I have a thing for the music of Richard Rodgers and I know I’m not alone. Of all the musical giants of the 20th century that contributed to the Great American Songbook, Rodgers holds a special place. Not only was he prolific, but his career was separated into three succinct periods: the first were his collaborations with the lyricist Lorenz Hart, that covered the years 1925–1942. Between revues and book musicals they wrote 23 Broadway shows over that 17-year time span, something that will never be repeated again. Not ever.
Richard Rodgers, in a rare moment of unposed spontaneity.
Rodgers’ second period of innovation and unparalleled triumphs began in 1943 when he teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II, who had already had a notable career as a book writer and lyricist of musicals that had begun in 1917. From 1943–1959, when Rodgers and Hammerstein created nine Broadway musicals, one original film score (State Fair) and one television score (Cinderella), they transcended the paradigm of modern success. Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, contain enough world-renowned songs in them to defy statistics. And the music that poured out of Rodgers was distinctly different than what he had produced when partnered with Hart — more sophisticated and with an aim and a yearning for bigger and broader subjects.
In his third and final period, although filled with frustration for Rodgers due to grading his own accomplishments by the measure of whether the shows that were produced ended up as hits or flops (and most were of the latter brand), he still composed tunes that can stand up to anything from the mind of this master creator. It’s a shame he went out with a whimper instead of a bang, as his last musical I Remember Mama, was less than stellar (to put it as politely as possible). Still, with a career that spanned from the early 1920s to the late 1970s, the world was a poorer place when Rodgers passed away in 1979 at the age of seventy-seven.
Today, a new CD launched called Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers. I had an advance copy (but went and purchased one anyway complete with packaging and booklet that arrived today) and the arrangements Porter and company have devised bring Rodgers’ music to the forefront once again — where it belongs. Alongside such artists as the Tony Award winners Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Patina Miller, Porter is joined by such great musical actors and singers Brandon Victor Dixon, Christopher Jackson and Joshua Henry. Not to confine itself to Broadway, the CD also allows for Rodgers’ songs interpreted by such pop music sensations as Pentatonix, India.Aire, Ledisi, Zaire Park, and even crossover performers Deborah Cox and Todrick Hall. And let’s not forget Porter himself. It had me hooked from the opening strains of the first song, with Porter singing the lush melody that begins with the simple phrase “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” That it turns into a rap song only adds to the flow of this entire CD that is nothing but pure pleasure.
Released today, April 14, 2017
I have never stopped listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals since first being introduced to them as a child. And a special fact should be inserted here: that Oklahoma!, due to its phenomenal success in 1943, became the antecedent of the modern invention now known as the Broadway original cast recording (even though it wasn’t entirely the original cast, but that’s neither here nor there). It contained six 10-inch double-sided discs in 78 RPM format. My parents owned a copy, and when I would take it out and play it, even though it was then a twenty-year-old relic, I found its antiquity part of its charm. I loved spinning those discs as a child.
Of all the recordings of Rodgers songs and musicals, one I have held a particular fondness for over the years is a CD that came out in 2003. It consists of twelve songs by Rodgers, performed by the composer John Bucchino, all played on the very Steinway piano that Rodgers once owned. This piano has been handed down to Rodgers’ grandson, the Tony winning composer Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), and Bucchino, a friend of Guettel’s, explained in his liner notes for the CD: “Between May 12th and May 30th 2003, during a series of eight recording sessions, I played (and played with) these marvelous songs, many of which were no doubt born on this very instrument. Since I play purely by ear and by instinct, none of these arrangements was written down or even (with the exception of the basic structure of “My Favorite Things”) premeditated. We’d turn on the machines and for a couple of hours I’d call out one Rodgers title after another and improvise wildly different versions as the spirit moved me.”
On careful inspection, the white and black keys of Rodgers’ own piano
“What you hear are all single takes. There was no overdubbing, no editing of takes together for perfection’s sake. This is exactly what happened in the moment in what turned out to be a deeply rewarding collaboration — a collaboration with Richard Rodgers’ piano.”
With spring in bloom, why not treat yourself to Billy Porter’s CD, available just about everywhere, as well as John Bucchino’s, where a visit to his website will get you one: http://www.johnbucchino.com/rrpianocd.rhtml
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: