That Old Feeling: Richard Rodgers' Century

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It's one of the theater's lingering legends: how two men in middle-age, one with his career in tatters, the other about to lose the only partner he'd had for 20 years, joined forces to invent an art form. In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein II, lyricist, and Richard Rodgers, songwriter, took a failed play from the previous decade and turned it into "Oklahoma!", a show that ran forever. Why, at the George Gershwin Theatre, it's running today — on Rodgers' 100th birthday.

The centenary is getting the big Broadway treatment. The Gershwin has a free Rodgers concert at noon (just try to get in!) that features Barbara Cook, Lea Salonga and the "Oklahoma!" chorus. A new biography of the composer, Meryle Secrest's "Somewhere for Me," provides helpful personal background for the hundreds of newspaper and magazine tributes published this week; see especially John Lahr's cogent analysis in The New Yorker. Tomorrow night, PBS airs a documentary, "Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest Sounds." There will hardly be a concert hall or high-school stage from which his pretty chants and chirps cannot be heard.

Really, that's been the case forever for almost 80 years. Rodgers was born June 28, 1902 (the same day as John Dillinger!). A Manhattan doctor's son, he was schooled at Columbia University, which he attended for the sole purpose of writing the Varsity Show. He composed his first signature hit — "Manhattan," with his first lyricist partner Lorenz Hart — when he was just turning 20. Rodgers and Hart wrote snazzy, sophisticated shows that produced seven #1 pop hits, including "There's a Small Hotel," "Where Or When" and "Blue Moon" (which hit the top twice, once with a Glen Gray rendition in 1935 and again with the Marcels' doo-wop version in 1961). His teaming with Hammerstein gave Perry Como three #1 hits ("Some Enchanted Evening," "Hello, Young Lovers" and "No Other Love" from the TV documentary "Victory at Sea"). In his 60s Rodgers saw the film version of "The Sound of Music" become the top box-office attraction of all time, not eclipsed till "Star Wars" a dozen years later.

In the past eight years, five Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — "Carousel," "State Fair," "The King and I," "The Sound of Music" and now "Oklahoma!" — have been lavishly restaged on Broadway; this fall, a sixth, "Flower Drum Song," is due. Television has recently and reverently revived "South Pacific" (with Glenn Close) and their 1957 TV musical "Cinderella" (with Whitney Houston and Brandy). In 1999 there was, for no reason at all, a cartoon-feature version of "The King and I." But Rodgers doesn't need scenery and costumes to stay alive in the communal heart. Every moment of every day, his tunes are sung in cabarets, movies and countless bathroom showers.

For the vast pop music audience, Rodgers' legacy is that of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those famous shows made the duo a mystical musical brand name: R&H. In their plush melodies and plummy platitudes, many of their songs were secular hymns, which so insinuated themselves into the Eisenhower-era listener's ear that they became the liturgical music for the American mid-century. Back then, our true national anthem was "You'll Never Walk Alone" (at least until that secular spiritual was twisted into permanent parody when sung every Labor Day by an exhausted Jerry Lewis at the end of his telethon). R&H was unashamedly upbeat: whistling a happy tune, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. The tunes were so diligently soaring and the lyrics so wholesome that, while you listened to them, they practically brushed your teeth and did your homework for you.

That effluence of feeling was Hammerstein's doing more than Rodgers'. As John McPhee wrote in TIME upon the lyricist's death in 1960: "Whether he was writing about Austrian folk singers, New England factory workers or a Siamese king, there was always a steady undertone of old-fashioned American positivism in Hammerstein's lyrics. As he frequently admitted, 'I just can't write anything without hope in it'." If hope is a thing with feathers, Hammerstein was a whole aviary. His Hallmark poetry was orgiastically (but cannily) sentimental. As was he. "He was in love with his work," McPhee wrote, "and when he heard his songs in the theater, he would often rush to the lobby to weep unreservedly. Once, after watching a revival of 'Carousel,' he cried all night."

So Hammerstein was a sop. But he wasn't the only one to be swept by emotion on hearing the music he helped create; that overflow was felt by millions of people. It may have defined what they thought music, and not just popular music, was capable of. I remember experiencing that fullness of feeling as I came home from a showing of the film "Carousel" at the Avalon (N.J.) Theatre in the summer of 1956. Alone at midnight, bicycling giddily down that resort-town boardwalk, this kid of 12 was instructively dizzied by the grand music, the grandiloquent phrases, the poignance of a love expressed perfectly only after death. (So I was a sop too.) R&H had the intended impact on me: they made me feel better, worthier, more American.


Before R&H, there was R&H. Before Hammerstein was Larry Hart, Rodgers' partner for the 20-plus years that preceded "Oklahoma!" Since to me the Rodgers and Hart songs are more mature and worldly-wise than some of the swooning-schoolgirl compositions in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, I'm going to pretend that Hart came second, and get to him next week. But for a quick sketch of the composer and his "second wife" (or husband), attend to Ethan Mordden's characteristically illuminating study, "Rodgers & Hammerstein": "Hammerstein was operetta: majestic, committed, passionate. Rodgers was musical comedy: trim, sassy, come-as-you-are. Rodgers was ballet versus hoofing, kids putting on a show in a barn, a spoof of the New Deal. And Rodgers was above all contemporary, right on the money with what was urban, jazzy, smart. Hammerstein was a pioneer: of a form that had died in the 1930s."

This poet of the dropped "g" and the studied slang ("We're only sayin' / You're doin' fine, Oklahoma! / Oklahoma, O.K.!"), was a wealthy, Manhattan-born scion of the American theater. His grandfather Oscar had built opera houses all over the country. After graduation from Columbia University, Oscar II dropped out of law school to work for his uncle, a famous theater manager. The stage bug bit Oscar, and the welt never healed. In the 20s Hammerstein, as lyricist and book writer, had four solid hits with four different composers: Vincent Youmans' "Wildflower" (1923, 477 performances in its original run), Sigmund Romberg's "The Desert Song" (1926, 471 performances), Rudolf Friml's "Rose-Marie" (1927, 557 performances) and Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" (1927, 572 performances).

The major credit for that epochal riverboat epic went to Kern, but Hammerstein supplied the lyrics — except for the interpolated song "Bill," by Kern and P.G. Wodehouse — and the overarching ambition to bring a sweeping, coherent story line to Broadway at a time when most musicals dithering in narrative frivol. A famous anecdote illustrates the librettist-lyricist's importance. The wives of Kern and Hammerstein were at a party where a woman complimented Mrs. Kern on writing "Ol' Man River." Replied Mrs. H.: "Her husband wrote ?Da, da, da-drum.' My husband wrote 'Ol' Man River'."

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