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Monuments of Tunes and Verbs

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Monuments of Tunes and Verbs

A revelatory examination of Rodgers & Hammerstein, the most enduring collaboration in American theater May 18, 2018
Arts and Culture

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, by Todd S. Purdum (Henry Holt; 386 pp., $32)

“The saddest word I know is ‘but’,” declared Oscar Hammerstein II during a frustrating period in Hollywood. Nothing more needed to be said. The man who wrote lyrics like “If I loved you,” “Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain,” and “You’ve got be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year,” was well aware of the power of the monosyllable.

But simplicity did not come easy to the lyricist/playwright. His father and grandfather were theater impresarios, and the Columbia University graduate began on the upper level, working with such composers as Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg. Though some of their operettas were hits, they evoked a vanished Europe of castles and costume balls. Hammerstein yearned to make a statement about his country. He got the chance in 1927 with Showboat, supplying the rhymes for Jerome Kern, an equally ambitious songwriter.

This is a familiar story, but in Something Wonderful, Todd Purdum, a political reporter turned show business historian, tells it vigorously and adds some fresh anecdotes, as well as a matching biography of Hammerstein’s greatest possible (and impossible) partner, composer Richard Rodgers.

 After the financial and critical triumph of Showboat, with songs like “Ol’ Man River” and “Why Do I Love You?”, Hammerstein’s career seemed assured. Instead, it was almost terminated. Collaborating with Kern, Romberg, and others, he suffered through a decade of flops. At 46, with the world on the brink of war, he lamented, “It’s not easy to hear people say the parade has passed you by.”

In that parade were two fellow Columbia graduates, basking in the success of their own popular songs. Rodgers’s beguiling melodies and Lorenz Hart’s witty, unexpected rhymes had enchanted the nation.

Both thine eyes are cute too;

What they do to me.

Hear me holler

I choose a sweet lollapaloosa in thee.

Sometimes I think, I’ve found my hero

But it’s a queer romance

Beans could get no keener reception in a beanery

Bless our mountain greenery home!

But this dazzling alliance was racing against the curtain. Hart, a diminutive, tightly closeted homosexual, believed that if the truth got out, it would kill his mother. With every show, instead of becoming more assured, he leaned more heavily on liquor. Deadlines were stretched and finally ignored, driving the straight, and straight-laced, Rodgers to the cusp of a nervous breakdown.

The composer made a final offer: a new play, Green Grow the Lilacs, had come to his attention. He thought it would make a terrific musical. If Mr. Words would dry out in a sanitarium, Mr. Music would take an adjoining room, and they could continue their work. Hart refused; nothing would interfere with his plans for a Mexican vacation. Purdum describes the scene:

Rodgers, with blood running to his head, delivered his ultimatum: “If you walk out on me now, I’m going to do it with someone else.”

“Anyone in mind?” Hart asked, looking at the floor.

“Yes, Oscar Hammerstein,” Rodgers replied.

“Well, you couldn’t pick a better man,” the sheepish Hart replied.

When he left, Rodgers found himself suddenly alone—and in tears.

Nonetheless, Hart was on the money. Hammerstein turned out to be as gifted and businesslike as his new partner, though nowhere near as swift. Hammerstein took three weeks to write the verse for “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” The opening lines inspired Rodgers to new melodic heights:

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye

And it looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky.

“You’d really have to be made of cement not to spark to that,” Rodgers recalled. He came up with the melody in about ten minutes. Hammerstein’s reaction was a mixture of awe and exasperation. The lyricist had labored mightily over every line; the composer seemed to toss off his work without breaking a sweat. But Rodgers wasn’t showing off; he just couldn’t contain his melodic energies. In fact, he was as scrupulous with his tunes and harmonies as Hammerstein was with his verbs and nouns—the main reason why so many of their shows would become monuments.

On the epochal opening night of the musical that would eventually be titled Oklahoma!, Hart was in the wartime audience applauding wildly. “This show will be around twenty years from now,” he told his former partner. Alas, Hart would not see its first year out. In the fall of 1943, disoriented and alone, he died of pneumonia. As he predicted, Oklahoma! ran for a then-unprecedented 2,212 performances, was adapted for the screen, and has remained a staple in regional theaters around the world.

Its success released a flood of over-the-top adjectives—“flawless,” “inspired,” “a show business marriage of diamond mine and diamond cutter”—to describe the new “R & H.” For his part, H was far too experienced to fall for flattery. Purdum reprints the ad he took out in Variety, listing five of his short-lived failures (“Free for All, three weeks at the Manhattan Theater”) and reminding readers, “I’ve done it before and I can do it again.”

Hammerstein never did do it again. Together, R & H double-handedly created the Golden Age of the American Musical. Together, they brought the art form to maturity, dealing with subjects like racial bigotry and social inequities, from Carousel and South Pacific to The King and I and Flower Drum Song to that critical bomb and popular delight, The Sound of Music.

Both men radiated stability; both had long marriages to women named Dorothy; both enjoyed their wealth without being extravagant; both shook off the inevitable disappointments, among them Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream. These were merely pebbles in the shoe, never enough to slow the ascent of R & H. Their greatest roadblock, ironically, was the composer’s deep-seated insecurity. Hidden from public view was Rodgers’s relentless womanizing and an alcoholism almost as ruinous as Hart’s.

Early in 1957, at the urging of his wife and daughters, Rodgers checked into the plush Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital for treatment. “After a self-imposed exile of twelve weeks,” he recalled, “I returned to my family as if nothing had happened.” Not quite. For the rest of his life, Rodgers would go on drinking, often to excess, and consulting five psychiatrists without conspicuous relief from the psychic pains that continued to gnaw at him.

Hammerstein, Purdum points out, was a calmer soul with a different kind of anguish. In the late 1950s, doctors informed him that he had inoperable cancer. When his adult son Jimmy learned the truth, he began to cry. Hammerstein exploded, “Goddamnit! I’m the one who’s dying, not you.” It was a rare occasion; self-pity wasn’t in his lexicon. Indeed, a few weeks before his death in 1960 at the age of 65, he met Rodgers in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel. “We discussed many things that day,” the composer remembered, “two somber middle-aged men in a crowded restaurant talking unemotionally of the imminent death of one and the need for the other to keep going.”

And keep going Richard Rodgers did, with a series of collaborators—including Richard Rodgers, fitting words to his own melodies for No Strings. There were several other lyricists, among them Hammerstein’s protégé Stephen Sondheim. On paper, the partnership of young comer and old pro seemed idyllic; on stage, it proved catastrophic. The creation of Do I Hear a Waltz? was hell from Day One, Rodgers reflected, for the charming boy he had first met at the age of 12 had turned into a “monster.”

Restive to the end, Rodgers died in 1979 of multiple ailments aggravated by alcoholism. He was 77. “As had been done for Oscar Hammerstein nineteen years earlier,” notes Purdum, “the lights of the Broadway that Richard Rodgers had changed forever were darkened in his honor.”

After that tribute, however, the reassessments began. Broadway was moving away from craftsmanship, and topical themes were getting trendy at the box office. The R & H teamwork was reevaluated as sentimental, preachy, and obsolete. In A Theater Divided, critic Martin Gottfried described their oeuvre as “a little elevation mixed with a little pap,” and in the New York Times, Stephen Holden went full-bore PC: the R & H canon presented a view “that was considered liberal in the ’40s and ’50s but in the light of today’s sexual and racial policies seems slightly right of center, especially in treating the relations between men and women.”

And yet . . . and yet. Even in a divided nation, Rodgers and Hammerstein exert an undiminished appeal on both sides of the political and theatrical aisles. Not long ago, on a single night in the U.S., there were 11 productions of Carousel, 17 of The King and I, 26 of South Pacific, 64 of Oklahoma!, and 106 of The Sound of Music. The public continues to outvote the faultfinders.

In that public is at least one remarkably astute judge. Purdum quotes her near the end of Something Wonderful as she reflects on all that has gone before: “Rodgers’s music was always melodically glorious, simple yet soaring. It hooked you and lodged in your gut. His waltzes were as beautiful as any of Strauss’s. Hammerstein’s lyrics were equally rich, brilliantly constructed and so very specific to the worlds they created together. Their shows managed to be both timely and timeless—the epitome of classic.” That verdict was rendered by the star who played R & H’s Cinderella, written for television when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. Here it is, 61 years later, and Julie Andrews still has perfect pitch.

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