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Richard Rodgers

Richard Rodgers

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Richard Rodgers
    Book Description:

    Richard Rodgers, a musical genius whose Broadway career spanned six successful decades, composed more than a thousand songs for the American stage. Although he reaped wealth, success, and recognition that included two shared Pulitzer Prizes, Rodgers found happiness elusive. In this first comprehensive biography of Rodgers, William G. Hyland tells the full story of the complex man and his incomparable music.Hyland's portrait of Rodgers (1902-79) begins with his childhood in an affluent Jewish family living in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. During college years at Columbia University and early work on the amateur circuit and Broadway, Rodgers entered into a historic collaboration with the lyricist Lorenz Hart. The team produced a dozen popular shows and such enduring songs as "The Lady Is a Tramp." Rodgers' next partnership, with Oscar Hammerstein II, led to the creation of the musical play, a new and distinctively American art form. Beginning withOklahoma!in 1943, this pair dominated Broadway for almost twenty years with a string of hits that remain beloved favorites:Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I,andThe Sound of Music.When Hammerstein died in 1960, Rodgers began a new phase in his career, writing the lyrics to his own music, then joining lyricists Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick, and Martin Charnin. Despite periods of depression, excessive drinking, hypochondria, and devastating illness at different points in his life, Rodgers' outpouring of music seemed little affected, and he continued to compose until his death at age seventy-seven. An icon of the musical theater, Rodgers left a legacy of timeless songs that audiences return to hear over and again.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14350-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-10)

    One Sunday in winter 1918–19 two young men from Columbia University took a jaunt along the Upper West Side of Manhattan to one of the stately brownstones on West 119th Street. They were greeted by a short, unshaven young man dressed in carpet slippers, tuxedo pants, a rumpled dress shirt, and a shabby robe. He invited the pair in, and shortly thereafter the younger of the two visitors, Richard Rodgers, sat down at an upright piano in the sitting room, where a Victrola had been blaring Jerome Kern’s “Babes in the Wood.” He ran through a few melodies that...

  6. 2 FLY WITH ME
    (pp. 11-20)

    Attending Columbia was an adventure for Richard Rodgers. At the turn of the century the university catered to the upper middle class; young Jewish men who were not so well off usually went to City College (for example, Ira Gershwin and E. Y. Harburg). Rodgers, however, had no trouble entering the university in the fall of 1919, a member of the class of ’23. His brother was a student in the class of 1921. Among Mortimer’s classmates were Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, and Max Schuster and Richard Simon, who founded Simon and Schuster. Mortimer Rodgers and Cerf...

    (pp. 21-28)

    Richard Rodgers had a great reservoir of natural talent, and for the average songwriter on Tin Pan Alley that was enough. Many successful songwriters could not even read music; some could play the piano just well enough to work out melodies that could be transcribed by others. Some could not even do that and had to have the tunes they hummed or sang transcribed by professionals.

    The musical stage was a different realm. Writing a Broadway musical was complicated and challenging—a song had to match a performer’s style, for example, which could mean transposing the song into the star’s...

    (pp. 29-39)

    The Theatre Guild had earned a reputation for producing somber, heavy dramas, often by foreign authors. The group, founded in 1918, had no experience with or affinity for musicals, even though its productions were staged in the old Garrick Theatre, the original home of Harrigan and Hart’s nineteenth-century musicals. The aim of the guild was to “produce plays of artistic merit not ordinarily produced by the commercial managers.” This required financial support, so some of the younger players decided to write a musical-comedy revue to stage on an off night. The guild put up a small amount of money for...

    (pp. 40-53)

    The success of their first two major shows earned Rodgers and Hart a passport to the world of the musical theater. It was an arena for the talented and therefore a place where they were likely to succeed.

    It was also an arena shaped by commerce. Few shows were produced because of their artistic merit or social message, at least not until the 1930s. Nor were songs published for their special grace or charm. What the public wanted were entertaining shows, singable lyrics, and danceable melodies, occasionally leavened by some comic novelties.

    Popular music did not automatically flow from the...

  10. 6 PEGGY-ANN
    (pp. 54-65)

    When Richard Rodgers was eight, the great comedian Marie Dressler scored a triumph in a musical calledTillie’s Nightmare, playing Tillie Blobbs, a maid in a boardinghouse. Tillie’s badgering mother prevents her from attending a vaudeville performance with her boyfriend. After others from the boardinghouse leave for the theater, Tillie dreams a series of bizarre and hilarious adventures. She is awakened by the returning crowd, at which point her martinet mother screams, “Tillie!” and the curtain comes down. The show, produced by Lew Fields in 1910, was a tour de force for the formidable Dressler, a master of all forms...

    (pp. 66-78)

    “Dream of being a knight errant in armor in the middle ages.” Thus began the notes made by Mark Twain when he conceived his classic satireA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He went on to list certain nineteenth-century amenities unavailable to ironclad knights of the fabled court of Camelot: “No pockets in the armor. Can’t scratch. Cold in the head—can’t blow—can’t get at handkerchief, can’t use iron sleeve…. Can’t dress or undress myself. Always getting struck by lightning. Fall down and can’t get up.” The comedic possibilities were obvious.¹

    Twain began his novel in January 1886...

    (pp. 79-90)

    Rodgers was involved in two more shows before he and Dorothy married. The first was for the reliable Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley, and the second was for their nemesis, Florenz Ziegfeld.

    The Aarons and Freedley show finally opened on Armistice Day 1929, but only after long travail. The idea for this show, eventually calledHeads Up, began with the Aarons and Freedley successHold Everything, a musical by De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson that opened in fall 1928 and ran for a year. Buoyed by their success, the producers signed some of the cast members for their next show....

    (pp. 91-100)

    Rodgers and Hart were not alone in turning to Hollywood. Given the city’s irresistible lure, most of the major songwriters of the 1920s made the same trek. At first, the new film capital was overly eager for musicals. TheNew York Timesreported (June 9, 1929) that “scouts were sent to every cabaret in New York and to every night club in a mad search for song writers and lyricists.” Irving Berlin supposedly was “snatched” from New York and hustled to California in the belief that “the climate would stimulate his genius.”

    In fact, Berlin did write some early movies,...

  14. 10 ON YOUR TOES
    (pp. 101-116)

    Rodgers and Hart returned to a Broadway that had been significantly damaged by the Depression. The theater was surviving on “half rations”: only half of the theaters in New York were in use, fewer than half the actors were employed, and virtually all bankrolls were “hiding.” The pundits concluded that the day of five-dollar theater tickets was about over; the average ticket would have to sell for a more modest price, and that would mean lower royalties and salaries.¹

    Only a few successful musicals had been produced on Broadway while Rodgers and Hart were away. Kern hadMusic in the...

    (pp. 117-125)

    Rodgers and Hart had five solid successes behind them, all written and produced within three years. In fall 1938 they were featured on the cover ofTimemagazine (September 26), along with the caption “The Boys from Columbia,” an allusion to their forthcoming musical,The Boys from Syracuse. The accompanying story noted thatI Married an Angelhad grossed more than $28,000 in its fifth month and was averaging eighty standees a performance (in fact, it was grossing about $20,000 each week, not each month). The story also noted that “their tunes are whistled in the street, clunked out by...

  16. 12 PAL JOEY
    (pp. 126-136)

    In 1938, John O’Hara needed money. In between writing novels and occasional screenplays, the tough-talking author ofAppointment in Samarrasupported himself by writing short stories, mainly for theNew Yorker. His writing was popular, but from time to time the editor, Harold Ross, would swear that he would never publish another O’Hara story he did not understand. Hoping to find a haven where he could write, O’Hara planned a trip to Philadelphia for a few days. Before leaving New York he stopped at the bar in the Hotel Pierre, where, after a few drinks, he decided to take a...

  17. 13 OKLAHOMA!
    (pp. 137-152)

    Oscar Hammerstein needed no persuading from Rodgers to doGreen Grow the Lilacs, which the team eventually renamedOklahoma!Although Hammerstein found the plot lacking, he was attracted by its “well-defined American characters,” and he perceived in the play a “dramatic vitality under a surface gentleness.” In May 1942 he had discussed it with Jerome Kern, but Kern turned it down cold. Westerns meant certain death in the theater, Kern argued. His evaluation was the same as Lorenz Hart’s:Green Grow the Lilacswould not make a good musical.¹

    It is interesting to speculate about a Kern-Hammerstein version ofOklahoma!—...

  18. 14 CAROUSEL
    (pp. 153-162)

    Cementing the new partnership was more important to Rodgers than to Hammerstein. Rodgers had worked with one man exclusively for more than twenty years, whereas Hammerstein had collaborated with several composers. The thought of careening from one lyricist to another must have been disturbing for a man of Rodgers’ temperament. Hammerstein was methodical, meticulous, and reliable, if sometimes slow, characteristics that made him an ideal complement to Rodgers. Although Rodgers sometimes grew impatient with his partner’s measured gait, he found that the partners gave each other a sense of certainty.

    Hammerstein’s willingness to write the book as well as the...

  19. 15 ALLEGRO
    (pp. 163-173)

    Rodgers and Hammerstein said that they wanted to become producers because of the “great satisfactions that go with a sense of accomplishment and progress in our recently chosen field.” However lofty their aims, they ended up making a small fortune as producers of their own musicals and other plays. In the fall of 1945 they were contemplating an idea thrown at them by their old friend Dorothy Fields: a show with Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley. It did not take long for them to encourage Fields to write it. Although they did not intend to write the music and lyrics...

    (pp. 174-189)

    Allegrowas a valley between towering twin peaks. On one side stoodOklahoma!andCarousel,and on the other side would standSouth PacificandThe King and I. In the history of the American musical theater there has never been a stretch of eight years marked by greater artistic and commercial success for a team of songwriters. If one includesState Fair, Richard Rodgers wrote about one hundred songs during this period. These represent his best work with Hammerstein and are comparable to, if not better than, the songs he wrote during his last seven years with Lorenz Hart....

  21. 17 THE KING AND I
    (pp. 190-206)

    In May 1950, Richard Rodgers marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of his entry on Broadway withThe Garrick Gaieties. The Theatre Guild threw a party attended by many of the original cast members: Edith Meiser, who was to have done the lyrics until she was replaced by Lorenz Hart; Betty Starbuck, who had sung “April Fool” with Romney Brent; and Sterling Holloway, who sang “Manhattan,” as he had done twenty-five years earlier. Performers from his current shows sang many of the tunes from the guild shows. And at the end of a festive evening the guild presented Rodgers with a silver...

  22. 18 R&H
    (pp. 207-217)

    In the summer of 1952, Richard Rodgers turned fifty. Oscar Hammerstein sent congratulations that read: “At the age of fifty you are Dick Rodgers. I think that is a very good thing to be.”

    That same year, West 44th Street had become a Rodgers festival. He had three hits running simultaneously:South Pacificat the Majestic Theatre,The King and Iacross the street at the St. James, and a revival ofPal Joeydown the block at the Shubert.

    Some critics deplored the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, saying that the shows were driving out serious drama. But...

  23. 19 ME AND JULIET
    (pp. 218-233)

    Rodgers and Hammerstein still faced what was becoming their eternal dilemma: how to create an encore worthy of their most recent success. They had answered the challenge ofSouth PacificwithThe King and I. But the law of averages was now against them, so that the chances of a third smash hit were diminishing. They decided that a change of pace was in order and began work on a contemporary play set in the heart of what they knew best—the theater.

    Me and Julietturned out to be the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit with the poorest reviews. It...

    (pp. 234-246)

    In the mid-1950s, the names Rodgers and Hammerstein still appeared on marquees, but not those at the St. James or the Majestic. Instead, they were in lights at the Paramount or Roxy movie houses, where their great Broadway hits were reemerging on film.

    The film version ofCarouselwas produced by 20th Century–Fox and starred Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae. Frank Sinatra had been signed for the part of Billy, but he dropped out on the day that filming was to begin. It was probably a wise decision on his part, for it is a stretch to imagine him...

    (pp. 247-257)

    Ordinarily Rodgers and Hammerstein allowed two years between shows—one for rest and recuperation and one for the preparation of a new show. But this time they agreed on a new project even before the opening ofFlower Drum Song,largely at the urging of Mary Martin. The project becameThe Sound of Music,their last show together.

    AfterFlower Drum Songopened, another Rodgers musical opened on Broadway, this one by his daughter Mary.Once Upon a Mattress,for which she wrote the music, was based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Although both Mary and...

    (pp. 258-263)

    In spite of their long collaboration, Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers never quite understood each other. Hammerstein said as much shortly before he died. He asked the young Stephen Sondheim, who was a friend of Mary Rodgers’, what Rodgers was really like. This question, though probably rhetorical, betrayed Hammerstein’s perplexity: “We’ve worked together all these years and I don’t really know him.” Rodgers was a man of the theater, but it was his whole life, Hammerstein added, implying that there was more to life than their profession. Hammerstein’s remark suggests that Rodgers was uninterested in anything more.¹

    For his part,...

  27. 23 NO STRINGS
    (pp. 264-275)

    The death of Oscar Hammerstein was a crushing blow for Richard Rodgers, more so professionally than personally. Naturally he was grieved, but he was also frightened by the grim reminder of his own cancer. He could not imagine spending the rest of his days “reliving past glories,” as he put it, so he plunged ahead with his work.¹ He told an interviewer: “I have found there is this terrific drive to survive. Something takes hold of you—a determination not to get killed. I was 58. I was not ready to be turned out to pasture. It’s very easy for...

  28. 24 DO I HEAR A WALTZ?
    (pp. 276-291)

    The relative success ofNo Stringswas highly therapeutic for Rodgers. It proved that he could if necessary write a musical without Lorenz Hart or Oscar Hammerstein. In many respects it was the high point of his career: he had conceived the idea of the play, recruited the star performers, written the music and lyrics, and introduced several orchestral innovations—all to critical acclaim. ButNo Stringswas a false dawn. For the next several years Rodgers suffered a succession of frustrations: an unfruitful collaboration, an unsuccessful show, and, finally, a severe illness. He never regained the luster of the...

  29. 25 TIME
    (pp. 292-310)

    The story of Noah and the ark would seem an unlikely basis for a musical. But when the lyricist Martin Charnin suggested an adaptation of Clifford Odets’The Flowering Peach,Rodgers found the idea intriguing. Charnin had not yet scored his triumph withAnnie(1977), but he had written some lyrics with Mary Rodgers, who introduced him to her father. Rodgers chose Peter Stone to adapt the play. Stone had just achieved a major Broadway success with 1776, and he had worked with Rodgers onAndrocles and the Lion. In June 1970 the group announced their project to the press....

  30. NOTES
    (pp. 311-322)
    (pp. 323-328)
    (pp. 329-332)
    (pp. 333-338)
  34. INDEX
    (pp. 339-362)