Richard Rodgers showed an early gift for music, and he could play the piano when only four years old. Like most aspiring songwriters of his generation, the young Rodgers hoped for a career in musical comedy. At that time, composing for the Broadway theatre was considered the top of the art form. There were no movies or radio, and most popular songs were introduced first on the Broadway stage. Like many of his contemporaries, Rodgers sought to realize his aspirations by writing scores for amateur shows.
A friend, Philip Leavitt, introduced Rodgers to the young Lorenz Hart. Leavitt believed that the two would make a good songwriting team, so they began trying to write together. Leavitt was pleased with the way the two boys got along. He convinced Lew Fields to listen to their songs, and the producer decided to interpolate a Rodgers and Hart number, “Any Old Place with You,” in his Broadway show A Lonely Romeo (1919). Rodgers and Hart contributed songs to an Akron Club show, You’d Be Surprised (1920). On the show, they collaborated with many young professionals who would later achieve fame through their collaborations including Herbert Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II (in the cast was Dorothy Fields, later to become a famous lyricist in her own right).
Lew Fields hired the boys to write their first complete Broadway score, Poor Little Ritz Girl, but by the time the show opened Fields got cold feet and replaced most of their score with music by Sigmund Romberg and Alex Gerber. Rodgers and Hart received their big break in 1925. The show was a revue, The Garrick Gaieties, produced as a two-performance benefit for The Theatre Guild. The show, featuring the nearly unknown songwriting team and an unknown cast (including Sterling Holloway, Libby Holman, Romney Brent, and future acting coach Lee Strasberg), was an immediate smash hit. Six performances were added which sold out almost immediately and the Guild decided to give the show an indefinite run. For the show, Rodgers and Hart contributed one of their best tunes, “Manhattan.”
Rodgers and Hart wrote a number of musicals in collaboration with librettist Herbert Fields starting with Dearest Enemy (1925) (the top price was $3.30!). Critic Frank Vreeland, writing in the New York Telegram, wrote, “We have a glimmering notion that someday they will form the American counterpat of the once great triumvirate of Bolton, Wodehouse, and Kern.” The trio went on to write, among other shows, The Girl Friend (1926), Peggy-Ann (1926), and A Connecticut Yankee (1937).
Like many of their Broadway contemporaries, Rodgers and Hart were wooed to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The completed a series of films including The Hot Heiress (1931), the brilliant Love Me Tonight (1932), The Phantom President (1932) starring George M. Cohan, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) starring Al Jolson, Hollywood Party (1934), and Mississippi (1935).
The duo returned to New York with Jumbo (1935), certainly their biggest show and one of the largest shows ever seen in New York. Producer Billy Rose rented Manhattan’s enormous theatre, the Hippodrome, for the extravaganza that employed an entire circus. The production has been promised for three months before it actually opened, but most critics felt that it was worth the wait. After Jumbo, Rodgers and Hart entered their most productive and successful decade. It began with the opening of 1936’s On Your Toes. The show was the story of a vaudeville family who get mixed up with gangsters and a Russian ballet company. The score featured such great songs as “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and the title song. Two ballets, “La Princess Zenobia” and the classic ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
Following a largely unsuccessful return to Hollywood with the film Dancing Pirate (1936), Rodgers and Hart presented Broadway with one of their most exuberant hits, Babes in Arms on which they also contributed the libretto. Almost every song in the score became a standard. They included “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One-Note,” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Their next show, “I’d Rather Be Right” (1937), marked the first time that a living president was depicted in a musical comedy. For the role, they chose George M. Cohan, one of the most patriotic Americans and one who could give a mature, serious performance even when dancing and singing. “I’d Rather Be Right,” “Have You Met Miss Jones?,” and “Off the Record” were the hits in the score.
For their next show, I Married an Angel (1938) they wrote a wonderful score, most important song being “Spring Is Here.” One of the team’s greatest accomplishments followed, The Boys from Syracuse (1938), the first musical based on a work by Shakespeare. The songwriters were obviously inspired by the material, because they wrote a terrific score. “Falling in Love with Love” and “This Can’t Be Love” were the big hits, and the remainder of the score was equally well crafted. Rodgers and Hart followed The Boys from Syracuse with a show that ran longer but is almost forgotten today, Too Many Girls (1939). The score was sometimes inspired, though it was not as good sa their best work. There was, however, one standout song, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
1940’s Higher and Higher (“It Never Entered My Mind”) was followed that same year by Pal Joey, not the typical musical comedy. For one thing, the lead character, the unscrupulous Joey, a scoundrel: talented and attractive, but a scoundrel. The score was among the team’s most sophisticated and adult. In fact, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” had to have its lyrics softened before radio stations would play it. The film They Met in Argentina (1941) was released prior to the opening of the team’s last Broadway show, By Jupiter (1942), for which they supplied the book, music, and lyrics.
Unfortunately, it was the last full-scale collaboration between Rodgers and Hart. Rodgers was a disciplined man used to working regular hours with great determination and single-mindedness. Larry Hart was exactly the opposite. Whereas Rodgers knew exactly where he stood in the world, Hart was insecure and unstable, becoming increasingly more difficult as the partnership progressed. Often, Hart would disappear for days, forcing Rodgers to halt production or even write lyrics himself. Hart’s insecurities led to heavy drinking and missed deadlines. Rodgers reached the end of his patience during By Jupiter and began quietly to inquire about other partnerships.
Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild wanted Rodgers to adapt the play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical comedy. Rodgers reluctantly approached Hart, who realized he wasn’t up to the role either mentally or physically. Rodgers then turned to his old friend and sometime collaborator from the early days at Columbia University, Oscar Hammerstein II. The result was Oklahoma! (1943). Hart was present at the opening of the milestone musical and congratulated Rodgers on his success. But the show must have been a further blow to Hart’s already damaged self-esteem.
Rodgers felt a new project would help Hart straighten out his life and so agreed to a revival of A Connecticut Yankee. Hart did stop drinking but following the opening night performance on November 17, 1943, Hart disappeared. He remained missing for two days until he was found unconscious in a hotel room. He was taken to Doctors’ Hospital, where it was determined he had pneumonia. He died a few days later.
Rodgers and Hammerstein are considered to be among the greatest of all Broadway authors of all Broadway authors of musical theatre. Their formula consisted of well-integrated songs and book, with songs that reflect the characters’s personalities in both words and music. This formula or pattern for show construction and writing has been emulated since the years of their first big hit, Oklahoma!
In transforming Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein took many liberties with the musical comedy tradition. There was no opening chorus sung by a bevy of leggy chorines. Instead, the show opened with a lone figure singing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Furthermore, the villain, Jud, was a truly menacing figure, not just a two-dimensional moustache twirler. Another change was that Jud is killed at the end, and uncommon occurrence in musical comedy. Oklahoma! opened on May 31, 1943 in the midst of America’s look toward homespun values as a reaction to the war.
Any doubts as to the success of the songwriting team were immediately laid to rest as soon as the curtain rose. The show became a smash hit and the score was recorded by Decca Records, the first original cast recording to achieve popular success opening the door to the modern era of theatrical recordings.
Questions as to whether Rodgers and Hammerstein could repeat their success were answered when Carousel opened in 1945. The Theater Guild repeated its role as producer. Again Rodgers and Hammerstein broke new ground. Their lead character, Billy Bigelow, a bully and crook, is killed reappears as a spirit. The show was also unique in that it dealt with serious subjects that the average musical comedy, meant mainly to entertain, rarely attempted. Many critics and audience members considered the score superior to that of Oklahoma!
The team then wrote the first and only original film musical, State Fair. The 20th Century-Fox film was a great success, adding to the cache of the songwriting team. With their next show, Allegro (1947), the team’s success hit a snag. It was not nearly as successful as their previous work. The team attempted to break more musical theatre conventions. One idea was to have the musical comedy chorus act as a Greek chorus, but this and other ideas simply did not work. The show did contain a minor hit, “The Gentlemen Is a Dope.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s previous two shows, Oklahoma! and Carousel were recorded by Decca Records. RCA paid a lot for the rights to Allegro and guessed wrong, the show played less than a year.
The team redeemed themselves with South Pacific (1949), an immensely successful show. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza starred. The score contained more songs destined to become standards, in fact, one of the musical theatre’s finest scores. South Pacific ran until the beginning of 1954 earning its writers and producers (one and the same as Rodgers and Hammerstein opened their own production office) a good deal of money. Columbia Records recorded the original cast recording twice, once on vinyl and, in an early experiment, on magnetic tape.
Their next hit, The King and I (1951) made a star out of Yul Brynner and was the last show for Gertrude Lawrence. The score was up to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s high standards and was recorded by Decca Records. Hobe Morrison, writing in Variety, perfectly captured Hammerstein’s lyric contributions when he wrote, “Hammerstein’s lyrics are another of his characteristic blends of apparently effortless grace, pictorial beauty and irresistible sentiment.” The songs were perfectly suited to the demands of the script and exactly defined each character’s personality and point of view. Typically, the songs propelled the plot forward instead of merely commenting on the themes.
RCA took another stab at a Rodgers and Hammerstein cast album with their next show, Me and Juliet (1953). It too was not a success. The story concerned two backstage romances and the score, except for the hit “No Other Love” was not up to their usual standards. A milestone of sorts was reached on April 5, 1954, when, for the first time since March 31, 1943, no Rodgers and Hammerstein production was playing on Broadway. During the eleven years since the opening of Oklahoma!, sometimes as many as four attractions were playing on Broadway with the Rodgers and Hammerstein names associated as either authors or producers.
RCA came back with the team’s next show, Pipe Dream (1955). Again the critics were disappointed and the show folded after only 246 performances. The team turned to a new medium, television, for their next project, an original musical, Cinderella. The show was broadcast on March 31, 1957 with a young Julie Andrews starring. It was a great success.
Gene Kelly was the director of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s next outing, Flower Drum Song (1958). The show and score received modest praise enabling a 600 performance run. The one hit was “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” Though not a smash it was better received than Allegro, Pipe Dream, or Me and Juliet. Columbia Records took charge of the cast album duties. John Chapman in the Daily News commented that the show was “thoroughly sentimental.” That sentimentality reached its zenith with The Sound of Music (1959), their last show as a team. The score was in the tradition of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein shows and yielded no less than five hit songs. The critics noted the show’s sweetness but audiences flocked to the Lunt-Fontanne theatre for 1,443 performances.
Oscar Hammerstein II died on August 23, 1960 leaving Richard Rodgers without a partner for the first time in his nearly fifty year career. For his first outing without Hammerstein, he contributed the lyrics himself. No Strings (1962) was a moderate success, running 580 performances. The score was well received, the song “The Sweetest Sounds” becoming often recorded. Rodgers’s surprisingly adept lyrics had more in common with Hart’s work than Hammerstein’s. The job of writing both music and lyrics was tough, and Rodgers decided to join up with a new partner for his next show, Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). Rodgers chose Hammerstein’s protégé, Stephen Sondheim. The two didn’t see eye to eye, however and the collaboration was stormy. Nonetheless, they did produce a good score. Rodgers next show faired better though the score was nowhere near as good. Two By Two (1970) marked Danny Kaye’s return to Broadway. Martin Charnin supplied the undistinguished lyrics. Sheldon Harnick was Rodgers’s next collaborator. The show, Rex (1976) was based on an unlikely subject for Rodgers, the court of King Henry VIII. It was a fast failure. Rodgers’s last show, I Remember Mama (1979) had lyrics by both Martin Charnin and Raymond Jessel. Starring the unlikely musical comedy choice, Liv Ullmann, the show received devastating reviews.
Richard Rodgers died in New York on December 30, 1979. (KB)
This 1940 song first became a hit in France under the title, “Perdu Dans un Reve Immense D’Amour.” Why in France? Because of the ASCAP broadcasting ban in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1950 that the song achieved widespread success in this country.Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
In this lyric Oscar Hammerstein emphasizes the sensory aspects of love. In the first verse he write about seeing a stranger, in the second about hearing her laughing, and in the third about feeling her call.Some Enchanted Evening
Was it galling to Richard Rodgers that his most often performed song was the only pop song in his catalogue? It’s not that he and lyricist Lorenz Hart didn’t try to make it a production song. The tune started out as the music to “Prayer,” written for the 1933 musical film Hollywood Party. It was cut from the film and then given to Shirley Ross in the 1934 movie Manhattan Melodrama under the title, “The Bad in Ev’ry Man.” The song didn’t catch on, and in 1934 Hart wrote yet another lyric, the last, and titled it “Blue Moon.” It wasn’t attached to any show or movie but became a hit anyway.Blue Moon
While out of town with the show On Your Toes, Lorenz Hart went down to the men’s room of New Haven’s Shubert Theatre and wrote the lyrics to “There’s a Small Hotel.”There’s a Small Hotel
Lorenz Hart: "Charles Cochran asked us to do a sophisticated show for London like the Garrick Gaieties. But first we went to Paris to rest for two weeks. On a drive from Paris to Versailles with two girls, we were nearly hit by a cab. One of the girls said: 'My God! My heart stood still!' I said to Dick, 'That’s a good title.' Before long, Dick came to me with 'My Heart Stood Still' for our new Cochran show, One Damn Thing after Another."My Heart Stood Still
When we started to do Oklahoma! Oscar meant to be helpful. I’d never been to Oklahoma. And I certainly wasn’t in the Southwest in 1906; I was only four years old at the time. So he sent me a book about the subject. And I opened it up, took one look at it, and then closed it and never opened it again. The only thing I could do was what any self-respecting artist would do: I put on music paper my idea of how Oklahoma sounded in 1906. The way Indian Territory sounded at the beginning of the century. Did it again in The King and I. I certainly hadn’t been to Siam before I wrote that, but I wanted to express my feeling about the way Siam sounded.Richard Rodgers to Max Wilk
The only way I can define it is that down deep somewhere in that soul of his there must be a warm, beautiful thing…to come out with all these melodies.Rodney Bennett
Rodgers wrote the music first when writing with Hart. When he then collaborated with Hammerstein, the lyricist provided a lyric to be set to music. Rodgers, ever the businessman, always said in answer to the question, which came first the music or lyrics, “the advance. ”Richard Rodgers
Charles Cochran asked us to do a sophisticated show for London like the Garrick Gaieties. But first we went to Paris to rest for two weeks. On a drive from Paris to Versailles with two girls we were nearly hit by a cab. One of the girls said: ‘My God! My heart stood still!’
I said to Dick,‘That’s a good title.’
Before Long, Dick came to me, and said, ‘I’ve got ‘My Heart Stood Still’ for our new Cochran show, One Damn Thing After Another.Larry Hart
I can always tell a Rodgers tune. There’s a certain holiness about it.Cole Porter
Richard Rodgers to Max Wilk: “When we started to do Oklahoma! Oscar meant to be helpful. I’d never been to Oklahoma. And I certainly wasn’t in the Soutwest in 1906; I was only four years old at the time. So he sent me a book about the subject. And I opened it up, took one look at it, and then closed it and never opened it again. The only thing I could do was what any self-respecting artist would do. I put on music paper my idea of how Oklahoma sounded in 1906. The way Indian Territory sounded at the beginning of the century. Did it again in The King and I. I certainly hadn’t been to Siam before I wrote that. But I wanted to express my feeling about the way Siam sounded.”Richard Rodgers
Orchestrator Richard Rodney Bennett on the otherwise difficult Richard Rodgers: “The only way I can define it is that down deep somewhere in that soul of his there must be a warm, beautiful thing… to come out with all these melodies.”Richard Rodney Bennett