A Centennial Tribute to Richard Rodgers
Name a classic musical. Got one? Okay, now I’ll bet you any amount of money that Richard Rodgers composed the songs for the musical you named. How can I be so sure? I’ll give you several reasons: Pal Joey, Carousel, Flower Drum Song, The King and I, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and State Fair. I might lose a few of those bets (my own daughter said West Side Story), but I’ll win more than I’ll lose.
That’s because Richard Rodgers was one of the most extraordinary and prolific composers in American theatrical history. He wrote over 1,500 songs and forty-two Broadway musicals, 19 of which were later filmed. First with lyricist Lorenz Hart, and then with Oscar Hammerstein II, he helped to create some of the most popular and memorable songs ever written, not to mention dozens of great musicals that are still performed today. Those that were made into films constitute the core of the great crop of musicals of the “golden age” in the 40s and 50s.
Born on June 28, 1902, in Long Island, New York, he was mostly self-taught. He started writing when he was a student at Columbia and later the Institute of Musical Art (which later became the Julliard School). In 1918 he began working with writer and lyricist Lorenz Hart, a collaboration which continued until Hart’s death in 1943, and during its early days resulted in an average of two shows a year. The most memorable (dates are for Broadway shows) were On Your Toes (1936), Babes In Arms (1937), I’d Rather Be Right (1937), I Married An Angel(1938), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), Too Many Girls (1939), Higher And Higher (1940), and Pal Joey (1940). The latter was a ground-breaking musical which was the first to feature an anti-hero. It was also a star-making vehicle for Gene Kelly. (The film version starred Frank Sinatra.) Although their early shows were revues, they eventually introduced the concept of a clearly defined story line and musical numbers that were integrated with the plot, as opposed to simply a bunch of songs performed in the same show. Nonetheless, many of the individual songs from their plays were very popular at the time, and are considered standards and still performed today.
Lorenz Hart was slowing down by 1940, and Rodgers began working with old school friend Oscar Hammerstein II, who had been successful in the field of operetta. It was to be an even more successful pairing, producing some of the greatest musicals in Broadway and Hollywood history, including Oklahoma! (1944) — considered the first great modern musical — Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). They also wrote a movie musical, State Fair (1945), and an acclaimed television musical, Cinderella (1957). Together they won 35 Tonys, 15 Oscars, two Grammies and 2 Emmies. Both Oklahoma! and South Pacific won Pulitzer Prizes. In 1999 they were even featured on a U.S. postage stamp! Rodgers also wrote music for films, most notably Victory at Sea (1952), which captured an Emmy, went Gold in the sales of the records, and won a commendation from the Navy.
Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960, but Rodgers continued working with other partners, including Stephen Sondheim (Do I Hear A Waltz?, 1965). In 1962 he created the only musical for which he wrote both music and lyrics — No Strings, which earned him two Tony Awards.
Rodgers died on December 30, 1979 at the age of 77. In 1990, the 46th Street Theatre was renamed The Richard Rodgers Theatre. It houses The Richard Rodgers Gallery, honoring his life and works. I hope you enjoy this tribute, originally created on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday (in 2002).
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Posters