Rodgers and Hammerstein

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Rodgers and Hammerstein

The collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) began in 1943 with their landmark musical Oklahoma! Each man had already enjoyed a long and impressive career in musical theater. Hammerstein had worked with some of the most famous composers writing for Broadway and Hollywood: Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, George Gershwin, and, most notably for Hammerstein's own colleague, Jerome Kern, with whom Hammerstein wrote the stunning Show Boat in 1927 and whose music Rodgers greatly admired. By 1943, Rodgers had written nearly 30 shows with his previous partner Lorenz Hart (1895-1943), including musicals, film versions of musicals, and original film music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership produced a series of critically and commercially acclaimed musicals, beginning with Oklahoma! and ending with The Sound of Music in 1959. Rodgers and Hammerstein also excelled in the business aspects of musical theater, establishing a music publishing company and producing the shows of other composers in addition to their own. However, it is their contribution to the evolution of musical theater—the genre's style and form—and the extraordinary number of highly touted shows they wrote together, that determines their unique place in musical theater history.

In the early 1940s Richard Rodgers reluctantly began to contemplate working with a new lyricist. The shows he had written with Lorenz Hart were popular and profitable, and had spawned many durable hit songs, but Hart's drinking problems, poor health, and erratic working habits had become difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, Rodgers wanted to continue the relationship with his close friend and creative partner of 25 years, and asked Hart to join him in a new project, turning Lynn Riggs' play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical. Hart, who could write so compellingly about the darker sides of life, was not persuaded that this play provided good material for a musical and said no. Needful, therefore, of another collaborator for the new show, Rodgers turned to another old friend, Oscar Hammerstein II.

Hammerstein brought a wealth of experience and theatrical wisdom to the endeavor. He was the grandson of opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein I, and both his father, William, and his uncle, Arthur Hammerstein, worked in show business. The well-established lyricist/librettist Otto Harbach had been Hammerstein's mentor, and the two became full-fledged colleagues in 1920. Through the 1920s Hammerstein shared lyricist's responsibilities with Harbach for several important shows: Wildflower (music by Vincent Youmans,1923); Rose-Marie (music by Rudolf Friml, 1924); Sunny (music by Jerome Kern, 1925); Song of the Flame (music by George Gershwin and Herbert Stothart, 1925); and The Desert Song (music by Sigmund Romberg, 1926). Then, in 1927, Hammerstein and Kern wrote what many historians consider their masterpiece: Show Boat. In this work Kern and Hammerstein took American themes and musical idioms and infused them with a dramatic coherence and intensity that changed the landscape of musical theater. Hammerstein's career seemed secure. He went on to write The New Moon with Romberg in 1928 and Sweet Adeline with Kern in 1929 but, surprisingly, the 1930s brought little of the recognition he had enjoyed in the 1920s. Although Music in the Air with Kern in 1932 was well received, other shows did not prosper—not even Very Warm for May with Kern in 1939, which included the much-recorded song "All the Things You Are." Hammerstein had worked steadily through the 1930s writing and directing some productions, but by the 1940s, he needed a new challenge; that challenge appeared in the person of Richard Rodgers.

Rodgers had always been concerned with the integration of words and music, both the careful setting of text to music and the significance of the songs to the plot and character development of the whole work. When working with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers usually wrote the music first, then collaborated with Hart on the lyrics. Even though he and Hart would discuss the libretto and how the musical numbers would fit, their songs could often easily and effectively be sung outside the context of the show. Many of these songs have become much-loved standards.

With Hammerstein, however, the creative process worked the opposite way around. Hammerstein often labored over the lyrics for weeks. Rodgers then took the lyricist's carefully polished words and quickly produced the appropriate music to support the text. Working with Hammerstein brought a change to Rodgers' musical style. The typical thirty-two-bar forms of Rodgers' earlier work became less predictable as the musical forms were altered to fit Hammerstein's lyrics, producing many songs which were so fundamental to the thrust of the show that they often carried plot or character development.

Their first show, Oklahoma!, already clearly demonstrated Rodgers and Hammerstein's commitment to integrating lyrics, libretto, and music. Its incorporation of dance into the story continued a current in Rodgers' work, which had first appeared in On Your Toes, written with Lorenz Hart in 1936 and choreographed by George Balanchine. The dances in Oklahoma! were choreographed by Agnes de Mille, whose ballet background imbued her work with a narrative quality. Oklahoma! opened during the dreadful years of World War II, on March 31, 1943, and ran for 2,212 performances. Severalelements coalesced to produce a hit like nothing Broadway had ever seen before: the story of frontier life and the Oklahoma land rush at the turn of the century was a perfect vehicle for Hammerstein's gift for fresh, simple poetry, while characters such as Ado Annie were treated with sympathetic humor; the musical was at once folksy ("Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"), romantic and charming ("The Surrey with the Fringe on Top"), yet with hints of dark undercurrents as represented by the character of Judd Fry; the muscular, popular-dance and ballet influenced choreography broke new ground; Rodgers' sensitive score was witty ("I'm Just a Gal Who Cain't Say No"), rambunctious ("Everything's up to Date in Kansas City"), and soaringly romantic ("People Will Say We're in Love") as the context demanded. Oklahoma! held the record as the longest-running musical in Broadway history until 1961. In 1944 the show won a special Pulitzer Prize for drama; touring companies presented it from October, 1943 until May, 1954, and revivals have been frequent. A film version appeared in 1955, and in 1993 the United States Postal Service issued a fiftieth-anniversary commemorative stamp.

Following the phenomenon of Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein continued to astound the musical theater world with a series of extraordinary shows. The first of these, Carousel (1945) was hugely successful and proved that Oklahoma! had been no mere flash in the pan. Rodgers and Hammerstein dominated the Broadway scene for two further decades. South Pacific (1949) brought them a second Pulitzer Prize for Drama (awarded in 1950), and was followed by The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959). All enjoyed long runs, critical recognition, and commercial success, and all were made into popular films. The pre-eminent composer/lyricist position that the partnership held was ended with Hammerstein's death from cancer in 1960. Rodgers continued to compose, writing some of his own lyrics, but nothing in his later life equaled the sustained flood of musical and dramatic brilliance that he and Hammerstein had created together.

—Ann Sears

Further Reading:

Citron, Stephen. The Wordsmiths: Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Ewen, David. Richard Rodgers. New York, Henry Holt, 1957.

Fordin, Hugh, with introduction by Stephen Sondheim. Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II. New York, Ungar Publishing Co., 1977. Reprint, New York, Da Capo Press, 1995.

Green, Stanley. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Story. New York, John Day, 1963.

Hammerstein, Oscar, II. Lyrics. New York, Simon and Schuster,1949. Reprint, Milwaukee, Hall Leonard, 1985.

Hyland, William G. Richard Rodgers. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1998.

Mordden, Ethan. Rodgers & Hammerstein. New York, Harry N.Abrams, 1992.

Nolan, Frederick. The Sound of Their Music. New York, Walker &Co., 1978.

Rodgers, Richard. Letters to Dorothy, 1926-1937. New York, New York Public Library, 1998.

Rodgers, Richard. Musical Stages: An Autobiography. New York, Random House, 1975. Reprint, with a new introduction by Mary Rodgers, New York, Da Capo Press, 1995.

Rodgers, Richard, and Oscar Hammerstein. Six Plays. New York, Random House, n.d.

Taylor, Deems. Some Enchanted Evenings: The Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1953.