Richard Rodgers biography
Date of birth : 1902-06-28
Date of death : 1979-12-31
Birthplace : New York City, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2012-01-16
Credited as : Composer, Pulitzer Prize winner, Broadway musicals
Rodgers was the first person to win what are considered the top show business awards in television, recording, movies and Broadway—an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony—now known collectively as an EGOT. He has also won a Pulitzer Prize, making him one of two people (Marvin Hamlisch is the other) to receive each award.
Many observers agree that Richard Rodgers did not merely write Broadway musicals--he created the Broadway musical. Working first with Lorenz Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein, he left two legacies: Rodgers and Hart wrote clever, witty, and sometimes cynical musical comedies; Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote serious and heartwarming musical dramas. The two pairs transformed the American musical from a light, cliche-ridden play with songs to a tightly knit, completely integrated theatrical/musical work.
Rodgers's life was focused on music and theater from a very early age. His mother, an amateur pianist, and father, a doctor with a lovely baritone voice, would sing selections together from current musicals as evening entertainment. Rodgers began picking these tunes out on the piano by ear when he was four year old. He took piano lessons long enough to learn the basics of piano technique and reading music but eventually quit because he much preferred improvising tunes over scales and exercises. Rodgers also loved to go to the theater; he would see the same show many times just to study how it worked. He was particularly impressed with the efforts of Broadway composer Jerome Kern who, with his partners Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, was the first composer to reject the mythological and historical subjects of European operettas in favor of more intimate, realistic American settings.
As a teenager, Rodgers, with the encouragement of his family, began writing music in earnest. In 1916 he copyrighted his first song, "The Auto Show Girl." The following year he wrote his first musical score, One Minute Please, for an Akron Club fund-raiser at the Hotel Plaza. Throughout high school he wrote songs with many partners; friends and family contributed lyrics--often of poor quality--for his earliest songs. The composer needed a lyricist. While Rodgers was a freshman at New York City's Columbia University, a friend introduced him to Lorenz Hart, a poet in search of a composer. They talked for hours during their first meeting at Hart's home. The writer taught the composer much about the structure and purpose of lyrics. Rodgers, in turn, impressed Hart as a serious composer. They quickly became partners and friends. Their first collaboration was Columbia's varsity show that year; at age 17, Rodgers was the youngest person ever to write for the show.
Hart also grew up with a great interest in theater; he saw his first play at age seven and was especially devoted to the works of Shakespeare. He never doubted that he wanted to pursue language as a profession. At Columbia he amused himself and his classmates by writing witty verses and passing them around. During his second year there he entered the school of journalism but did not stay long. When Hart met Rodgers, he was supporting himself by translating German plays for the Schubert brothers, famous theatrical producers.
Their partnership did not catapult Rodgers and Hart to instant fame. They wrote songs for scores of amateur productions but had little luck in the professional world. Several of their songs were used in shows produced by comedian Lew Fields, but when they offered their songs to publishers, they were rejected. In 1921 Hart returned to translating for the Schubert brothers, and Rodgers entered the Institute of Musical Arts--later renamed the Juilliard School--for classical musical training. For two years they continued their attempts to find professional work; they landed their first job the very day Rodgers was ready to give up.
At age 23 Rodgers had yet to hold a full-time job. He decided it was time to get one and settle down. A children's clothing manufacturer offered him a sales and management-trainee position at fifty dollars a week; he told the man he would let him know the next day if he would take the position. By the next morning he had decided to take the job, but before he had a chance to let the manufacturer know, he received a phone call from his friend Ben Kaye, who wanted to hire him to write the music for a show. He agreed--on the condition that Hart be hired to write the lyrics. Garrick Gaieties opened in 1925, effectively launching the partnership of Rodgers and Hart.
Rodgers and Hart also collaborated with a third partner, Herbert Fields, who wrote the books for their early shows. Together, the trio wrote shows that not only thrilled their audiences but also began to change the shape of the Broadway musical. Instead of the trite boy-meets-girl story, they sometimes chose unusual subjects, such as the historical tale that formed the basis of 1925's Dearest Enemy, set during the Revolutionary War; Freudian dream-fantasies were the subject of the following year's Peggy-Ann. With that show, Rodgers and Hart began to diverge from the established structure of musical comedy, in this case abandoning the typical opening chorus number. In other shows, like 1928's Chee-Chee and Present Arms, they explored the integration of songs into the plot and added transitional music to strengthen the cohesion of the action.
In 1930 Rodgers and Hart moved to Hollywood to write songs for the film industry, but the pair did not take to Tinsel Town and returned to New York City in 1934. Their subsequent efforts further altered the musical comedy. The story of On Your Toes revolved around the world of classical ballet and was the first musical to incorporate ballet into dance sections; "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," the big hit from that show, was Rodgers's first extensive orchestral piece. Frequently, songs in musicals were only loosely connected to the story, but Rodgers and Hart were determined that their songs center on plot situations and be completely integrated into the action. With 1937's Babes in Arms they produced a show in which every song advanced the story. Several of their best-known songs, all remarkably distinct, were written for this show, including the lyrical ballad "My Funny Valentine," the sophisticated "The Lady Is a Tramp," and the funny and rhythmic "Johnny One Note." One of their last collaborations, Pal Joey, was also one of their best. Again, they picked an unusual subject, the seamy side of life; the main character was an unsavory fellow whose existence was filled with illicit love affairs, opportunism, and blackmail. Pal Joey' s "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" is one of Rodgers and Hart's most famous songs.
After their final show, By Jupiter, Hart, an alcoholic, sought rest and recuperation in Mexico. On his return he worked for a while on the revival of the earlier Rodgers and Hart hit A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Hart died shortly thereafter. In the 25 years of their collaboration, Rodgers and Hart wrote 27 musicals, becoming one of the most productive and prolific creative teams in the history of musical theater. Many of their songs were hits in their day but have also endured over half a century later. In addition to the aforementioned classics, Rodgers and Hart brought the world such standards as "Where's the Rainbow," "Thou Swell," "My Heart Stood Still," "There's a Small Hotel," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," and "This Can't Be Love." In 1948 Hollywood immortalized their partnership with the biographical film Words and Music.
When Hart left for Mexico, Rodgers sought another lyricist. He chose Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein grew up in a theatrical family. Although like Hart he had a desire to write for the theater, he was forbidden by his parents to consider a theatrical career. His grandfather and namesake, an opera impresario, so soured his father, a vaudeville theater manager, on opera and theater, that his parents forced young Oscar to study law instead of theater. Although he was fascinated by literature and plays all of his life, he did enter Columbia in pre-law and then attended Columbia University Law School. He also wrote for and acted in every varsity show Columbia produced while he studied there. Shortly after his father died, during his second year of law school, Hammerstein quit his studies to work for his uncle Arthur Hammerstein, a successful Broadway producer. He spent the next few years working his way up from office boy to stage manager, learning the business of the theater.
In 1918 Hammerstein wrote his first full-length stage work, a play called The Light. It flopped, but it did encourage him to concentrate on musicals. His first such work, Always You, with music by Herbert Stothart, appeared on Broadway in 1920. Although the lyrics were good, the libretto was weak, so his uncle suggested he team up with a librettist. His next show, Tickle Me, a collaboration with Otto Harbach, Frank Mendel, and Stothart was a success. During the 1920s Hammerstein continued to collaborate with Harbach, and together they produced a string of hits, including 1923's Wildflower, with music by Vincent Youmans; 1924's Rose-Marie, with music by Rudolf Friml; and 1925's Song of the Flame, music by George Gershwin, and The Desert Song, music by Sigmund Romberg. All of these followed the European operetta formula: serious, often unrealistic stories set in far-away places--a marked contrast to the light comedies of Rodgers and Hart. With his next undertaking, 1927's Show Boat, Hammerstein and his partner Jerome Kern broke new ground in musical theater by producing what has since become recognized as the first modern American musical play: a serious story with an American locale, believable characters, and songs that fit the action of the plot. Hammerstein wrote both the lyrics and libretto for this show and many subsequent ones.
In the 1930s Hammerstein went to Hollywood. While audiences loved the film adaptations of his stage shows, the original musicals he wrote for the screen with composer Sigmund Romberg failed miserably, so he returned to New York. Offsetting Hammerstein's many disappointments of the decade was his successful 1932 collaboration with Kern, Music in the Air.
In 1942, with Hart out of the picture, Richard Rodgers chose Hammerstein to help him turn Lynn Riggs's play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical. The two brought in renowned classical dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille to join the project. All three agreed from the outset to produce a fully integrated musical play in which every song and dance would have a dramatic purpose. They practically had to beg to find backers for the project. The reviews of the pre-Broadway run of the show were good but not great, and advanced sales were small. Nonetheless, Oklahoma! became the biggest hit in the history of musical theater. The songs "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No," and "People Will Say We're in Love," among others from the show, quickly became favorites with the public and critics. Oklahoma!' s choreography stunned audiences; although ballet had been introduced to Broadway in earlier shows, de Mille's unique mastery of the art and Rodgers's musical foundation made it standard fare.
The partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein became official after the death of Lorenz Hart, in 1943. They continued to develop the genre, incorporating music, songs, dance, and comedy into the action of the drama, producing classic after classic of the American theater, including Carousel, in 1945, South Pacific, in 1949, The King and I, in 1951, and The Sound of Music, in 1959.
Richard Rodgers could not have selected two more different partners if he had made a concerted effort to do so. Hart, a man of excessive habits who was often professionally unreliable, wrote clever, witty, and sometimes cynical lyrics; one of Rodgers and Hart's most celebrated love songs, "My Funny Valentine" actually extols the imperfections of the loved one. "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" is more about sex than love and is almost always watered down in modern performance. And perhaps Hart's most (blackly) humorous lyrics are those of "To Keep My Love Alive," a first-person "how-to" about a woman who maintains her ardor by killing her husbands. Oscar Hammerstein, on the other hand, kept regular habits and was a rock of professional dependability. With creative roots in the European operetta, his lyrics were romantic and heartwarming, his love songs sincere and straightforward, as in the charming waltz "Ten Minutes Ago," from Cinderella. Hammerstein's humor was without malice, as was evinced in "The Lonely Goatherd," from the Sound of Music. Though he could be bitter if the situation called for it, his intent was always instructive, as in "You Have to Be Taught to Hate," from South Pacific.
What Hart and Hammerstein had in common was a gift for capturing in rhythm and rhyme the spirit of the stories they helped create. Rodgers's brilliance was in his ability to adapt his music to the personalities of both lyricists; he not only provided the perfect foil for his partners' lyrics but composed beautiful melodies that stand easily on their own. Perhaps this is the true genius of Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein: The lyrics alone are poetry, and the music is memorable without the words. But the two combined, along with the innovations pioneered by Rodgers and his partners, are what forged the essence of modern musical theater.