1902 — 1979
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With his subsequent return to Broadway, Rodgers embarked on a spectacular 15-year period of success, both musically and financially. From the first eight years, he produced nine musicals with Hart, most of which became hits. Several of the shows have been revived in new forms, such asOn Your Toes (1936) and The Boys from Syracuse (1938), which was the first successful Broadway show adapted from a Shakespeare play. Of the shows from this period,Pal Joey (1940) was particularly important, as it greatly developed the genre. The final collaboration between Rodgers and Hart was the successful show,By Jupiter (1942). By this point, Hart’s abilities were compromised by alcoholism and personal problems.
Richard Rodgers was a 20th century American composer of musicals. His works set the standard for the American Broadway show. His collaborations with Hart and Hammerstein remain popular to this day, most notablyThe Sound of Music and Oklahoma!
Rodgers was born in New York to Russian Jewish immigrants, Dr. William A. Rodgers and Mamie Levy. His parents were both amateur musicians who enjoyed performing the latest Broadway tunes at home, his father singing and his mother accompanying him on the piano. Rodgers also displayed a talent for music, especially at the piano, but avoided lessons, as he preferred to play by ear.
At the age of 14, Rodgers composed two of his first songs, and the next year copyrighted ‘Auto Show Girl’. In 1917, he composed the music and lyrics forOne Minute, Please(1917), the first in his 14 amateur musicals. The following year, he met the lyrist Lorenz Hart, who was looking for a composer to collaborate with. The two bonded over their fondness of Jerome Kern. Rodgers stated in his autobiography that he ‘left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend and a source of permanent irritation’. Hart and Rodgers worked together for the next 24 years and produced 26 Broadway shows and nine films together.
Before their big break, they composed several successful songs, such as ‘Any Old Place with You’, but were limited to amateur shows, most notably the Varsity Shows at Columbia University, where Rodgers studied. They also presented several shows at the Institute of Musical Art (now known as the Juilliard School), where Rodgers also studied. Though the amateur shows were successful, their first professional show,The Melody Man, which debuted in 1924 was a failure, causing Rodgers to consider quitting and becoming a babies’ underwear salesman.
Just in time, he was invited to compose songs together with Hart for a project with the Theatre Guild, resulting in a clever parody,The Garrick Gaieties (1925). With this breakthrough, they were able to produce a series of successful Broadway shows with librettist Herbert Fields, beginning withDearest Enemy (1925). Despite the strengths and innovations present in the early shows, they are not popular today.
In the early 1930s, Rodgers and Hart spent most of their time in Hollywood, where they produced several film musicals includingLove Me Tonight (1932), The Phantom President (1932) and Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933). They also wrote songs for film stars and had one major hit, ‘Blue Moon’ (1934), that was not associated with a show or film. Rodgers’ biggest successes in Hollywood were Love Me Tonight (1932) and his two musicals, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945) with Oscar Hammerstein II. While in Hollywood, he also established his trademark, the Rodgers waltz, which was included in every show fromOklahoma! to The Sound of Music.
Rodgers and Hammerstein began working together again for the first time since 1919, when they produced two amateur songs together. Their first show together was the hitOklahoma! (1943, 1979; London, 1947, 1998). The show shattered records and ran for 2212 performances. It also marked the beginning of a new period of musicals defined by credible well-developed plots and subplots along with songs and ballets that propelled the action forward. This became known as the ‘integrated’ musical model, and all other musicals were measured against it for the next two decades.
Many of their songs also took on a life of their own off the stage, including pieces ranging from jazzy up-beat numbers to romantic ballads. As time went on, these works became more complex and less influenced by the standard 32-bar jazz song forms he had used with Hart.
Together, Rodgers and Hammerstein created five major hits, four of which in their first eight years together. These shows,Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951), also became famous internationally, along with their film musicalState Fair (1945).
Rodgers also produced many successful plays during this period including I Remember Mama(1944), Happy Birthday (1946) and The Happy Time (1950).
In addition to their major hits, Rodgers and Hammerstein also produced several original musicals which were less victorious such asAllegro (1947) and Me and Juliet(1953), though their first outright failure was the musical Pipe Dream (1955), inspired by John Steinbeck’sSweet Thursday. They bounced back from this setback with a televised broadcast ofCinderella (1957) and the musical Flower Drum Song(1958), and most importantly their fifth and final international hit, The Sound of Music (1959, 1998) before Hammerstein died of cancer.
Alone again, Rogers created one last successful show, as lyrist and composer, No Strings (1962). He also collaborated in his final active years with his protégé Stephen Sondheim, along with Martin Charnin and Sheldon Harnick. However, by this point health problems and conflicts limited his success.
His Legacy with Hammerstein continued with the filming of The Sound of Music in 1965, which became a huge success worldwide. Just weeks before his death the revival ofOklahoma! on Broadway took place. Rodgers suffered from jaw cancer and died on 30 December 1979.
To this day, many of his collaborations with Hart and Hammerstein are still popular both on stage and as individual song books. Modern composers of musicals still look to these masterpieces when composing for Broadway.
Images courtesy of Notable Biographies, Masterworks Broadway, The Daily Bruin and public domain