RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN :The Showmen

Each had already made his mark--but as collaborators they created musical theater that enchanted audiences and redefined the art form

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It was 8:30 a.m., May 19, 1961. I remember the time and date vividly. I was 13. School was Westminster. Elvis was king. No. 1 on the British charts was Floyd Cramer's On the Rebound.

There was an uproar as I entered the common room, where we boys were supplied with the daily newspapers.

"Have you read your heroes' reviews, Lloydy?"

"Look, the Times says the show is treacly."

"Webster, look at this one."

That one said something to the effect that "if you are a diabetic who craves sweet things, take along some extra insulin, and you will not fail to thrill to The Sound of Music."

If nothing else, I had learned my first lesson in creative theater advertising, for "You will not fail to thrill to The Sound of Music" was the main quote outside London's Palace Theatre for many years to come. When the sign finally came down, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's last collaboration had become the longest-running American musical in London theater history.

Few remember in what disregard, particularly in 1960s Britain, the musical genre was held by young people. Opinion makers insisted that the most heinous example of the sentimental musical was the show rightly considered today to be a Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, Carousel.

My first encounter with Rodgers and Hammerstein was via my father. He was then director of composition at the Royal College of Music. On my 10th birthday, he interrupted my endless replays of Jailhouse Rock and insisted on playing something for me. Onto the battered 78 r.p.m. record player was plonked Ezio Pinza singing Some Enchanted Evening. Then Dad played the song on the piano. Right then, Rodgers and Hammerstein joined Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers as heroes.

I know why. Great melody has always deeply affected me, and Rodgers is possibly the 20th century's greatest tune writer. This is not to deny Hammerstein's enormous contribution. The simplicity of his lyrics is truly deceptive. Take People Will Say We're in Love. Thousands of songs, even well-known songs, make the few rhymes for "love" sound contrived. "Don't start collecting things--/ Give me my rose and my glove./ Sweetheart, they're suspecting things--/ People will say we're in love!" does no such thing.

Rodgers and Hammerstein did not, of course, collaborate until they were well along in their careers. Rodgers was born on June 28, 1902, on New York's Long Island to a doctor and his wife. He took to music at an early age. The teenage Rodgers spent his allowance going to Saturday matinees of musicals. Thus he grew to idolize Jerome Kern.

By the time he went to Columbia University in the fall of 1919, he had already met his first collaborator, Lorenz Hart. That summer they had sold a song to producer Lew Fields for a show called A Lonely Romeo. (Extraordinarily, some of Rodgers' songs, to his own lyrics, appeared on Broadway even earlier, when he was 16.)

But it wasn't until 1925 that Rodgers and Hart had a major hit. They wrote the songs for a lighthearted revue called The Garrick Gaieties. Its Manhattan was an overnight success, and the legendary partnership was flying at last. Such songs as The Lady Is a Tramp, Dancing on the Ceiling, My Heart Stood Still and Blue Moon etched the duo a permanent place in theater history.

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