Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


RODGERS, Richard

(b 28 June 1902, Arverne, Long Island, NY; d 30 December 1979, NYC) Composer, songwriter; one of the most successful of all on Broadway and in films as half of two great songwriting teams, first with Lorenz Hart (b 2 May 1895, NYC; d 22 November 1943, NYC), then with Oscar Hammerstein II (b 12 July 1895, NYC; d 23 August 1960, Doylestown PA) Rodgers wrote songs at age eleven and saw Jerome Kern's Very Good Eddie at 14: Kern had virtually invented the American musical show, carrying on from European operetta, and Rodgers subsequently said that 'Life began for me at 2:30', curtain time for Saturday matinees. In 1918 the punctual, well-groomed Rodgers met the bohemian Hart, who was adapting and translating German and Viennese operettas for the Schuberts, who owned theatres; his adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's novel/play Liliom was a success, but Hart, on salary, received little credit.

Rodgers and Hart had little success until the previously written 'Manhattan' was put into The Garrick Gaities '25 (along with 'Mountain Greenery'); they were signed by a publisher and with five shows running in 1926 were making $1,000 a week each. Rodgers used unusual chords, would write a 32-bar verse with a 16-bar chorus instead of the other way around; Hart was hard to get to work but when he wrote he did it quickly, creating love songs with wit: the results are among the best-loved show songs of the century, equalled in that genre (if at all) only by those of Cole Porter. Eighty crates of lost music were discovered in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus NJ '82 by Robert Kimball, including work by all of those named above plus the Gershwins, Vincent Youmans, etc; Kimball published The Complete Lyrics Of Lorenz Hart '87. (For more about the Secaucus discovery, go here.) Some of the shows/songs: The Girl Friend '26 ('The Blue Room'), A Connecticut Yankee '27 ('My Heart Stood Still'), Present Arms '28 ('You Took Advantage Of Me'), Spring Is Here ('With A Song In My Heart'), Simple Simon '30 ('Ten Cents A Dance'), Evergreen '30 ('Dancing On The Ceiling'), Jumbo '35 ('Little Girl Blue', 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World'), On Your Toes '36 ('There's A Small Hotel'), Babes In Arms '37 ('Where Or When', 'The Lady Is A Tramp', 'My Funny Valentine' and 'I Wish I Were In Love Again', with perhaps the best-known of Hart lyrics: 'When love congeals/It soon reveals/The faint aroma of performing seals/The doublecrossing of a pair of heels/I wish I were in love again'), Pal Joey '40 ('I Could Write A Book', 'Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered'). Their film work was not too successful except for Love Me Tonight '32 (with Maurice Chevalier: 'Mimi', 'Isn't It Romantic'). 'Blue Moon' was not written for a specific play or film but still became a standard.

Like Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II attended Columbia U. and turned to the theatre: he wrote and acted in Columbia Varsity shows and began as stage manager for his impresario grandfather (hence 'II' to avoid confusion); his father William managed one of Oscar I's theatres. He wrote with Friml, Romberg, Youmans, Herbert Stothart, Arthur Schwartz, Otto Harbach, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen; unlike Hart, he was asleep by midnight and had to work hard on his lyrics, but like Hart he achieved apparent spontaneity in his words, and was floundering in the early 1940s. Hart was small of stature, an alcoholic, unlucky in love (hence perhaps the bittersweet humour of his work) and died of pneumonia a few weeks after attending the première of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! in 1943.

Rodgers and Hart's are the greater songs, but Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows marked an advance on Kern in musical theatre (or it could be argued that they are really operettas in disguise): in Oklahoma!, with book as well as lyrics by Hammerstein (from the play Green Grow The Rushes by Lynn Riggs), the songs advanced the action rather than distracting the audience from a soon-to-be-forgotten plot: with 'Oh What A Beautiful Morning', 'People Will Say We're In Love', 'Surrey With The Fringe On Top' etc, it was one of the biggest Broadway hits of all time. Carousel '45 was ironically based on Liliom, and with songs like 'If I Loved You' and 'You'll Never Walk Alone' has a definite operetta flavour, while South Pacific '49 was not only another smash hit but one of the all-time great musical shows for grownups, starring Mary Martin and the Metropolitan Opera bass Ezio Pinza, based on stories by James A. Michener, with 'Some Enchanted Evening', 'Bali Ha'i', 'Younger Than Springtime', 'I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy' and several more. Sheridan Morley wrote in The Spectator early in 1996 about a low-budget production of South Pacific in London: '...not a single dud song, not a line of dialogue that you could live without; the problem ... has always been the temptation to do it big and glossy and sentimental, for which reason we owe a huge debt to Phil Willmott ... By simply going back to the original he has located a dark, angry musical about racial intolerance'. The King And I '51 (based on Anna And The King Of Siam by Margaret Landon) was created for the superb British actress/singer Gertrude Lawrence, including 'Hello Young Lovers', 'I Have Dreamed' and others; Yul Brynner was successful until the end of his life as the King of Siam.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows were virtually the first to get original cast recordings since Florodora in 1900 (and Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, on Musicraft in 1938). The recordings of three of the first four shows were on American Decca, but that of South Pacific, on Columbia, was the first to be available in all three speeds and stayed in the Billboard chart for over 400 weeks, and was the beginning of Columbia's long reign as the home of original cast recordings. Rodgers and Hammerstein's first four shows accounted for more than 6,300 performances in their original productions, and made spectacular films (that of South Pacific a disappointment). They wrote for the film State Fair '45 ('It Might As Well Be Spring') and formed a production company that mounted Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun '46. Hammerstein was the weak link in the rest of their work together; essentially an operetta fan, he needed a strong book to work from, and strong direction. They wrote Allegro '47 ('The Gentleman Is A Dope'), Me And Juliet '53 (it ran for only a year, considered their weakest), Pipe Dream '55, Flower Drum Song '58 ('I Enjoy Being A Girl'), and the sentimentality of their work together reached an apotheosis with Sound Of Music '59 with Julie Andrews, later made into one of the most successful musical films of all time.

Rodgers also scored the documentary TV series Victory At Sea (about WWII in the Pacific, orchestrated like many of the shows by Robert Russell Bennett, who conducted hit albums of the TV music from '54. Rodgers used one of the Victory themes for 'No Other Love' in Me And Juliet; it was a pop hit for Perry Como.) Hammerstein also adapted Bizet's Carmen into a musical and film Carmen Jones '54. Hammerstein died of cancer, and Rodgers wrote his own lyrics for No Strings '62, a hit partly because of its story about an interracial relationship. He worked with Stephen Sondheim on Do I Hear A Waltz? '65, on which Rodgers was also a prickly producer; the show seemed flat, and Sondheim said that while Hammerstein (his mentor) had been a man of limited talent and infinite soul, Rodgers was a man of infinite talent and limited soul. Two By Two '70 was about Noah's ark, with lyrics by Martin Charnin; it ran nearly a year and broke even because Danny Kaye, returning to Broadway after a long absence, had torn a ligament and did the show in a wheelchair or on crutches, turning the text and stage instructions into a vaudeville act. Rex '76 was an embarrassing flop despite a good score and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, because of a weak book about Henry VIII, but I Remember Mama '79 was worse: the 1944 play had been a successful TV series in the early '50s, set in San Francisco c.1900, and needed warmth and intimacy: the theatre was too big, tinny amplification was used, Liv Ullman was too young and too beautiful to play Mama, and the book and Charnin's lyrics were weak. It was the first Rodgers show in decades not to have the original cast recorded (though some of the cast later made an album). Rodgers's death underlined the end of an era, especially because he was active until the end, and some of his later tunes still deserve to be revived.