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
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
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
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
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.
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