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Rodgers and Hammerstein
Composer Richard Rodgers (1902 - 1979) and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, II (1895 - 1960)

 


Each had already made his mark — but as collaborators they created musical theatre that enchanted audiences and redefined the art form
By ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER for Time Magazine

 

It was 8:30 a.m., May 19, 1961. I remember the time and date vividly. I was 13. School was Westminster. Elvis was king. No. 1 on the British charts was Floyd Cramer's On the Rebound. There was an uproar as I entered the common room, where we boys were supplied with the daily newspapers.

"Have you read your heroes' reviews, Lloydy?"

"Look, the Times says the show is treacly."

"Webster, look at this one."

That one said something to the effect that "if you are a diabetic who craves sweet things, take along some extra insulin, and you will not fail to thrill to The Sound of Music."

If nothing else, I had learned my first lesson in creative theater advertising, for "You will not fail to thrill to The Sound of Music" was the main quote outside London's Palace Theatre for many years to come. When the sign finally came down, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's last collaboration had become the longest-running American musical in London theatre history. Few remember in what disregard, particularly in 1960s Britain, the musical genre was held by young people. Opinion makers insisted that the most heinous example of the sentimental musical was the show rightly considered today to be a Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, Carousel.

My first encounter with Rodgers and Hammerstein was via my father. He was then director of composition at the Royal College of Music. On my 10th birthday, he interrupted my endless replays of Jailhouse Rock and insisted on playing something for me. Onto the battered 78 r.p.m. record player was plonked Ezio Pinza singing Some Enchanted Evening. Then Dad played the song on the piano. Right then, Rodgers and Hammerstein joined Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers as heroes.

I know why. Great melody has always deeply affected me, and Rodgers is possibly the 20th century's greatest tune writer. This is not to deny Hammerstein's enormous contribution. The simplicity of his lyrics is truly deceptive. Take People Will Say We're in Love. Thousands of songs, even well-known songs, make the few rhymes for "love" sound contrived. "Don't start collecting things — / Give me my rose and my glove./ Sweetheart, they're suspecting things — / People will say we're in love!" does no such thing.

Rodgers and Hammerstein did not, of course, collaborate until they were well along in their careers. Rodgers was born on June 28, 1902, on New York's Long Island to a doctor and his wife. He took to music at an early age. The teenage Rodgers spent his allowance going to Saturday matinees of musicals. Thus he grew to idolize Jerome Kern.

By the time he went to Columbia University in the fall of 1919, he had already met his first collaborator, Lorenz Hart. That summer they had sold a song to producer Lew Fields for a show called A Lonely Romeo. (Extraordinarily, some of Rodgers' songs, to his own lyrics, appeared on Broadway even earlier, when he was 16.)

But it wasn't until 1925 that Rodgers and Hart had a major hit. They wrote the songs for a light-hearted revue called The Garrick Gaieties. Its Manhattan was an overnight success, and the legendary partnership was flying at last. Such songs as The Lady Is a Tramp, Dancing on the Ceiling, My Heart Stood Still and Blue Moon etched the duo a permanent place in theatre history.

Rodgers was always keen on breaking new ground. Many believe Pal Joey (1940), the story of the emcee of a sleazy nightclub, to be a landmark musical. With its unscrupulous leading character and bitingly realistic view of life, the show moved the musical-comedy format into more serious territory. But even as Rodgers and Hart were taking the musical to new levels, their partnership was becoming increasingly strained. Hart was a serious drinker, and by the time of his last collaboration with Rodgers, By Jupiter in 1942, he was virtually an alcoholic. Rodgers was desperate. No one was more forthcoming with help than his old friend Oscar Hammerstein II.

Hammerstein was born in New York City on July 12, 1895. His father William was a theatrical manager; his grandfather Oscar I, a legendary impresario who took on the Metropolitan Opera by building his own opera house. The young Oscar was stagestruck from childhood, and by the time he attended Columbia University, he was performing and writing amateur routines. It was after the Saturday matinee of a college varsity revue that he first met Rodgers, whose older brother brought him to the show. Years later, remembering this meeting, Hammerstein wrote, "Behind the sometimes too serious face of an extraordinarily talented composer ... I see a dark-eyed little boy."

Like Rodgers, Hammerstein was keen to push the boundaries of the musical, which was only slightly more sophisticated than a vaudeville revue. In the program of his 1924 Broadway show Rose-Marie, for instance, he and the other authors wrote that the musical numbers were too integral to the book to list separately. Three years later, with Jerome Kern, he had his biggest success with Show Boat, the musical he adapted from Edna Ferber's novel of the same name with the express intention of weaving songs seamlessly into a narrative about addictive gambling, alcoholism and miscegenation. Years later, Hammerstein dealt with racial issues again in South Pacific.

By the time Rodgers and Hammerstein were discussing the Hart crisis, the 46-year-old Hammerstein was considered something of a has-been. He had a string of flops to his name. Famously, after the successful debut of Oklahoma! he took an advertisement in Variety listing all his recent catastrophes with the punch line: "I've done it before and I can do it again!"

The announcement that Rodgers and Hammerstein were to collaborate on Oklahoma! — the Theatre Guild production based on Lynn Riggs' novel Green Grow the Lilacs — was initially greeted with skepticism. The financial backing for Away We Go! (as the show was then called) proved very difficult to raise. MGM, which owned the dramatic rights, refused to make a $69,000 investment for half the profits. The word on the tryout in New Haven, Conn., was awful. One of Walter Winchell's informants wired the columnist: "No girls, no legs, no jokes, no chance."

But on March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! opened in triumph on Broadway. A show that began with a lone woman churning butter onstage to the strains of an offstage voice singing Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' captivated its first-night audience. This revolutionary, naturalistic musical also changed the mainstream of the genre forever.

Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote nine musicals together. Five are legendary hits: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. (Flower Drum Song was a success, but not in the same league as the golden five.) They wrote one film musical, State Fair, and the TV special Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews. They were also hugely canny producers. Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun was but one of the works they produced that was not their own. Their flops — Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream — were probably a result, as much as anything, of their trying too consciously to be innovative.

What sets the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals apart for me is their directness and their awareness of the importance of construction in musical theatre. Years ago, I played through the piano score of South Pacific. It is staggering how skillfully reprises are used as scene-change music that sets up a following number or underlines a previous point. It could only be the product of a hugely close relationship in which each partner sensed organically where the other, and the show, was going.

After Hammerstein's death from cancer in 1960, Rodgers valiantly ploughed on. He worked with Stephen Sondheim on a musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? An attempt at a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist of My Fair Lady, came to nothing. I can vouch for Alan's never having had the almost puritanical discipline that Rodgers found so satisfactory in Hammerstein. Sadly, too, with one or two exceptions, the post-Hammerstein melodies paled against Rodgers' former output. Who can say why? Perhaps it was simply the lack of the right partner to provide inspiration and bring out the best in him. Musical partnerships are, after all, like marriages — built on a chemistry that is intangible, perhaps not even definable. Nearly 40 years later, the partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein has not yet been equalled. It probably never will be.

 

 

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Composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, II (1895-1960) both had extensive careers in Broadway theater music before they scored their first hit together with Oklahoma! in 1943. Rodgers, first teamed with Lorenz Hart (1895-1943), with whom he scored a series of Broadway successes that began when the team's song "Manhattan" was interpolated into The Garrick Gaities of 1925. Rodgers and Hart's show included Present Arms (1928), On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937) and Pal Joey (1940), among others, and they are responsible for a slew of song standards including "You Took Advantage of Me," "Dancing on the Ceiling," "There's a Small Hotel," "Where or When," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "My Funny Valentine," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," "Isn't It Romantic," and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." But Hart's health declined, and Rodgers had sought out Hammerstein prior to his partner's death from pneumonia.

Hammerstein, scion of a theatrical family (his grandfather owned several theaters and wrote shows and his father and brother were also involved in the theater), attended Columbia University, where he wrote college shows with Rodgers. He was a considerable success in the 1920s, collaborating with Jerome Kern on Show Boat (1927) and also working wih Sigmund Romberg, but he went for a long stretch in the '30s without having a hit.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein team returned to the plot-oriented, socially conscious style of Show Boat for a series of landmark musicals in the '40s and '50s, notably Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959), among others.

Rodgers, who had the luck to work with two of the most gifted lyricists of the century, continued after Hammerstein's death, though without lucking into a third major partner. He wrote music and lyrics to No Strings in 1962, and tried working with Stephen Sondheim on Do I Hear a Waltz? (1956), but his later work was less successful.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008