June 28, 1902– Richard Rodgers:
“If somebody wants to sing my songs after I’m gone, nobody will be happier than my dead body.“
A Connecticut Yankee, Babes In Arms, The Boys From Syracuse, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King And I, Do I Hear A Waltz?, The Sound Of Music, disparate musicals all with the credit: “Music by Richard Rodgers”. I am certain that at least one of his famous musicals has touched your life in some way.
In a career that last over half a century, Rodgers composed wonderfully singable, danceable melodies that even today in the second decade of the 21st century nearly everyone recognizes. Plus, when you add the names of his two main lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, there you have the evolution of American Musical Theatre into one of the most important art forms of modern culture, where plot, singing and dancing were closely integrated and the stories explore serious, often heartbreaking themes, uninterrupted from artistic and commercial triumph to triumph, decade after decade.
Rodgers’ stage musicals and films won him a lot of awards for his mantle. Oklahoma! was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and South Pacific earned the Pulitzer in 1950. He received eight Tony Awards and an Academy Award. His shows have gathered an astonishing 38 Tonys, 15 Oscars and four Grammy Awards. He is one of the rare EGOTs, (receiving an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony), plus with those Pulitzer Prizes, it makes him one of only two people, composer Marvin Hamlisch is the other, to receive each award.
Rodgers’ career can be viewed in three distinct phases: the collaborations with Hart from 1918 until shortly before Hart’s death in 1943; his musicals with Hammerstein from 1942 until Hammerstein’s passing in 1960, and his lesser collection of collaborations with a variety of lyricists (including himself) after 1960.
“Hart was much gayer and lighter than Hammerstein. He was inclined to be cynical, where Hammerstein never was. Hammerstein was more sentimental and so the music had to be more sentimental. It wouldn’t have been natural for Hart to write Oklahoma! any more than it would have been natural for Hammerstein to write Pal Joey.“
His musicals with Hart and Hammerstein were successful, but his contributions to the growth of musical theatre were especially history making in the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership. Most musicals of the 1920s and 1930s had silly, improbable stories with pretty boys and prettier girls bursting into songs and soft-shoe dancing, but Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals brought full-dimensional characters, probable plots, and imaginatively choreographed ballets that moved the plot forward.
Rodgers composed more than 1,500 songs, at least 85 of them regarded as standards or popular classics: My Funny Valentine, Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered, Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin‘, If I Loved You, Some Enchanted Evening, Getting To Know You, My Favorite Things, It Might As Well Be Spring, The Lady Is A Tramp.
Different Rodgers musicals have had 48 productions on Broadway, with numerous revivals, including a 2015 production of the seldom seen Allegro (1947) Off-Broadway, and the Tony Award winning The King And I at Lincoln Center, which has been dedicated to reviving Rodgers’ works. Carousel was revived on Broadway in 2018 with Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry, and Renée Fleming. And a revolutionary new production of Oklahoma! in 2018 at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse that transferred to Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre. The production is directed by Daniel Fish in an intimate, immersive style, set in a community hall, with chili and cornbread served to the audience at intermission. The production featured choreography to new music arrangements by Daniel Kluger, performed by a seven-piece band. The production was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won Best Revival of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Ali Stroker, making her the first wheelchair user to win a Tony.
Every night of the year, there is a Richard Rodgers’ musical in production somewhere on the planet. 19 film versions have been made of his shows. At several points in the 1940s and 1950s, there would be three or four of his musicals playing on Broadway at once.
“I admit, with no modesty whatever, that not many people can do it. But when they say, ‘You’re a genius’, I say, ‘No, it’s my job‘.”
There are theatre tales of how Rodgers wrote tunes with extraordinary ease. Famed Broadway lyricist Alan J. Lerner has an anecdote of telephoning Rodgers with a suggested song title and having him call back five minutes later with the entire tune completed. Rodgers was versatile enough to write the music before the lyrics were fashioned, as he did with Hart, or after the lyrics were writen, as with Hammerstein. He could compose at any time of day, anywhere, with or without a piano.
After Hammerstein left this world in 1960, Rodgers wrote his own lyrics for No Strings (1962), and he worked with Oscar Hammerstein’s favorite protégé Stephen Sondheim on Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). He did Two By Two (1970) with Martin Charnin, and Rex (1974) with Sheldon Harnick, but his later shows did not meet the same gigantic success as his work with his two more famous collaborators. Rodgers:
“In many ways, a song-writing partnership is like a marriage. Apart from just liking each other, a lyricist and a composer should be able to spend long periods of time together, around the clock if need be, without getting on each other’s nerves. Their goals, outlooks, and basic philosophies should be similar.“
Rodgers’ daughter, Mary Rodgers was also a composer. She did the songs for Once Upon A Mattress (1959). Rodgers’s grandson is the impossibly hamdsome Adam Guettel, also a musical theatre composer. Guettel won two Tony Awards for the lovely The Light in the Piazza (2005).
Rodgers was an atheist and he was prone to depression and alcohol abuse. He was also well known as quite the ladies’ man.
I would like to have performed several roles in Rodger’s musical catalog, including Luther Billis in South Pacific or Lady Thiang in The King And I, but they seemed to have just passed me by. My own experiences performing in his musicals included playing Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! in high school in 1970 and as an off-stage nun and party guest in The Sound Of Music in summer stock in 1971. In 1979, I appeared in a revue called Rodgers And Hart, celebrating the great tunes of that team, packed with 58 of their songs. I sang I Could Write A Book, Where Or When, and My Romance, among other tunes. A critic wrote of my performance:
“Rutledge provides the champagne fizz of an evening of sheer fun.“