I grew up on rock music, but I also grew up on Rodgers and Hammerstein. We had the cast albums of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music in my house. I wore these records out by listening to them repeatedly. Sometimes on a given day I would listen to the same record more than twice.
This may not seem all that surprising to people of a certain age. Rodgers and Hammerstein conquered and dominated over Broadway as no one else did. Not even such standouts of the Golden Age of musicals as Frank Loesser, Lerner and Loewe or Cole Porter had anything approaching the success record of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their works were present in almost every part of show business: on the radio, on stage and in film. When I was a child, the film version of The Sound of Music was a huge success, and the film versions of their other hit shows often appeared on TV.
Along the way I learned that the composer Richard Rodgers and the lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II had both come to this collaboration in mid-career. Both had had prior collaborators and distinguished Broadway careers before they teemed up to write Oklahoma! in 1942. Richard Rodgers had, with his lyricist Lorenz Hart, dominated the Broadway of the late 1930’s. Oscar Hammerstein had written with composer Jerome Kern the great classic Show Boat, and wrote such other megahits of the 1920’s as Rose Marie, Sunny, The Desert Song and New Moon.
In time Jerome Kern, Hammerstein’s most important early collaborator, became my favorite composer. To chose one’s favorite composer is a matter of the soul, but suffice it to say I am moved by his harmonic invention and the elegance of his melodic lines. Kern was the dominant figure in the early development of the American musical. His shows at the Princess Theatre, written between 1915 and 1918, established the integration of song, dance and story.
The Great Depression made it difficult for Kern and Hammerstein to repeat their success of the 1920’s. Kern’s health problems caused him to semi-retire toHollywood.
Kern and Hammerstein also had going against them the long time that it took for Hammerstein to reach maturity as a librettist. Hammerstein is the greatest of librettists, but he did not come into his own until the 1940’s. This has caused much of his earlier work to pale by comparison. So while many of the Kern and Hammerstein songs are gems, their shows, excluding Show Boat, are seldom revived.
Yet Kern was in many ways a more congenial collaborator to Hammerstein than Rodgers later was. Kern was Hammerstein’s best friend. He was also more willing to experiment than Rodgers was, especially later in Rodgers’ career, and this willingness on Kern’s part was largely instrumental in making such major breakthroughs as the Princess Theatre shows and Show Boat.
In 1947, Hammerstein wrote an experimental play in Allegro, which did not fare as well as Hammerstein’s prior collaborations with Rodgers. The largest problem with this show was Rodgers’ score, which did not match Hammerstein’s dramatic experimentation. As great and versatile a composer as Rodgers was, Kern would probably have provided more suitable music.
Rodgers often spoke disparagingly in later life about his collaboration with Lorenz Hart. He attempted to minimize its significance, and focus instead on his successes with Hammerstein. But since Rodgers’ death, in 1979, many of these songs have been rediscovered. They constitute a significant part of the American Songbook.
As flexible as Rodgers was, for the majority of shows, in musically matching the dramatic program of Oscar Hammerstein, his songs with Hart may have been truer to his nature. For many of the Rodgers and Hart songs have a melancholy and emotional depth that is found less often in the composer’s later work. Rodgers probably had more in common with Lorenz Hart than he was willing to admit.
Nevertheless it says much about the talent and discipline of both Rodgers and Hammerstein that they succeeded so magnificently in their middle-aged collaboration. Both men had much at stake in the collaboration, and both were determined to make it work.
We have much to be grateful for in the work that resulted.