Theatre yesterday and today



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If pressed, when anyone asks who my favorite Broadway composer is (or was), my answer has always been Richard Rodgers. Was anyone better at composing such romantically lush music that pierces the heart? The melodies that poured out of him over a career that spanned from the early 1920s to the late 1970s influenced every writer for the musical theatre ever since. Rodgers wrote more than 900 published songs and over 40 Broadway musicals. First in partnership for twenty-three years with Lorenz (Larry Hart), then for another seventeen with Oscar Hammerstein II. And the shows that bear all three of those names are the definition of class and distinction. Among the titles are On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, A Connecticut Yankee, Pal Joey and By Jupiter (with Hart); Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music (with Hammerstein). Throw in a couple of original film and television scores like Love Me Tonight, State Fair and Cinderella, and the term "an embarrassment of riches" is no longer a cliché, but a fact.

Richard Rodgers (in a rare relaxed photo).

I can’t recall the first show that made me aware of Rodgers. I never performed in any of the ones he wrote with Hammerstein or Hart either in high school or summer stock. I did fall in love with the 1962 movie Jumbo when I was a kid, but mostly for Jimmy Durante, not for the songs. I think it might have begun when I was a teenager and got the movie soundtrack to the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! from a record club that I joined (twelve albums for 99 cents). There’s really no better introduction to what makes Rodgers songs sing than the opening bars of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” particularly on the film’s soundtrack, what with the enormous studio orchestra, larger than any pit can fit in a Broadway production.

I was enamored of the image off this album cover when I was a kid.

Although some of the Rodgers & Hammerstein show-to-film versions were agumentatively busts (South Pacific and Carousel), they were more than compensated by how good the movies of The King and I and The Sound of Music turned out. Funnily enough, having almost exclusively preferring original cast albums to soundtracks my whole life, both King and I and Sound of Music were shows I didn’t give much listening to in their theatrical versions. Again, hard to top those beautiful studio orchestras for the film soundtracks, as well as in the case of The King and I, the lovely singing versatility of Marni Nixon, who dubbed for Deborah Kerr, who played Anna Leowens on screen. Though I'm sure she was wonderful on the stage, Mary Martin was a mature forty-seven when she played Maria in The Sound of Music. When she started filming, Julie Andrews was just twenty-nine while warbling as the young novice all around Austria and its environs.

"Maria" — say it soft and it's almost like praying.

But I digress from the subject at hand. Richard Rodgers had a seemingly endless trove of melodies inside his head. It has been reported that when Hammerstein handed him the lyrics for "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," that Rodgers handed him back the music written out in less than fifteen minutes. When interviewed over the years and asked about this story, Rodgers's answer always made sense to me: "I may have written it out in fifteen minutes, but the idea for the melody had been playing in my head for months."

This reminds me of something that has always stuck with me from the prolific composer John Kander: "I hear music all the time," Kander said. "I mean, all the time. Harmonization of a melody is a process that is happening continuously while I'm working, and if what I play at the piano sounds like bare bones to you, that is not what I'm hearing in my head."

As someone incapable of writing a tune, I am fascinated by that idea: meaning everything that goes on in the heads of composers like Kander and Rodgers. I believe that "If I Loved You," specifically composed for the characters of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan in Carousel, is the greatest love song ever written for a musical. Not only in terms of its construction, but by its haunting melody and the way Hammerstein's words float above Rodgers's music so elegantly (and so simply). Even though it's a variation on "People Will Say We're in Love," written two years earlier for Oklahoma! (two people are enraptured with one another and unwilling to admit it), the depth of flirtation between Billy and Julie is miles beyond what Curly and Laurie are singing about. One song is charming, the other is galvanizing—leading to "If I Loved You's" heart-stopping kiss at its finish. It shows what musical theatre can do that no other art form can: lead its characters to express in song what they cannot express in mere words. Opera does this, sure. But for me, the trouble with opera is that it's always about the sound that comes out of the singers and the orchestra. "If I Loved You" can be stunning even with two actors (who might not even necessarily be the greatest singers in the world) just standing around a piano for accompaniment. The song can still retain its power to transcend the ordinary onto extraordinary heights. That can't be done with Puccini's "Vogliatemi Bene, un Bene Piccolino" from Madame Butterfly, let me tell you.

After the death of Oscar Hammerstein in 1960, Rodgers continued to compose Broadway musicals with different collaborators for close to another twenty years, mostly with mixed results. But even if some of the shows failed, there would always be a gorgeous Rodgers melody to take home with you as you exited the theatre. Listen to "The Sweetest Sounds" from 1962's No Strings (for which Rodgers provided his own lyrics) or "Away from You" from 1976's Rex, with words by Sheldon Harnick. Hell, just listen to anything from Richard Rodgers in honor of his birthday today. You really can't go wrong.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: