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
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?