Based on current performances and record sales, the world’s most popular songs aren’t those of Schubert or Schumann, John Lennon or the latest hip-hop artist. They come courtesy of a gentleman of formal manner and formidable talent who took Broadway by storm more than half a century ago. Since the stage is an arena that the young rarely visit these days, the songs of Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) should have become mere antiques long ago, appreciated by connoisseurs but remote from contemporary taste. And yet Rodgers’s works still find millions of listeners of every age and in almost every land. Over the past decade, six of his musicals have received opulent Broadway revivals, and two have enjoyed television
Why do Rodgers’s tunes still enchant? Of course, there’s the man’s gift for melodic invention: had he set the Lands’ End catalog to music, the results still would have made the Hit Parade. His music also has lasted because he was lucky enough to find just the right collaborators at key points in his career. But then, as composer Hector Berlioz once noted, it isn’t enough to have talent to succeed; nor is luck alone sufficient: one has to have the talent for luck. This Rodgers possessed in overplus.
The second son of headstrong physician William Rodgers (born William Abraham) and his well-to-do wife, Mamie (née Levy), Richard Charles Rodgers grew up on Manhattan’s West Side in what to outsiders seemed a placid upper-middle-class home. But in later years, Richard’s daughters recalled a darker scene. “I didn’t get good feelings about family life,” said Linda Rodgers. “I heard more comments about the difficult relationships and the silences that went on at meals. . . . [G]randfather would often storm out.” Agreed elder sister Mary, “I think my father grew up with a lot of fear and anxiety.”
Rodgers was too complex a man to have a “Rosebud”–a single childhood incident that illuminates all that follows. But one disturbing episode does stand out. One night, the eight-year-old Richard awoke in excruciating pain, his right index finger swollen almost wrist-size. The boy had contracted osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone marrow. He lay in agony until his parents returned from a night out. When they inspected him, Rodgers remembered, “Pop simply got a scalpel from his office and had Mom hold me while he made one terrifying slash in the finger to allow the pus to escape.” He faced the same procedure repeatedly until cured. “Local anesthetic was seldom used in those days, so what followed were eight months of torture to a small boy by well-meaning men,” he bitterly recalled. Rodgers wondered if his lifelong hypochondria resulted from the memory of his father “suddenly appearing in the middle of the night to cut me savagely with a knife.”
It was during his recuperation that Rodgers’s love for music blossomed. He would listen, beguiled, as his mother played popular songs and operettas on the parlor Steinway. By age nine, the little boy with a grownup face was attending Saturday music matinees by himself. Returning home, he would sit at that same family keyboard, picking out by ear the tunes he had heard. Soon, he was inventing astonishingly mature melodies of his own. Serious piano lessons and attendance at classical concerts and operas followed.
Yet if little Richard loved classical music, he also sensed, even in those early days, that his destiny lay a bit north of the old Metropolitan Opera House. Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and other audacious tunesmiths were taking American popular music in exciting new directions. Rodgers longed to join their company.
William Rodgers wasn’t amused by his son’s musical ambitions. After all, the good doctor’s elder son Morty was already a pre-med at Columbia, and the assumption was that Richard would follow in his brother’s slipstream. It would not do to have a Rodgers slumming in show business. Tensions mounted. A family friend recalled a telling recital at the family’s Long Island summer home. Richard was joyously playing the piano when the doctor’s car crunched driveway gravel. “Dick, dear,” Mama whispered, “here comes your Dad, so get away from the piano.” Dick retreated on that occasion, but remained glued to the keyboard when his father wasn’t around.
Young Rodgers invented melodies on that keyboard, not words: to realize his ambitions, he needed a lyricist. Boy, did he find one! The 16-year-old had heard about a swarthy, gnome-like Columbia graduate, Lorenz “Larry” Hart, who had built a reputation as a light versifier. One of Morty’s pals knew the writer and arranged a meeting.
Larry Hart was the child of well-to-do immigrants. His rotund, irrepressible father, Max, was part hustler, part promoter, forever launching companies that prospered and then faltered, whereupon he’d just start another one–always staying a jump ahead of the creditors. This was one of Max’s flush periods: he had set up his family in a posh West 119th Street townhouse. But commerce held no appeal for Larry, who, at age 23, still lived at home, holed up in his cluttered room, spending his days translating German poetry and his nights drinking to excess.
Like Rodgers, Hart nourished dreams of glory–accomplishments in the theater that would win him fame and wealth. That’s where the similarity ended, however. Rodgers had a muscular work ethic; music flowed out of him like conversation; he was handsome and, at least at this point, upbeat, attracted by–and attractive to–women. Hart was an undisciplined, unprepossessing man, whose furtive homosexual liaisons invariably ended in sorrow. Despite these differences, the young men hit it off: “I left Hart’s house,” Richard observed, “having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend and a source of permanent irritation.”
The first Rodgers and Hart sessions were magic. One of the duo’s earliest songs, “Any Old Place with You,” even caught the attention of comedian/producer Lew Fields, who put it in his new musical, A Lonely Romeo, at the Rialto Theater. Rodgers and Hart would write far better material, but this number hinted at the remarkable oeuvre to come. Richard’s tune simulated a driving locomotive; Larry’s lyrics played with places to be visited:
From old Virginia
We’ll go straight to Halifax.
I’ve got a mania
Even ride in London hacks.
I’ll call each dude a pest
You like in Budapest,
Oh for far Peru!
I’ll go to hell for ya,
Any old place with you.
Today, teenagers are big stars; back then, the only adolescents associated with the theater were ushers. The notion that a 17-year-old could have a song performed on Broadway was the stuff of headlines. Rodgers was beside himself, certain that he had entered the on-ramp to success. His timing, though, was off: the Rialto suffered from the citywide recession in the early 1920s, and after the team’s winning debut, no significant offers came their way.
His career stalled, Rodgers unenthusiastically enrolled at Columbia, following his brother’s pre-med path. But he never stopped writing music. Because of his brief Broadway triumph, Rodgers received invitations to pen tunes for varsity shows (several boasting lyrics by that promising law student Oscar Hammerstein II). Off campus, Rodgers continued to work with Hart. They scored a slew of amateur musicals, with arch titles like A Danish Yankee at King Tut’s Court and Temple Bells.
Rodgers never regretted the years (1920 through 1924) he spent pounding out such amateur works. It was during this period, after all, that he convinced his father that two Dr. Rodgerses would be enough for one family. Worn down by his younger son’s doggedness, William permitted Richard to transfer from Columbia to the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard). But even more crucial to Rodgers’s songwriting future, his amateur efforts provided him with his real musical education. “There is a great deal more to writing for the musical theater than learning notation, the meaning of a diminished seventh, or banging away at a typewriter in some lonely room,” he acknowledged. Later in life, he advised Broadway hopefuls: “to reject at the start the idea that ‘amateur’ is a dirty word. . . . [I]n the audience may be someone’s uncle who knows an agent or a producer–or who may even be an agent or producer–and the amateur may have taken the first giant step toward becoming a professional.”
Rodgers was speaking from his own early experience. To avoid relying on his father’s largesse, which by 1924 had grown considerable, he was about to start a job as a traveling salesman, peddling children’s undergarments for $50 a week, when an intriguing offer came in. Some folks at the Theater Guild had caught a few of those amateur nights and, believing the composer and his lyricist ready for prime time, asked them to come up with the score for a new Broadway revue, The Garrick Gaities.
Most of the numbers for that production are long forgotten, but a modest little duet became a city’s anthem. The bright, catchy notes and knowing internal rhymes heralded the arrival of a new and irresistible Broadway style. “If one song can be said to have ‘made’ Rodgers and Hart,” wrote the melodist, “it was ‘Manhattan.’ ”
We’ll have Manhattan
The Bronx and Staten
It’s lovely strolling through
It’s very fancy
On old Delancey
Street, you know
The subway charms us so
When balmy breezes blow
To and fro
And tell me what street
Compares with Mott Street
Sweet pushcarts gliding by.
The great big city’s a wondrous toy
Just made for a girl and boy.
We’ll turn Manhattan
Into an isle of joy.
The reviews sang. Critic Robert Benchley called Gaities “by miles the most civilized show in town.” Rodgers and Hart’s songs clicked “like a colonel’s heels at attention,” Variety enthused.
The team’s next major musical, 1925’s Dear Enemy, clicked louder and garnered even more attention. “Here in My Arms” stretched to an octave and a fifth in the nineteenth bar of its chorus. Even so, theater historian Gerald Boardman pointed out, the Rodgers tune somehow remained easy to sing, announcing “a departure from the tightly knit melodies of most musical comedy songs.” Hart’s contributions did not go unnoticed either: the rhyme of “radiant” with “lady aunt” in “I Beg Your Pardon” sent the New York Sun critic into transports of delight. For the rest of the decade, the duo flourished, scoring more than a dozen Broadway shows, some short-lived, others durable.
At first, the two men wrote simultaneously, but soon Hart’s eccentric behavior disrupted the routine. Rodgers was Mr. Punctual. Hart turned out to be, in his partner’s memorable phrase, “a fellow who says he’ll be at your house with the lyric at 2:00, and shows up on Friday.” By the end of the twenties, the melodies almost always came first, and Hart tardily fitted the words to them. But what words! What dazzling internal rhymes and verbal gymnastics!:
Beans could get no keener re-
Ception in a beanery
Bless our mountain greenery
Both thine eyes are cute, too–
What they do to
Hear me holler
I choose a sweet
Sometimes I think
I’ve found my hero
But it’s a queer ro-
All that you need is a ticket.
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance!
The Rodgers and Hart relationship became increasingly symbiotic. Whatever Hart gave his partner in those early years, noted fellow composer Alec Wilder, prompted Rodgers’s “greatest invention and pellucid freshness.” And what Rodgers gave Hart, says theater critic John Lahr, was “something insistent and sincere that plays against Hart’s own inveterate cynicism.”
Still, that cynicism revealed itself in song after song. Hart could turn out rhymes about requited love when the occasion demanded–”With a Song in My Heart,” for instance, or “The Blue Room.” But his natural métier was disappointed romance and unfulfilled yearnings:
It is easy to see all right
Ev’rything’s gonna be all right–
Be just dandy for ev’rybody but me.
I’m so hot and bothered that
I don’t know
My elbow from my ear.
I suffer something awful
Each time you go
And much worse when
He was my one and all
He was my why and wherefore.
My moon and sun and all,
He is the man I care for!
And now my love song is through.
It was too good to be true.
With Rodgers and Hart ruling Broadway, Richard took on a different kind of partner. The daughter of a prominent New York lawyer, Dorothy Belle Feiner was both beautiful and wealthy. The self-made groom effortlessly treated his bride to a sojourn in England. “A honeymoon trip to Europe would be the least one could expect from a young husband with the income of a Richard Rodgers,” observes biographer Meryle Secrest. “One family story has it that that when he got married at the age of 27, he was making $75,000 a year”–this in 1930, when the Depression was ravaging the country.
When Richard and Dorothy returned to Manhattan, she was pregnant, and he was preparing to head west with Hart: Paramount Studios had made the writers an offer they couldn’t refuse. The Rodgers’s first child, Mary, was born in 1931, and for the next four years, the young family split their time between Beverly Hills and New York, with Richard staying mostly in Hollywood away from the family, working on films that never seemed to get made.
But one outstanding movie did find its way to the screen. There had been nothing like Love Me Tonight before; there’s been nothing like it since. The film’s opening number, sung by Maurice Chevalier and a large cast, features Hart’s characteristic rhymed couplets. As the Parisian day begins, Rodgers’s melody is irresistible and everyone has his say in words or syllables that sweep viewers along:
TAXI DRIVER: Isn’t it romantic?
Da, da, da, da, da,
And now sir we are here.
COMPOSER: How much do I owe you?
Da, da, da, da, da
TAXI DRIVER: Two francs.
COMPOSER: Oh, that’s too dear!
[Cut to train compartment.]
Isn’t it romantic?
Da, da, da, da, da
I’ll write some words as well.
Isn’t it romantic
Sitting on the train?
This song has got to sell!
[French soldiers on the train listen as he writes.]
While bravely at the throttle sits the engineer!
1st SOLDIER: Hey Henri, pass the bottle!
2nd SOLDIER: This is rotten beer!
COMPOSER: Isn’t it romantic?
Speeding right along
The outskirts of Paree!
SOLDIERS: Isn’t it romantic?
Listen to that song!
1st SOLDIER: It’s too damn long for me!
SOLDIERS: Da, da, da, da, da, da, da!
We would rather sing than fight for France!
Isn’t it romance?
When he wasn’t working with Hart on film scores, Rodgers, joined by Dorothy, attended innumerable Beverly Hills dinner parties, only to find that there was no escaping studio life. The routine proved as ritualized as a Noh play: the meal finished, the host–usually a film industry bigwig–would invite his guests into his living room. On his command, a wall would swing out, revealing a screen (without disturbing the Impressionist paintings). The dinner guests would then watch a forthcoming movie. “You never dared to express an opinion,” Dorothy recalled, “because you never knew who was sitting next to you.”
Love Me Tonight proved to be the pinnacle of Rodgers and Hart’s cinematic career. They did some good film work for Al Jolson: Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, written in 1933, contained several outstanding songs, including “You Are Too Beautiful.” And grinding out songs for MGM, they came up with “Easy to Remember,” crooned by Bing Crosby in Mississippi. But for the most part, their efforts fizzled.
Hart ran into the most difficulty. Studio heads found the Rodgers melodies acceptable but frequently sent Hart back to rewrite his lyrics. On one occasion only, this rewriting worked in Hart’s favor. “Prayer” employed a simple lyric, intended for a Jean Harlow turn in Hollywood Party:
If you ain’t busy up there,
I ask for help with a prayer
So please don’t give me the air.
Neither Harlow nor “Prayer” appeared in the picture. Rodgers and Hart then adapted the song as the title number for Manhattan Melodrama. This time it had a different rhyme scheme:
You gulp your coffee and run;
Into the subway you crowd.
Don’t breathe, it isn’t allowed.
The song again didn’t make the cut. But it reappeared with a third set of lyrics, and this time it did make it into Manhattan Melodrama. Retitled “The Bad in Every Man,” the song became a showstopper for nightclub chanteuse Shirley Ross:
Oh, Lord . . . .
I could be good to a lover,
But then I always discover
The bad in ev’ry man.
Hollywood legend has it that Hart ran into MGM’s music publisher Jack Robbins after the film opened. Robbins remained ambivalent about the song: “You know, Larry, that’s a really good tune you boys have there. I’d be glad to get behind it, but it needs a commercial lyric.” Replied Hart, “Oh, yeah, I suppose what you’d like me to write is something corny, like ‘Blue Moon.’ ” Robbins nodded, and Hart, for the first and last time, rewrote the song to please an executive:
You saw me standing alone,
Without a dream in my heart,
Without a love of my own.
“Blue Moon” became a phenomenal seller. But their Hollywood hit song proved Rodgers and Hart’s Hollywood swan song. Weary and disappointed, the men bought one-way tickets back to New York. Historian Ethan Mordden notes that cinema “wasn’t a good form for them–though Hart had a terrific time. He loved the nightlife. He never really was much for working.” As for Rodgers, he “so loved the theater he felt very fish out of water.”
As the team waited out the final weeks of their contract, Richard wrote Dorothy about a worrying development. “I’ve experienced something I’ve never known before,” he explained. “I have an active and intense feeling of depression which is absolutely impossible to shake off.” One trigger for his black mood might well have been a Los Angeles Examiner column: “Whatever happened to Rodgers and Hart?” And then there was the farewell with Irving Thalberg. Wanting to thank the MGM production chief, who had first enticed him to Hollywood, Rodgers drove to the mogul’s office, waited for a long stretch, and then was shown in. “Thalberg looked up with an uncomprehending, glassy look on his boyish face,” the composer later wrote, “and I suddenly realized he hadn’t the faintest idea who I was.” Concluded Rodgers: “The studio might have lulled us into staying out there longer. But that would have been the end of Larry Hart and Dick Rodgers. I’m sure I would have ended up as a neurotic, a drunkard, or both.” Tragically, he would wind up as both in his beloved New York.
Back in Gotham, he battled depression for about a year, while he and Hart searched for the right vehicle to show audiences they were back in town. They found it in Jumbo, impresario Billy Rose’s extravaganza. Staged in the mammoth New York Hippodrome, the musical, built around a circus, starred Jimmy Durante as a comic schemer stealing a pachyderm–until the cops catch him in the act. Thereupon, he uttered the year’s most famous line: “What elephant?” With Jumbo, Rodgers quietly established himself as America’s Waltz King, with “Over and Over Again” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” displacing the Strausses, who had ruled the genre with their cloying hint of Sacher torte mit schlag. Rodgers injected an American verve and comic bounce, and music in 3/4 time would never be the same.
The show was the smash of 1935–the year Rodgers became a father again, of another daughter, Linda. He promised reporters that R & H would soon break new ground. He was right. Opening in April, 1937, Babes in Arms made stars of complete unknowns–and featured some of Rodgers and Hart’s most charming, sophisticated songs: “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” with Hart’s inimitable cascade:
The furtive sigh,
The blackened eye,
The words, “I’ll love you ‘til the day I die,”
The self-deception that believes the lie–
I wish I were in love again.
When love congeals
It soon reveals
The faint aroma of performing seals,
The double-crossing of a pair of heels.
I wish I were in love again!
In November of that year came I’d Rather Be Right. Starring George M. Cohan, this production audaciously satirized Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most popular president in American history. The following season R & H presented The Boys from Syracuse (with the great waltz, “Falling in Love with Love”), the first Broadway musical based on Shakespearean comedy.
Hart hit the bottle so hard that he proved difficult to work with–when he didn’t just up and disappear. With a deadline looming, Rodgers persuaded his partner to check into Doctors Hospital–and moved in with him, notebooks, piano, and all, so that they could compose while Larry dried out. The cure worked well enough to get the work done.
Then Hart backslid: he failed to appear at meetings, ignored his personal appearance, struggled with rhymes that once came effortlessly. There were still triumphs, like Too Many Girls, starring an unknown named Desi Arnaz, and Pal Joey, the first musical that dared to have an antihero, a heel played by Gene Kelly. By 1940, however, the partnership was in deep trouble.
Rodgers began to consider writing with another lyricist. Oscar Hammerstein II was the logical choice. The scion of a theatrical family–his uncle a noted Broadway producer and his father the Victoria Theater’s manager–Hammerstein had written important shows with Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, and Jerome Kern. But his last hit had been Showboat, way back in 1927. After a string of flops, he desperately sought the right collaborator. He and Rodgers, though not close friends, had known each other since their college days; they respected each other’s work and occasionally lunched together.
Rodgers set up a meeting with Hammerstein to talk about Lynn Riggs’s play Green Grow the Lilacs. The Theater Guild had just bought the rights, and Rodgers thought a creative musician and lyricist team could. . . . Hammerstein didn’t want to talk about it. Intrigued as he was, he warned, “It would kill Larry if you walked away while he was still able to function.” Still, he added, “If the time ever comes when he cannot function, call me.”
Alas, the time wasn’t long in arriving. Larry expressed no interest in working on a “cowboy musical”–the adaptation of Lilacs that eventually became Oklahoma! Besides, he wanted to take a vacation in Mexico and then concentrate on a revival of A Connecticut Yankee, an old Rodgers and Hart chestnut. Though Richard grumbled privately that there ought to be “a statute of limitations on gratitude,” he nevertheless ponied up $100,000 to produce Yankee: he thought he owed it to Larry. Then he went to work with Oscar on the cowboy musical.
The difference between Hart and Hammerstein was the difference between klieg light and daylight. Oscar was a devoted family man, knowledgeable about the America that lay beyond New York City, instantly accessible, disciplined by habit, and optimistic by nature (“I just can’t write anything without hope in it,” he noted). Research was as key to Hammerstein’s method as inspiration. For one song, he originally wrote: “The corn is as high as a cow pony’s eye.” Then he strolled in a cornfield and found the stalks considerably higher. The cowpoke’s folksy simile became “as high as an elephant’s eye.”
Hammerstein worked alone, at glacial pace, painstakingly fashioning phrases before submitting the whole lyric to the composer. Rodgers worried about his new partner’s approach, until Hammerstein drove from his Doylestown, Pennsylvania, farmhouse to Richard’s summer place in Fairfield, Connecticut, with the lyrics to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” in hand. Rodgers scanned the opening line, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” “I was sick with joy,” he recalled. “When you’re given words like that you’ve got something to say musically. You’d really have to be made of cement not to spark to that.” He came up with a melody ten minutes later. This fluency always astonished Hammerstein: “I work for two weeks on a lyric,” he said, “and hours later Dick has done his half of the work.”
Hammerstein exaggerated, though not by much. Oklahoma! took time to coalesce. But by mid-1943, it was ready to go, perfected even further by the work of choreographer Agnes DeMille. Rodgers had always liked the idea of big-name choreographers working with his music: in 1937, George Balanchine, fresh from the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, had staged the jazzy “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” for Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes.
Oklahoma! was a coup de théâtre–it ran for more than 2,000 performances, made buckets of money, and changed the course of the American musical, integrating plot, songs, and dance in a new way. On Broadway, there was now a different H in R & H, as critics duly noted.
Victory has a thousand fathers, but there was one orphan on Oklahoma!’s opening night, March 31, 1943. In the crush at Sardi’s, a tiny figure broke through the crowd of adulators to tell Rodgers: “This show of yours will run forever.” It was a generous remark by a man who must have been suffering deep psychological pain. Even though he and his partner still planned to write a few new songs for the Yankee revival, it was obvious that the Hart had gone out of the relationship.
Eight months later, A Connecticut Yankee opened at the Martin Beck Theater. Larry showed up drunk, loudly singing along with the principals. Richard had him escorted out as the lilting melody and bright verse of the team’s last black-humor song went on:
I married many men, a ton of them,
And yet I was untrue to none of them,
Because I bumped off every one of them
To keep my love alive. . . .
Sir Athelstane indulged in fratricide,
He killed his dad and that was patricide,
One night I stabbed him at my mattress side
To keep my love alive
To keep my love alive.
The next day Hart disappeared. Composer Fritz Loewe (My Fair Lady) found him the following night sitting on a curb on Eighth Avenue–drunk, feverish, and indifferent to the cold autumn rain. Loewe rushed Hart to Doctors Hospital and there, on November 22, he died, aged 48. The official cause of death: pneumonia. It would have been truer to say that the lyricist died of self-inflicted wounds.
Objectively, there was no reason for Rodgers to feel guilty: he had done all he could to save Larry from Larry. But while he threw himself into new projects with Hammerstein, subtle changes in the composer’s mien spoke volumes. He began to look older than his years, heavier in the midsection, more lined in the face. His marriage suffered. He and Dorothy went on as a couple, but both daughters noted ominous silences and other signs of marital strain.
Stephen Sondheim, a Hammerstein acolyte, remembered Rodgers in the mid-1940s as he worked with Oscar to transform the Ferenc Molnár play Liliom into Carousel. Rodgers crafted some of his most beautiful and upbeat melodies for that show, yet he impressed the youthful Sondheim as discontented, acrimonious, and restive. The reason seemed obvious to Sondheim. When Rodgers worked with Hart, he was the responsible partner; with Hammerstein, the roles had reversed. Hammerstein “was a generous, big-hearted man who devoted himself to good works such as the World Federalists and all those things,” Sondheim observed. “He was more than just a book or lyric writer. He was a man of the theater. I suspect that Dick began to believe Oscar was seen this way and he was the mean little man in the office . . . the drunk. He became a whole other person.”
Rodgers went public with his phobias. He expressed his fear of flying, of driving in tunnels and over bridges. And some part of him seemed to close down. He was now drinking to excess (sometimes as much as a bottle of vodka per diem), though few outside his family noticed–unlike Hart, he could hold his liquor. He didn’t weave or slur his words; he simply became more withdrawn. Even when sober, Rodgers found social occasions increasingly a strain. Hammerstein’s son, William, lunched several times with Rodgers and found his host enigmatic. “I was never comfortable with him, and I mentioned this to Dad,” he recalled. Oscar replied, “Nobody is. It’s not you, it’s Dick.”
Yet the soaring melodies still poured forth–even richer, more complex. Lorenz Hart brought out Rodgers’s glittering surface; Oscar Hammerstein probed deeper, forcing his collaborator to write more serious and sustained melodies. In Molnár’s Liliom, for example, the lovers exchange two lines:
LILIOM: But you wouldn’t marry a rough guy like me–that is–eh–if you loved me.
JULIE: Yes, I would–if I loved you, Mr. Liliom.
For Carousel, Hammerstein switched the locale from France to New England, and used their words as the springboard entirely expressed in the conditional:
If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way–
Round in circles I’d go!
Longin’ to tell you, but afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by.
Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know
How I loved you–
If I loved you.
Rodgers’s tune captures the poignancy and sexual tension of the lovers. That song, along with “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and other powerhouse numbers, made Carousel the most talked-about musical of 1945. One song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” perfectly captured the renewed faith and optimism of postwar America:
When you walk through a storm,
Keep your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were not infallible. They stubbed their toes with Pipe Dream, adapted from John Steinbeck’s raffish Cannery Row, and with the backstage story Me and Juliet, their only show not based on a book or straight play. Still, they remained Broadway royalty.
It was during Juliet rehearsals in 1955 that Rodgers felt twinges of pain in his left jaw. X-rays showed a malignant growth. “He was very fearful about health,” his daughter Mary said. “When he finally got cancer of the jaw I think he was relieved, because he’d been waiting for something to happen for so long when it finally happened it was like, ‘Oh, well, now I’ve got that over with.’ ”
Doctors removed part of Rodgers’s jaw, and all the teeth from the cancerous side of his mouth. The procedure would have sidelined other patients for months. Ten days later, Rodgers was tending to rehearsals. That Juliet had a disappointingly short run hardly mattered. What was vital was the next show, and the show after that. No one in the family (or out of it, for that matter) had ever seen the composer sit at the piano and play for sheer enjoyment. He only went to the ivories to write a song for a specific character in a specific musical. It was all he knew how to do, all he wanted to do. He had no close friends, no hobbies, no wish to visit foreign climes. Broadway was his life.
Partly this was due to his half-alcoholic/half-workaholic nature, partly because he found his marriage confining. He needed Dorothy and relied on her judgment about theatrical matters. She was a strong-minded, capable woman, who had run a business that maintained high-end apartments. In her spare time, she had invented the “Jonny Mop,” a toilet-cleaning device that, to her amusement, became a department store best-seller. But she was also a compulsive manager, at once a boon and a trial for her husband. According to their daughter Linda, “It was a strange relationship. They needed and supported each other, and were the worst people in the world for each other. When he had problems she was always there to take charge. I am not sure he had much of a say. He was quite a passive partner.”
To escape, Rodgers fled to the theater whenever possible, taking comfort in aspects of show business that everyone else loathed: the out-of-town tryouts, the frantic rewrites, even the delicatessen sandwiches and pickles that are the cuisine of showfolk in rehearsal. And he became inordinately fond of various chorines and divas. “He liked to talk about all the young ladies of the stage he had known,” says Shirley Jones in The Sweetest Sounds, a PBS documentary about Rodgers. “He called them his little friends, so obviously he had quite a few romances.” But the dalliances did not relieve a persistent malaise, a feeling of inadequacy he could never quite define. Alcohol could not assuage it, nor could the five psychiatrists he consulted.
Troubled he may have been, but the composer retained a clear head for business. In the 1950s, he and Hammerstein became producers as well as writers, seeking to control the financial and aesthetic facets of every show. They had watched insensitive producers excise favorite numbers, and they resolved that it would never happen again. By the end of the decade, they were an institution. No other Broadway team, past or present, had written so many influential stage musicals, with so many songs that had entered the American bloodstream.
From South Pacific, for example, had come “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Younger than Springtime”–and the achingly self-conscious editorial, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”:
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
No one could accuse Rodgers and Hammerstein of hypocrisy. The duo’s supreme achievement was 1951’s The King and I, with its pageant of unforgettable songs, including “Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Shall We Dance?” Brilliantly directed by choreographer Jerome Robbins, the show presented a candid view of people whose eyes were “oddly made”–the court of nineteenth-century Siam, with its complicated monarch, his intimidated wives, and the forthright English governess whose encounter with the king presents the greatest unconsummated love story in the annals of musical theater. The team returned to Asian themes in Flower Drum Song, about Chinese Americans in San Francisco. This, too, had best-selling numbers, including “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”
Alas, at the end of the decade, the second R & H partnership came to a tragic end: doctors diagnosed Oscar with terminal stomach cancer. The Sound of Music, the duo’s final show, opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in 1959. The Herald Tribune review expressed the lukewarm critical reaction: “Not only too sweet for words, but almost too sweet for music.” It didn’t matter. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s finale ran for 1,443 performances, the 1965 film version was an even bigger grosser, and several of the songs, notably, “Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss,” and “My Favorite Things” became pop classics. Those who found the last song saccharine were in for a surprise when they heard jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s evocative version. They had forgotten that Rodgers never let himself be pigeonholed. Call his music impertinent, and he’d come up with something serious; accuse him of sliding backward to operetta, and he would write a song to challenge the hippest jazzman.
Oscar Hammerstein II died on August 23, 1960, aged 65. Rodgers was devastated. He was only 58, unready “to be turned out to pasture.” Rodgers added: “It’s very easy for an upset man to retire. As you get older you get more scared. But what would I do if I retired? I’m not a golfer.” He had worked with two collaborators over a 43-year career, and it would not be easy to find another. His talent for luck had begun to run out.
While he pondered the possibilities, the Rodgers family settled into apartments at the Hotel Pierre. There Richard became his own wordsmith, writing the lyrics as well as the melodies of No Strings, a groundbreaking story of an interracial romance. The rhymes had neither the jounce of Hart nor the sentiment of Hammerstein, but the title song became a cabaret standard:
The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear
Are still inside my head.
The kindest words I’ll ever know
Are waiting to be said.
Rodgers never flew solo again. Asocial as he could be, the consummate music man needed company. He worked with the prominent (Sondheim in Do I Hear a Waltz? and Sheldon Harnick in Rex) as well as the uncelebrated (Martin Charnin in Two by Two and I Remember Mama). Yet though his work was never less than creditable, he had passed his prime.
During Rodgers’s decline, the afflictions he had feared in Hollywood roared back. He wound up in the hospital, suffering from alcoholism and depression. Then cancer returned in his 72nd year, this time in his throat. He underwent a laryngectomy, depriving him of his normal voice and forcing him to learn esophageal speech. Observed Rodgers’s daughter Linda, “For somebody who gave such incredible pleasure to so many millions of people, not to have had the same kind of joy and contentment and comfort in his own life–is just awful.”
He went on searching for new refrains until his death on December 30, 1979, at the Pierre. His body was cremated. There is no grave, no statue, no marker; the location of his ashes is a secret.
As, finally, is the musician himself. What had troubled him from the early days has never definitively become clear. But one clue shows up in the last words of his autobiography, Musical Stages. “There is a traditional trick,” he writes, “that theater people have played as long as I can remember. A veteran member of a company will order a gullible newcomer to find the key to the curtain. Naturally, the joke is that there is no such thing. I have been in the theater over fifty years, and I don’t think anyone would consider me naïve, but all my life I’ve been searching for that key.”
If that key remained undiscovered, he found all the other keys, from C to shining C. The notes he put together over a lifetime make him a pantheon figure in American music–indeed in world music–beyond time and fashion. That his mystery endures matters little beside his sweet, ever-enduring melodies.