Legends of Songwriting: Richard Rodgers

Whether writing standards with Lorenz Hart as Rodgers & Hart, or with Oscar Hammerstein, as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers wrote many of the greatest melodies ever written.

So famous are the classic musicals he created as part of not one but two of America’s most celebrated songwriting duos, that his name is rarely heard or seen alone. More commonly it’s linked to the name of one of his lyricist-partners, either Lorenz “Larry” Hart or Oscar Hammerstein, because it’s as the musical half of both Rodgers & Hart as well as Rodgers & Hammerstein that Richard Rodgers is best known.

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Without him, the Broadway musical as we know it would have been something else entirely; his work forever changed its course. It’s a body of work that is astounding for its greatness and lasting power and also for the sheer volume of it, an output unrivaled by any other Broadway composer: some 40 Broadway musicals (26 with Hart and nine with Hammerstein), one Broadway play, three London musicals (all with Hart), 10 original movie musicals (nine with Hart, one with Hammerstein), two television musicals, the scores for two television documentaries, a ballet, and one nightclub revue. His shows have been performed more than 30,000 times, and it’s said that somewhere in the world the sound of his music is heard on stage every night of the year.

The son of a doctor, he was born on June 22, 1902, in New York. His first two songs, “Dear Old Wigwam” and “Camp-Fire Days,” were written when he was only 14. At 15 he wrote his first full score, for an amateur show called One Minute, Please. And at the age of 16, in 1918, he met and teamed up with Lorenz “Larry” Hart, with whom he shared a passion for expressive, inventive songwriting.

Rodgers & Hart were introduced by a mutual friend at New York’s Columbia University. Though Hart was six years older than Rodgers, he still lived with his parents, and it was in their house that he first welcomed Rodgers wearing tuxedo pants, slippers, and in bad need of shave. Years later Rodgers related how the two had an immediate connection talking about the intricacies of songwriting; Rodgers was especially impressed with Hart’s appreciation of lyrical techniques such as inner rhyming.

On that first day, Rodgers said, he discovered “a career, a partner, a best friend and a source of permanent irritation.”

From the start, Rodgers saw that all was not right in the world of Larry Hart. Though he was a warmly sweet guy, Hart went through bouts of dark depression that he would battle by drinking. These tendencies only increased in time and led to erratic, dangerous behavior. Rodgers did what he could to dissuade his partner from his demons, but never to much avail.

But when they worked together, things tended to click. One of the first songs they wrote, and the first one to be published, was “Any Old Place With You,” which was used in the 1919 show A Lonely Romeo.

All of their first songs were written for various Broadway revues which were more vaudevillian than dramatic; loosely-linked presentations of songs, dances and comic routines. But in 1925, Rodgers & Hart created their own show Dearest Enemy that instead of being a revue was a “musical play,” a show with a narrative progression in which the songs fit and furthered the plot. The subject was a serious one: the American Revolution.

It was the first of many successful musicals the team would create. Next came Garrick Gaieties, also in 1925, followed by A Connecticut Yankee and Evergreen. Rodgers & Hart were then lured West to write for films and spent four years in Hollywood writing songs which were featured in such movies as Love Me Tonight, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier; Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!, with Al Jolson; and The Phantom President, starring George M. Cohan.

Unlike the way Rodgers wrote songs later in life with Oscar Hammerstein, who would provide him with a finished lyric, with Hart he would write a melody first and then hand it over to Larry, who would never write a single word until receiving that tune was complete.

Then Hart would get to work writing the lyrics, but always with Rodgers in the room, playing the piano for him, trying out various versions as the verses began to form. Rodgers once said that all of their songs were written on “the stationery of defunct companies with grand sounding names that Larry’s father had started.”

According to Rodgers’ daughter Mary, Rodgers & Hart each inspired and enabled the other to devise the ideal fusion of lyric and melody. “One fed off the other’s ideas, and theirs was a mutual respect,” she said. “Daddy was very good with languages and a very good lyric writer himself, and Larry was very musical. He couldn’t have written those genius rhythms of his if he had not understood music so well. Interestingly enough, in their work together, the music usually came first, where with Oscar [Hammerstein] and Daddy the lyrics came first.”

When asked about the unique chemistry that existed between Rodgers & Hart, Mary Rodgers said, “To start with, they were both so talented, and they had higher aspirations for musical theater than anyone before them, with the obvious exception of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Jerome Kern’s Showboat. Daddy used to say that with Larry Hart he had met the partner of his life and the most irritating man he had ever known. But then, talented people are often very difficult people.”

Rodgers & Hart returned to New York in 1935 to write songs for Jumbo, based on the story of the famous circus elephant. More spectacle than the kind of human musical the two songwriters yearned to create, it was a success but not the kind they wanted.

In 1936, they created On Your Toes, their first show to have a lasting effect on Broadway, ushering in what has been called the Great White Way’s “Golden Era.” They followed it with a prolific string of hit shows, each exemplifying their witty, urbane, romantic style: Babes in Arms (1937), I’d Rather Be Right (1937), I Married an Angel (1938), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), Too Many Girls (1939), Higher and Higher (1940) and Pal Joey (1940), which broke new ground on Broadway by revolving around the life of an anti-hero, performed by Gene Kelly in the role that made him a star.

Time magazine reported on the phenomenon of Rodgers & Hart in 1938: “… what was killing music comedy was its sameness, its tameness, its eternal rhyming of June with moon. [Rodgers & Hart] decided it was not enough to be just good at the job; they had to be constantly different also. The one possible formula was: Don’t have a formula; the one rule for success: Don’t follow it up.”

By 1942, however, problems with Larry Hart had intensified, and knowing that in time he would need a new collaborator, Rodgers turned to an old school chum, Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers’ fame then far outweighed Hammerstein’s, and he knew his friend would benefit from a collaboration. Even so, Hammerstein declined; he felt it would be best for Rodgers to continue his work with Hart but said he would offer anonymous lyrical support if needed.

It was then that the Theater Guild suggested to Rodgers & Hart that they create a musical that took place in the American West, such as  Green Grow the Lilacs. It was a play that Hammerstein had already expressed some interest in, and so it was decided that Rodgers & Hart would write the songs and Hammerstein the book.

This plan was short-lived, though, as Hart decided almost immediately that this was not his milieu: “Cowboy hats and gingham is not for me,” he said. And so, with Hart removing himself from the equation, the team of Rodgers & Hammerstein was born, as was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma!.

“It was just too folksy for him,” said Mary Rodgers, when asked why Hart dropped out of Oklahoma. “And besides, [Hart] was coming to the end of his emotional tether. He was a prime candidate for Prozac, if it had only been available then. If he could have dealt with his emotional problems, God only knows what more he might have done.”

Rodgers (L) and Hart.

Though he embarked on the writing of Oklahoma with Hammerstein, Rodgers never felt he was finished forever with Hart and entertained the hope that they could revitalize their partnership. Along these lines, he decided to produce a new version of their 1927 show A Connecticut Yankee. Hart returned to revise the show with Rodgers, work which temporarily buoyed his spirits; they wrote six new songs for the show, including “To Keep My Love Alive,” the last lyric ever written by Larry Hart, who quickly began to deteriorate again when the work was complete.

On November 17, 1943, A Connecticut Yankee opened, and less than a week later, Hart was dead from pneumonia.

Rodgers then went to work writing Oklahoma! with Hammerstein, with whom he continued to write exclusively for the next 17 years. Together they created Broadway history, writing one enduring Broadway musical treasure after the next: after Oklahoma came Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and their final show, The Sound of Music (1957).

In addition to their classic Broadway musicals, all of which were made into movies, Rodgers & Hammerstein also wrote one show directly for the silver screen, State Fair, that was then adapted to the stage in 1995.

They also wrote a wonderful musical for television in 1957, Cinderella, which was revised in 1965 and most recently in 1997, with Brandy in the lead role. Altogether, the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein have earned a remarkable 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards. In 1998, Rodgers & Hammerstein were cited by Time Magazine and CBS News as among the 20 most influential artists of the 20th century.

Among devout Rodgers & Hart fans, however, the musicals Rodgers wrote with Hammerstein pale in comparison to those he wrote with Hart. Many felt that Hammerstein was too sentimental and lacked the urbane wit and cynical outlook that Hart brought to his lyrics. In fact, Hammerstein was also a brilliant lyricist whose work far surpassed the merely sentimental.

As Sheridan Morley wrote in Hammerstein’s defense, “Those who wrote off his second partner Oscar Hammerstein II…needed to look a little closer at the shows he was now writing with Rodgers: Oklahoma! and Carousel are centrally about death (and in the case of Carousel, wife-beating), South Pacific is about racial intolerance, and only perhaps in the last Rodgers-Hammerstein score, The Sound of Music, is there the sweet, sugary sound of which they were often wrongly accused, and even there, Nazis are a central element of plot.”

Asked about the differences between her father’s collaborations with Hart and Hammerstein, Mary Rodgers explained that their distinctive personalities as well as the times themselves contributed to these differences.

Rodgers & Hammerstein

“With Larry [Hart], Daddy’s music was quirkier and more mischievous. It was the music of his youth, less folksy and more sophisticated. Both of these qualities existed in my father. What Oscar [Hammerstein] did was to bring out the deep-seated, perfectly beautiful sounds of German Romanticism that were latent in Daddy’s writing. These enabled him to reach a new dimension in moments like the death scene in Carousel or the opening of South Pacific.…There had been no opportunity to write anything like that in a Rodgers & Hart musical. The subject matter wouldn’t have brought it out, and the art form hadn’t advanced to the point where you could present extended musical ideas.”

Rodgers also outlived Hammerstein, who died in 1962. Rodgers wrote his next show after Hammerstein’s death all alone; it was the first and last show for which he wrote both the words and music, No Strings. It was also the first Broadway musical to ever pair a white leading man with a black leading woman.

He then began to collaborate on Do I Hear a Waltz? with a young man who had been a student of Hammerstein’s, a songwriter quite capable of writing his own music as he would prove quite convincingly in later years, Stephen Sondheim.

In 1967, Rodgers wrote a musical for TV based on George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, starring Noel Coward, who once commented that composing seemed to come so easily to Rodgers that it was as if he just “pissed melody.” Rodgers’ daughter Mary quarreled with the notion. “It’s true Noel Coward said that, but it’s just not so; Daddy put a lot of thought into his writing.”

Rodgers’ final three Broadway shows were Two by Two (1970, lyrics by Martin Charnin), Rex (1976, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) and I Remember Mama (1979, lyrics by Martin Charnin and Raymond Jessel), as Broadway audiences were moving towards new kinds of musicals such as Hair and A Chorus Line.

He died at his home in New York City on December 30, 1979, at the age of 77. On March 27, 1990, he was paid a great tribute by the Broadway community when the 46th Street Theatre was renamed The Richard Rodgers Theatre. In the lobby of the historic theater is the Richard Rodgers Gallery, a permanent exhibit area presented by ASCAP that celebrates his life and work.

The impact of Rodgers’ career—which is truly tantamount to two full careers— profoundly changed the course of American musical theater throughout the 20th century. With Hammerstein and Hart he created a tradition and standard which has rarely been achieved since, and against which all subsequent musicals have been measured.

“He was a carpenter who believed in craftsmanship above all else,” wrote Sheridan Morley, “and frequently drew his musical inspiration from deep in the soil of his native America. If a line can be traced from Aaron Copland, whose Rodeo led Rodgers to the discovery of the choreographer Agnes de Mille and Oklahoma!, then in some curious way it stops again at Rodgers.”

And as Alec Wilder wrote, “Legend has it that somewhere amongst the many radio stations of the United States, a song by Richard Rodgers may be heard at any time, day or night, the year round. Well, I, for one, hope this is so.”

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