern Rodgers & Hammerstein reinterpretations. “It’s an idea that’s been bouncing around since we gathered in Nashville a year ago, since Concord [which owns the Rodgers & Hammerstein company] also owns a lot of record companies,” he says. “I have a feeling that this is gonna help that along. ‘7 Rings’ may make people say, ‘Whoa, let’s stop talking about this — let’s do it.'”
Even with Grande’s success, can the material still resonate in an era dominated by rap and reggaeton? “There was an article the other day about the live Rent that was on television the other night — it earned the lowest ratings of any of the musicals done live on television [recently],” Chapin says. “The champion remains The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood done in 2013.”
There’s a lesson in those numbers: “Don’t mess with Rodgers & Hammerstein. These guys are here, and they’re not going away.”