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8.555024 - RODGERS: Sound of Music (The): Enchanting Melodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein
Richard Rodgers (1902-1979)
Enchanting Melodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein II
Pre-eminent in his contributions to musical theatre and the film-musical, and one of the finest of twentiethcentury popular songwriters, pianist-composer and producer Richard Charles Rodgers was born at Long Island, New York on 28th June, 1902. The son of doctor of medicine William Abraham Rodgers and pianist Mamie Levy, his keyboard skills and composing flair were encouraged from an early age and as a schoolboy ‘Dick’ reputedly spent his pocket-money at Saturday matinées of Jerome Kern musicals. He is also said to have written his first song at the age of eleven and his earliest surviving song, ‘My Auto Show Girl’, when he was fourteen, yet for several years his activity was confined to writing music and occasionally lyrics for social club shows until his talent was first recognised, by Max Dreyfus of Harms music publishers, around 1917. The following year, at sixteen, he enrolled at Columbia University and there met his first major collaborator in a fellow New Yorker, the lyricist Lorenz Hart (1895-1943).
Hart had already had experience as a ‘ghost’ lyricist for, among others, Billy Rose, before he co-wrote with Rodgers a single item for the short-lived 1919 Broadway musical A Lonely Romeo. The Rodgers-Hart team began to write for Broadway in earnest with Poor Little Ritz Girl (1920) but their first real Golden Mile break came in 1925 with their contributions to The Garrick Gaieties. In the media of stage and screen (they were based in Hollywood from 1931 to 1935), they were soon to become the most applauded of the inter- War-year song-writing duos, co-writing (or at least contributing to) 35 musicals and 23 films, in a 25-year working partnership that ended only with Hart’s premature death, after a long illness, on 22nd November, 1943.
Hart survived long enough to attend the première of Oklahoma!, the show which launched Rodgers’ working association with an old friend who was to become his second major lyricist. The grandson of the celebrated German-born entrepreneur and opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein I (1846-1919), lyricistauthor and producer Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II had the theatre in his blood. He had, moreover, during the 1920s and 1930s, acquired a reputation in operetta equal to Rodgers’s own standing in musical comedy. Born in New York City on 12th July, 1895, Oscar Jr. grew up a scion of one of Broadway’s most formidable dynasties (his uncle, Arthur Hammerstein, was the acclaimed producer of, among other shows, Naughty Marietta, Firefly and Rose Marie), although he took no real interest in the theatre until his college days.
A student at New York’s Hamilton Institute from 1904, in 1912 Oscar Hammerstein enrolled at Columbia University, graduating with a B.A., in law, in 1916. While at Columbia he took various acting leads, and even wrote books and lyrics for Columbia Players’ productions, but was a practicing attorney before deciding, after some persuasion from his uncle, to make the theatre his niche. Having first gained theatrical experience as both stage-hand and stage-manager, he first wrote a few plays, all of which flopped, prior to making his Broadway musical entrée, although again initially with only limited success, as librettist-lyricist on Herbert Stothart’s short-lived Always You, in 1920. Further essays followed, with Otto Harbach and others as co-writer, before Vincent Youmans’ musical Wildflower (1923) marked Hammerstein out as a librettist-lyricist of genius who, for Nicolas Slonimsky, combined ‘appealing sentiment and sophisticated nostalgia…particularly well suited to the modern theater’.
The landmark stage works of Hammerstein’s pre- Rodgers operetta and musical comedy years included Rose Marie (with Sigmund Romberg) 1924, Sunny (with Jerome Kern) and Song Of The Flame (with Stothart and George Gershwin) both 1925, The Desert Song (with Romberg) and The Wild Rose (with Rudolf Friml) both 1926, Show Boat (with Kern) 1927, The New Moon (with Romberg) 1928, Music In The Air (with Kern) 1924 and Carmen Jones (music by Bizet) 1943. His screen-credits, apart from adaptations of these stage-scores, include Viennese Nights (score by Romberg, 1930), Give Us This Night (score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, 1936), High, Wide And Handsome (score by Kern, 1937) and The Great Waltz (score by Dimitri Tiomkin, 1938).
The 1944 Pulitzer Prize winner, Oklahoma! (1943), at 2,212 performances (a record that remained unbroken until My Fair Lady, in 1956) enjoyed one of the longestever runs in the United States. The first example of an overtly romantic new genre dubbed ‘the musical play’, a hybrid fusion of musical comedy and operetta, and based on Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play Green Grow The Lilacs, it was the culmination of the old-style musical in the tradition of Show Boat. First produced on the London stage in 1947 (1548 performances), the musical score of its 1955 Technicolor film production won an Academy Award. Oklahoma!’s sequel Carousel (1945), heralded by Brooks Atkinson as ‘the most glorious of the Rodgers and Hammerstein works’ (and Rodgers’ own personal favourite), allegorised in a modern idiom the triumph of love over evil. Adapted by Hammerstein from Liliom, a 1909 play by the Hungarian novelistdramatist Ferenc? Molnár frequently given in New York from 1921 onwards, its initial Donaldson Awardwinning Broadway run lasted for 890 performances. First produced in London in 1950, it was filmed by Twentieth Century Fox in 1956.
The only Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration that did not start out as a stage-show was the film State Fair (Twentieth Century Fox, 1945, starring Charles Winninger, Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Vivian Blaine and Dick Haymes). Awarded an Oscar for the song ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, it also earned a Nomination for its musical direction, under Alfred Newman. (A new version, adapted from the film musical in 1992 by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli, opened on Broadway in 1996). Rodgers and Hammerstein’s next Broadway venture, Allegro (315 performances, 1947) was followed, in 1949, by the magnificent, idyllic South Pacific. With libretto by Hammerstein and his coproducer Joshua Logan (1908-1988), its compelling plot (based on two separate episodes from James Mitchener’s Tales Of The South Pacific), complemented by some immortally nostalgic Rodgers tunes and Mary Martin and emeritus Metropolitan Opera bass Ezio Pinza in the leading parts, made it a sure winner. Following an initial Broadway run of 1925 performances, its outstanding popularity led to a tour of 118 American cities and, opening in London in November 1951, it ran for a further 802 performances. The long-awaited 1958 screening, however, a $5million Magna spectacular, starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi, with overdubbed vocals by the opera baritone Giorgio Tozzi, paled alongside the original show.
Staged two years after South Pacific, the story of The King And I was already familiar to a wide audience via the acclaimed 1946 Twentieth Century Fox filmversion starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. Similarly based on Margaret Landon’s novel Anna And The King Of Siam (the idea for a show was suggested by Gertrude Lawrence, the original Anna Leonowens) the Rodgers-Hammerstein Broadway musical version opened in March 1951 and ran for 1246 performances, Yul Bynner’s earnest portrayal of the King earning him a Tony. Its subsequent London production (1953, starring Valerie Hobson and Herbert Lom) ran a further 946 performances. Filmed in Cinemascope by Fox in 1956, with the Oscar-nominated Deborah Kerr and the Oscar-winning Brynner taking the leads, the filmmusical won in total four Awards and four Nominations and later, on stage, the show-version was frequently revived (notably on Broadway in 1977 and 1985 and London in 1979).
A series of tuneful if however less enduring works followed, including Me And Juliet (1953; 358 performances), Pipe Dream (1955; 246 perfs), Cinderella (first produced for television (it was later resurrected in that medium in 1965) and staged, both times unsuccessfully, in 1958 and 1960, in London) and Flower Drum Song (1958; 600 perfs.) - all prior to the most financially resounding of all their creations. Dismissed by some critics as the apotheosis of sentimental Rodgers & Hammersteinian escapism, The Sound Of Music ranks nonetheless among the most successful musicals of all time. Starring Mary Martin and directed by Vincent Donahue, its initial Broadway production run of 1443 performances, complemented by a protracted ‘parallel’ American tour, was followed in 1961 by a record-breaking London West End production of 2385 showings. The show’s 1965 filmversion (Twentieth Century Fox; starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer) won three Oscars and three nominations. In terms of box office and record sales (on LP it became one of the best-selling soundtrack albums of all time) and overall longevity (the show was resurrected as recently as 1997 in London and 1998 on Broadway), sentimental or otherwise, The Sound Of Music provided the most lasting testament to the duo’s sixteen-year-long Broadway tenure.
Rodgers’ activity following Hammerstein’s death (at Highland Farms, Doylestown, Philadelphia, on 23rd August, 1960) coincided with the rapid decline of the traditional Broadway musical. The last remaining colossus of American theatre composers, without his former partner’s fecund theatrical talent to frame his melodies the composer, now past his prime, gradually lost the popular touch. And indeed, in terms of boxoffice receipts, his various attempts to recover his earlier form (starting in 1962 with No Strings, for which Rodgers wrote both lyrics and music which won him two Tony awards) were more brave than earthshattering. Rodgers’ next venture, in 1965, was to have been I Picked A Daisy, with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, but the idea foundered and the score of the show which finally emerged as On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, was written instead by Burton Lane.
Also from 1965 comes Do I Hear A Waltz?, based on the Arthur Laurents play The Time Of The Cuckoo. Although generally considered the best of Rodgers’ post-Hammerstein creations –not least on account of the fine contribution of lyricist Stephen Sondheim (born New York City, 1930)– this also rated, at a mere 220 performances, a failure. Subsequently, Rodgers penned two more flops: Two By Two (1970, on the theme of Noah’s ark, with lyrics by director Martin Charnin), Rex (1976; about Henry VIII, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, surviving only 49 performances) while with I Remember Mama (1979, with Charnin and Raymond Jessel, based on a successful 1950s TV series and a musical version of an even earlier Van Druten play set in pre-earthquake San Francisco, which Rodgers and Hammerstein had themselves produced, in 1944) the descending parabola of Richard Rodgers reached its natural conclusion.
Richard Rodgers died in New York on 30th December, 1979, leaving a legacy of achievement unparalleled in theatre history. His partnership with Hammerstein earned 34 Tony Awards, 15 Oscars, two Pulitzers, two Grammy and two Emmy Awards and the 1979 Lawrence Langner Award for distinguish lifetime achievement in the Theatre. In 1998 the duo were placed by Time Magazine and CBS News among the top twenty most influential artists of the twentieth century. In 1990 Rodgers was posthumously honoured with a permanent memorial when Broadway’s 46th Street Theater (now the permanent home of the Richard Rodgers Gallery) was renamed the Richard Rodgers Theater.
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