Richard Rodgers (1902-1979)
richard_rodgers.jpg

Richard Charles Rodgers (June 28, 1902 – December 30, 1979) was an American composer of music for more than 900 songs and for 43 Broadway musicals. He also composed music for films and television. He is best known for his songwriting partnerships with the lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. His compositions have had a significant impact on popular music down to the present day, and have an enduring broad appeal.

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.

Early Life and Education

Born into a prosperous ethnic German Jewish family in Arverne, Queens, New York City, Rodgers was the son of Mamie (Levy) and Dr. William Abrahams Rodgers, a prominent physician who had changed the family name from Abrahams. Richard began playing the piano at age six. He attended P.S. 10, Townsend Harris Hall and DeWitt Clinton High School. Rodgers spent his early teenage summers in Camp Wigwam (Waterford, Maine) where he composed some of his first songs.

Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and later collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II all attended Columbia University. At Columbia, Rodgers joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. In 1921, Rodgers shifted his studies to the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard). Rodgers was influenced by composers such as Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, as well as by the operettas his parents took him to see on Broadway when he was a child.

Rodgers and Hart

In 1919, Richard met Lorenz Hart, thanks to Phillip Leavitt, a friend of Richard's older brother. Rodgers and Hart struggled for years in the field of musical comedy, writing a number of amateur shows. They made their professional debut with the song "Any Old Place With You", featured in the 1919 Broadway musical comedy A Lonely Romeo. Their first professional production was the 1920 Poor Little Ritz Girl. Their next professional show, The Melody Man, did not premiere until 1924.

When he was just out of college Rodgers worked as musical director for Lew Fields. Among the stars he accompanied were Nora Bayes and Fred Allen. Rodgers was considering quitting show business altogether to sell children's underwear, when he and Hart finally broke through in 1925. They wrote the songs for a benefit show presented by the prestigious Theatre Guild, called The Garrick Gaieties, and the critics found the show fresh and delightful. Only meant to run one day, the Guild knew they had a success and allowed it to re-open later. The show's biggest hit — the song that Rodgers believed "made" Rodgers and Hart — was "Manhattan" sung by Ruth Tester and Allan Gould. The two were now a Broadway songwriting force.

Throughout the rest of the decade, the duo wrote several hit shows for both Broadway and London, including Dearest Enemy (1925), The Girl Friend (1926), Peggy-Ann (1926), A Connecticut Yankee (1927), and Present Arms (1928). Their 1920s shows produced standards such as "Here in My Arms", "Mountain Greenery", "Blue Room", "My Heart Stood Still" and "You Took Advantage of Me".

With the Depression in full swing during the first half of the 1930s, the team sought greener pastures in Hollywood. The hardworking Rodgers later regretted these relatively fallow years, but he and Hart did write a number of classic songs and film scores while out west, including Love Me Tonight (1932) (directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who would later direct Rodgers' Oklahoma! on Broadway), which introduced three standards: "Lover", "Mimi", and "Isn't It Romantic?". Rodgers also wrote a melody for which Hart wrote three consecutive lyrics which either were cut, not recorded or not a hit. The fourth lyric resulted in one of their most famous songs, "Blue Moon". Other film work includes the scores to The Phantom President (1932), starring George M. Cohan, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933), starring Al Jolson, and, in a quick return after having left Hollywood, Mississippi (1935), starring Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields.

In 1935, they returned to Broadway wrote an almost unbroken string of hit shows that ended only with Hart's death in 1943. Among the most notable are Jumbo (1935), On Your Toes (1936, which included the ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue", choreographed by George Balanchine), Babes in Arms (1937), I Married an Angel (1938), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940), and their last original work, By Jupiter (1942). Rodgers also contributed to the book on several of these shows.

Many of the songs from these shows are still sung and remembered, including "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", "My Romance", "Little Girl Blue", "I'll Tell the Man in the Street", "There's a Small Hotel", "Where or When", "My Funny Valentine", "The Lady is a Tramp", "Falling in Love with Love", "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", and "Wait Till You See Her".

In 1939, he wrote the ballet Ghost Town for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with choreography by Marc Platoff.

Rodgers and Hammerstein

His partnership with Hart having problems because of the lyricist's unreliability and declining health, Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he had previously written a number of songs (before ever working with Lorenz Hart). Their first musical, the groundbreaking hit, Oklahoma! (1943), marked the beginning of the most successful partnership in American musical theatre history. Their work revolutionized the form. What was once a collection of songs, dances and comic turns held together by a tenuous plot became an integrated masterpiece.

The team went on to create four more hits that are among the most popular of all musicals and were each made into successful films: Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949, winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Other shows include the minor hit, Flower Drum Song (1958), as well as relative failures Allegro (1947), Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955). They also wrote the score to the film State Fair (1945) (which was remade in 1962 with Pat Boone), and a special TV musical of Cinderella (1957).

Their collaboration produced many well-known songs, including "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", "People Will Say We're in Love", "Oklahoma!" (which also became the state Oklahoma's state song), "If I Loved You", "You'll Never Walk Alone", "It Might as Well Be Spring", "Some Enchanted Evening", "Getting to Know You", "My Favorite Things", "The Sound of Music", "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", "Climb Ev'ry Mountain", "Do-Re-Mi", and "Edelweiss", Hammerstein's last song.

Much of Rodgers's work with both Hart and Hammerstein was orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett. Rodgers composed twelve themes, which Bennett used in preparing the orchestra score for the 26-episode World War II television documentary Victory at Sea (1952–53). This NBC production pioneered the "compilation documentary"—programming based on pre-existing footage—and was eventually broadcast in dozens of countries. The melody of the popular song No Other Love was later taken from the 'Victory at Sea' theme entitled "Beneath the Southern Cross". Rodgers won an Emmy for the music for the ABC documentary Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years, scored by Eddie Sauter, Hershy Kay, and Robert Emmett Dolan. He contributed the main-title theme for the 1963–64 historical anthology television series The Great Adventure.

In 1950, Rodgers and Hammerstein received The Hundred Year Association of New York's Gold Medal Award "in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York."

In 1954, Rodgers conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in excerpts from Victory at Sea, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and the Carousel Waltz for a special LP released by Columbia Records.

Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals earned a total of 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards.

After Hammerstein

After Hammerstein's death in 1960, Rodgers wrote both words and music for his first new Broadway project No Strings (1962, which earned two Tony Awards). The show was a minor hit and featured perhaps his last great song, "The Sweetest Sounds". Rodgers also wrote both the words and music for two new songs used in the film version of "The Sound of Music". (Other songs in that film were from Rodgers and Hammerstein.) Rodgers went on to work with lyricists Stephen Sondheim (Do I Hear A Waltz?), a protégé of Hammerstein; Martin Charnin (Two By Two, I Remember Mama); and Sheldon Harnick (Rex). At its 1978 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Rodgers its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.

Death and Legacy

Rodgers died in 1979 at age 77 after surviving cancer of the jaw, a heart attack, and a laryngectomy. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.

In 1990, the 46th Street Theatre was renamed "The Richard Rodgers Theatre" in his memory. In 1999, Rodgers and Hart were each commemorated on United States postage stamps. 2002 was the centennial year of Rodgers's birth, celebrated worldwide with books, retrospectives, performances, new recordings of his music, and a Broadway revival of Oklahoma!. The BBC Proms that year devoted an entire evening to Rodgers' music including a concert performance of Oklahoma!

Works

Title Year with Other Writers
Fly With Me 1920 Lorenz Hart
Poor Little Ritz Girl 1920 Lorenz Hart
The Melody Man 1924 Lorenz Hart
The Garrick Gaieties 1925 Lorenz Hart
Dearest Enemy 1925 Lorenz Hart
The Girl Friend 1926 Lorenz Hart
Peggy-Ann 1926 Lorenz Hart
Betsy 1926 Lorenz Hart
A Connecticut Yankee 1927 Lorenz Hart
She's My Baby 1928 Lorenz Hart
Present Arms 1928 Lorenz Hart
Chee-Chee 1928 Lorenz Hart
Spring Is Here 1929 Lorenz Hart
Heads Up! 1929 Lorenz Hart
Ever Green 1930 Lorenz Hart
Simple Simon 1930 Lorenz Hart
American's Sweetheart 1931 Lorenz Hart
Love Me Tonight 1932 Lorenz Hart
Jumbo 1935 Lorenz Hart
On Your Toes 1936 Lorenz Hart
Babes in Arms 1937 Lorenz Hart
I'd Rather Be Right 1937 Lorenz Hart
I Married an Angel 1938 Lorenz Hart
The Boys from Syracuse 1938 Lorenz Hart
Too Many Girls 1939 Lorenz Hart
Higher and Higher 1940 Lorenz Hart
Pal Joey 1940 Lorenz Hart
By Jupiter 1942 Lorenz Hart
Oklahoma! 1943 Oscar Hammerstein, II
Carousel 1945 Oscar Hammerstein, II
Allegro 1947 Oscar Hammerstein, II
South Pacific 1949 Oscar Hammerstein, II
The King and I 1951 Oscar Hammerstein, II
Victory at Sea 1952 Robert Russell Bennett
Me and Juliet 1953 Oscar Hammerstein, II
Pipe Dream 1955 Oscar Hammerstein, II
Cinderella 1957 Oscar Hammerstein, II
Flower Drum Song 1958 Oscar Hammerstein, II
The Sound of Music 1959 Oscar Hammerstein, II
No Strings 1962
Do I Hear a Waltz? 1965 Stephen Sondheim
Two by Two 1970 Martin Charnin
Rex 1976 Sheldon Harnick
I Remember Mama 1979 Martin Charnin, Raymond Jessel
State Fair 1996 Oscar Hammerstein, II

Production History

Date Play Venue Position
Jan 24, 1950 The Happy Time Plymouth Theatre Producer
Apr 7, 1949 South Pacific Majestic Theatre Producer
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License