Richard Charles Rodgers (1902-1972), American composer, wrote the music for over 50 stage and film musicals and helped make the American musical a legitimate art form.
When Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Dorothy Fields collaborated in 1925 on Dearest Enemy, "an American musical play" (as they called it), contributing respectively music, lyrics, and book, something new was added to the theatrical scene. Not only was the material original, charming, and witty, but the form and subject of the entertainment were distinctly unusual. Here was a play based on American history with unpredictable and pertinent musical sections. Rodgers and his lyricists, Hart and, later, Oscar Hammerstein II, were to repeat this sort of innovation on several occasions. Each occasion marked an important contribution to a more original, indigenous popular musical theater in the United States.
Richard Rodgers was born near Arverne, Long Island, New York, on June 28, 1902. His father was a successful physician and his mother, a well-trained amateur musician. Rodgers heard music in his home from earliest childhood and was regularly taken to the theater. He was especially delighted by the operettas of Victor Herbert and other popular composers. A little later he was inspired by the musicals of Jerome Kern, whose influence, Rodgers said, was "a deep and lasting one."
By the age of six Rodgers was playing the piano by ear and had begun receiving piano lessons. He attended secondary schools in New York. By the age of 14 he had written two songs in the popular vein (he was never interested in purely instrumental composition). His direction seemed fixed. Before he entered Columbia University in 1919, he had already written music for two amateur shows and had met Lorenz (Larry) Hart, a literate, amusing, somewhat driven creator of verse, with whom Rodgers would collaborate for the next 24 years. Their first published song was "Any Old Place with You" (1919), and hundreds followed. Rodgers left Columbia at the end of his second year to devote full time to musical studies at the Institute of Musical Art, where he spent another two years.
After working on amateur shows and on a few unsuccessful professional attempts, Rodgers and Hart won acclaim for their review Garrick Gaieties in 1925. Dearest Enemy, their second success, opened the same year. During the next decade they wrote three shows for the London stage and a number of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. Though not all of them were successful, they were distinguished by a number of fine romantic ballads such as "My Heart Stood Still" (1927), "With a Song in My Heart" (1929), "Dancing on the Ceiling" (1930), and "Lover" (1932). Hart's lyrics always managed nicely to skirt sentimentality, and Rodgers matched them with tunes of grace and skill.
Among the nine stage shows written between 1935 and 1942 were several of Rodgers and Hart's most famous: Jumbo (1935); On Your Toes (1936), for which the distinguished Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine created the ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue; Babes in Arms (1937); The Boys from Syracuse (1938); and Pal Joey (1940). A number of the songs written during this time are among Rodgers and Hart's most durable: "There's a Small Hotel," "Where or When," "My Funny Valentine," "This Can't Be Love," and "The Lady Is a Tramp." These are sophisticated pieces which display a firm control of the medium.
After Hart died in 1943, Rodgers entered a period of unprecedented success with lyricist Hammerstein. Of their 10 musicals, 5 were among the longest-running and biggest-grossing shows ever created for Broadway: Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959).
If the best work of Rodgers and Hart was marked by a considerable measure of wit and sophistication, the style of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration was dominated by a basic, almost folklike, simplicity. In many songs both music and words seem stripped to the barest essentials. Romantic sentiment is a major ingredient.
Through touring productions, film versions, and recordings, the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have become known around the world. Songs that have become standards in the popular repertory include "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "People Will Say We're in Love," "If I Loved You," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Hello, Young Lovers," and "Climb Every Mountain." After Hammerstein's death in 1960 Rodgers for the first time served as his own lyricist for the score of No Strings (1962).
Rodgers's long association with the popular musical theater was an important one. His best projects were aimed at giving the musical play an ever more natural American expression. Oklahoma, especially, brought an engaging simplicity and earthiness to the form. On many occasions his choice of subject matter was unconventional, involving certain characters, situations, and themes of a seriousness seldom encountered previously in musical comedy. His work enriched and broadened a genre once regarded as little more than frivolous entertainment and helped make it into an authentic American art form.
Rodgers' death on December 30, 1972 didn't stop the popularity of his musical works, which enjoyed numerous revivals. Vintage original cast reissues and contemporary recordings, movies and videos, Broadway and community playhouse productions and even illustrated books abounded. They became the medium through which the timeless works credited with launching the 20th Century musical continued to exist.
Rodgers' shows didn't seem to lose dramatic impact. Their stories remained vividly current in South Pacific, encompassing the uncertainties of its World War II setting and The King and I, soon after, that began to deal with racism and the despotism of absolute authority.
Since music had to be hand-copied during most of Rodgers' lifetime, the musical scores from different productions did not always agree. Although there are some early recordings to follow for authenticity, it still left room for changes in interpretation or even omission of particular numbers during performances.
The original shows were lavished with honors, from an Academy Award for best song (It Might as Well be Spring, 1945 from State Fair) to another one 10 years later for best score for Oklahoma!. Three shows, South Pacific (1949); The King and I (1951); and The Sound of Music (1959) won Tony Awards for "Best Musical."
Later performances continued to bring notoriety and additional awards as top stars such as Julie Andrews and Patti LuPone starred in reissues and revivals. Rodgers himself was featured in one collection of vignettes on video in a scene of him conducting an orchestra on the fabled Ed Sullivan Show.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in perpetuating Rodgers' work was the transfer of a superior 1954 original movie of Oklahoma! to videotape. It surpassed a same-cast, second filming of inherently poorer quality and performance that had circulated for years. It took until 1994 when equipment finally was developed to transfer the "original edition" defunct Todd-AO process onto video for mass distribution.
David Ewen, Richard Rodgers (1957), a laudatory full-scale biography which contains lists of Rodgers's stage and film works, is quite comprehensive, although not without minor errors. Deems Taylor, Some Enchanted Evenings (1953), is a chatty, informal account of the Hammerstein collaboration and contains some musical analysis of Rodgers's songs and has numerous photographs. See also Stanley Green, The Rodgers and Hammerstein Story (1963). For additional information, see also Publisher's Weekly (July 18, 1994); Entertainment Weekly (January 20, 1995 and December 23, 1994); and Newsweek (May 15, 1995). □