The sweetest sounds

Despite a sometimes dismal personal life and the deaths of two collaborators, Richard Rodgers strove unrelentingly for verve and originality in his music.

By Andy Boynton

Richard Rodgers
Geoffrey Block, Professor of Music
304 pages, Yale University Press

“Work was Rodgers’ therapy, sinecure, salvation, and the simple secret to his well-being,” writes Geoffrey Block in Richard Rodgers. Indeed, Rodgers—musical partner to Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the man behind landmark musicals such as Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Sound of Music—was often unhappy and unresponsive on a personal level, suffered from numerous phobias, including bridges and elevators, and spent time in a celebrity psychiatric clinic. Yet he expressed a wide range of feelings in his songs and musical stories.

Rodgers’ contributions span six decades and include more than 1,000 songs, 40 Broadway shows, and two Pulitzer Prizes, for Oklahoma! and South Pacific. Rodgers, with both Hart and Hammerstein, “possessed an enviably reliable if not infallible radar for what audiences wanted, a sensitivity that allowed him to feel audience approval ‘on the back of his neck,’” says Block.

In Richard Rodgers, Block focuses on four Rodgers musicals—A Connecticut Yankee (1927), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), South Pacific (1949), and the 1957 telecast of Cinderella—analyzing songs, scenes, sources, actors, revivals, and political subtexts. Block also explores Rodgers’ early years as a student and struggling composer, and he gives Rodgers’ much maligned five final plays another look.

Hart met Rodgers through a mutual acquaintance in 1919. “Rodgers was captivated by Hart’s artistic theories,” writes Block, “by his disdain for most of contemporary musical matter in its stories; and by the contrasting literacy, technical virtuosity, and daring in Hart’s then unpublished lyrics.” The two quickly teamed up and began writing together.

Contrary to popular belief, Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose first “official” production together was Oklahoma! in 1943, actually collaborated as early as 1919, when Hammerstein contributed lyrics to songs used in early Rodgers and Hart amateur musicals, such as Up Stage and Down (1919) and Fly with Me (1920).

At that time, “no theatrical venue was too lowly for Rodgers,” says Block. “Nothing stood in the way of his desire to see his works performed on a stage.” In fact, Rodgers himself said, “If I were starting out and the Astor Hotel was still in existence, I would be satisfied to have my stuff shown in its men’s room. Any place.”

At the Institute of Musical Art (later renamed Juilliard), Rodgers studied under Percy Goetschius, a renowned expert on music theory who warned against the use of “pigs,” or easy and predictable solutions in musical pieces. Rodgers eventually would become known for his surprise musical endings.

Rodgers’ music and Hart’s lyrics were magic together. “As Rodgers and Hart see it, what was killing musicomedy was its sameness, its tameness, its eternal rhyming of June with moon,” said Time magazine years later. “They decided it was not enough just to be good at the job; they had to be constantly different also.”

But by 1924, frustrated by their lack of success, Rodgers and Hart considered packing it in, and Rodgers suffered from insomnia and almost quit to take a job selling children’s underwear. Then came their hit Garrick Gaieties (1925), followed shortly by A Connecticut Yankee (1927), their greatest Broadway success of the 1920s. “The era was one in which an entertaining musical comedy adaptation of a famous novel was an event,” says Block, explaining the popularity of Yankee, “and in which the presence of two consecutive hit songs [‘My Heart Stood Still’ and ‘Thou Swell’] could go a long way toward satisfying an audience eager for an excuse to visit a new musical comedy (even at the steep top price of $5.50).”

After spending the early 1930s writing for Hollywood musicals (“the most unproductive period of my professional life,” said Rodgers), the duo staged a triumphant return to Broadway in 1935 with Jumbo, the longest running musical of that year, and the first and only attempt on Broadway to combine a musical with a live circus; it featured 500 live animals. Indeed, the late ’30s is recognized as the Rodgers and Hart era on Broadway, with a string of hits: On Your Toes (1936), which starred Ray Bolger, who’d later play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz; Babes in Arms and I’d Rather Be Right (both 1937); and I Married an Angel, the top book show of 1938. This culminated in a Time magazine cover story on the two that same year.

Their other 1938 musical, The Boys from Syracuse, was the third-longest run that year, and was the first important Broadway musical based on a Shakespeare play. However, as they began the 1940s, the duo entered a gradual decline, and with Hart silenced by alcoholism and despair, Rodgers teamed up with Hammerstein to write the landmark Oklahoma!, which opened on March 31, 1943, and ran for a whopping 2,212 performances.

Later that year, Rodgers and Hart rejoined to revive A Connecticut Yankee (in which audiences enjoyed a parody of budding teen heartthrob Frank Sinatra). Part of Rodgers’s motive was to give Hart a project less taxing than the creation of a whole new show; as Rodgers put it, he “felt he owed it to Larry.” Tragically, however, Hart “fell apart” on opening night. He had to be forcibly removed from the theater; the next day he was found in a drunken stupor; and five days later, on Nov. 22, he died in a hospital from a combination of pneumonia and heart failure.

Rodgers and Hammerstein continued through the ’40s on Broadway with Carousel, the show that many, including Rodgers, considered their finest in 1945, the less commercially successful and artistically controversial Allegro in 1947, and a hit movie (State Fair in 1945). Then, on April 7, 1949, South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre and didn’t close until Jan. 16, 1954—1,925 performances later, second only to Oklahoma! on Broadway in the 1940s. More than a million copies of the original cast album were sold, and the musical received numerous awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, several Tonys, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The pair would start and end the ’50s with two more huge Broadway hits, The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959). Sandwiched in between was the Jan. 30, 1957, CBS broadcast of Cinderella, starring 21-year-old phenom Julie Andrews. Shown from 8 to 9:30 p.m., the telecast was watched by a staggering 107 million viewers; at the time, the U.S. population totaled just under 180 million. Cinderella, Block says, was “a milestone in the effort to bring the ideals of Broadway musical theater to a new medium,” although it wasn’t Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first experience with television. In 1954, an unprecedented 90-minute tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein was broadcast simultaneously over the three major networks, a feat that would not be duplicated until September 2001, when the networks joined together to present a relief concert honoring the victims of the September 11 attacks.

From Hammerstein’s death in 1960 to Rodgers’ own in 1979, Rodgers wrote five musicals. While the first, No Strings (1962), for which he served as both composer and lyricist for the first and last time, had a respectable 580-performance run, the others were generally panned and marred by clashes between collaborators and bad behavior by the lead actors.

Block, however, offers Rodgers praise for continuing to work and innovate during his final years. “During the 19 years after Hammerstein’s death … Rodgers continued to grow. He wrote the lyrics to an entire musical for the first time, he formed partnerships with some of the most tested and promising lyricists of his day, and he continued to tackle unusual subjects.

“Virtually alone among his contemporaries, Rodgers stayed the course and staggered to the finish line,” Block continues. “With time, I think we will become increasingly thankful that he did.”

Richard Rodgers is the inaugural volume in the Yale Broadway Masters series, for which Professor Block is general editor.