Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday marked the birthday of Richard Rodgers, who, if pressed, I would have to cite as my favorite Broadway composer. Was anyone better at composing such romantically lush music that pierce 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 who followed. With a variety of partners, he published a staggering 900 songs and contributed to 40 Broadway musicals: a record (it’s very safe to say) that will never be broken. And it’s not just about quantity. An overwhelming number of those songs contain a quality that will charm audiences for as long as there are artists to reinterpret them and — hopefully when theatres reopen — continue to present the musicals they are from in bold and exciting ways.

Richard Rodgers, born June 28, 1902

Between revues and book musicals, Rodgers’ twenty-three-year partnership with the lyricist Lorenz (Larry) Hart accounted for twenty-eight Broadway shows. Then, with his second partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, their output between 1943 and 1960 was responsible for some of the greatest musicals ever written, the majority of which, have repeatedly endured the test of time. It’s not for nothing that over the past twenty-six years the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical has been given to Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I

I mean…

These two partnerships are fascinating to examine. Rodgers and Hart were the definition of class and distinction. Their output includes Pal Joey, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, A Connecticut Yankee and By Jupiter, all of which contain songs that are masterpieces of construction. Then, with Hammerstein, we enter true classic territory with the creation of nine Broadway musicals, one original film score (State Fair) and one television score (Cinderella). These works transcended what was once the paradigm of modern success. They 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. Melodious, with both arch and tender lyrics, singers to this day never tire of bringing fresh ideas to convey the deeper meanings of Hart’s lyrics. And yet with Hammerstein, Rodgers aimed even higher and grew even more sophisticated by way of the bigger and broader subjects of their shows.

The man and the characters he aiding in creating for so many memorable musicals.

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 beautiful tunes. 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 exactly sixty years, the world was a poorer place when Rodgers passed away in 1979 at the age of seventy-seven.

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.

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.”

The seemingly endless trove of melodies Rodgers was capable of are best expressed by what he wrote when, for the first time, he crafted his own lyrics for a musical after the death of Hammerstein. The first thing heard at the start of 1962’s No Strings is the lyric “The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear are still inside my head.” What other proof is necessary?

As the story goes, when Hammerstein first handed Rodgers the lyrics for “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” the composer handed him back the music written out in less than fifteen minutes. When asked about this, Rodgers’s answer made perfect 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 what goes on in the minds 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. Its haunting melody and the way Hammerstein’s words float above Rodgers’s music so elegantly (and so simply), send me. 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 wholly engaging, 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. “If I Loved You” can even retain its power to transcend the ordinary into extraordinary with two actors just standing around a piano for accompaniment. There is no better example of this than Laura Osnes and Steven Pasquale dueting in exactly that setting when they were rehearsing for a Chicago Carousel in 2015 (it takes ten minutes to view, but boy is it worth it).

Various artists will always be offering their takes on Rodgers’ work, as the tunes will forever demand re-examination. If you want to really celebrate the master’s birthday, try Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers, which came out three years ago. 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 theatre actors and singers like 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. He had me hooked from the opening strains of the first song, with the singing of the lush melody that begins with that famous 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.

Then again, the term “an embarrassment of riches” is no longer a cliché, but a fact when it pertains to Richard Rodgers. Give a listen to anything he wrote in honor of his birthday. How can you go wrong?

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at