June 28, 1902– A Connecticut Yankee, Babes In Arms, The Boys From Syracuse, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King & 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 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 add the names his 2 main lyricists, Lorenz Hart & Oscar Hammerstein II, there is the evolution of American musical comedy into one of the most important an art forms of modern culture, where plot, singing & dancing were closely integrated & the stories explore serious, often heartbreaking, themes, uninterrupted from triumph to triumph, decade after decade.
Rodgers’ musicals & films won him a lot of awards for his mantle. Oklahoma! won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 & South Pacific earned the Pulitzer in 1950. He received 8 Tony Awards & an Academy Award. His shows have gathered an astonishing 38 Tonys, 15 Oscars & 4 Grammys.
Rodgers’ career can be viewed in 3 phases: his collaborations with Hart from 1918 until shortly before Hart’s death in 1943; his musicals with Hammerstein from 1942 until Mr. Hammerstein’s death in 1960, & his less collection collaborations after 1960.
“Hart was much gayer & lighter than Hammerstein. He was inclined to be cynical, where Hammerstein never was. He was more sentimental & 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 work with Hart & Hammerstein were both successful, but his contributions to the growth of musical theatre were history making in the Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership. Most musicals of the 1920’s & 1930’s, had silly, improbable stories with pretty boys girls bursting into songs & soft-shoe dancing, but Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals strove brought full-dimensional characters, probable plots, & imaginatively choreographed ballets that moved the plat forward.
Rodgers composed more than 1,500 songs, at least 85 of them regarded as standards, or popular classics: My Funny Valentine, The Lady Is A Tramp, Bewitched, Bothered & 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.
42 different Rodgers musicals have had productions on Broadway, with numerous revivals, including this season with Allegro (1947) Off-Broadway & the Tony Award winning The King & I at Lincoln Center, which has been dedicated to reviving his works. Every night of the year, there is a Richard Rodger’s musical in production somewhere on the planet. 19 film versions were made of his shows. At several points on the 1940s & 1950s, there would be 3 or 4 of his shows 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 he wrote tunes over breakfast & famed Broadway lyricist Alan J. Lerner has anecdote of telephoning Rodgers with a suggested song title of having him call back 5 minutes later with a whole tune. Rodgers was versatile enough to write music before the lyrics were fashioned, as he did with Hart), or after, 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 own lyrics for No Strings (1962), & worked with Stephen Sondheim on Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Two By Two (1970) with Martin Charnin, & Rex (1974) with Sheldon Harnick, but his later shows did not meet the same gigantic success as his work with the 2 famous collaborators.
I would like to have done several roles in Rodger’s catalog including Luther Billis in South Pacific or Lady Thiang in The King & I, but they seemed to have passed me by. My own experiences performing in his musicals included playing Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! In 1970 & as an off-stage nun & party guest in The Sound Of Music in summer stock in 1971. In 1979, I appeared in a revue called Rodgers & Hart, celebrating the great tunes of the team, packed with 98 songs, where a critic wrote:
“Rutledge provides the champagne fizz of an evening of sheer fun.”