For July, The Year of Tony Bennett honors one of America’s greatest Broadway songwriters, Richard Rodgers. Rodgers career as a Broadway composer spanned six decades, starting in 1919 and ending in 1979, with scores for 43 musicals. He is also one of the rare artists to achieve the EGOT: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award. In addition, he also won the Pulitzer Prize.
Richard Rodgers was born to wealthy Jewish family in Queens, New York, on June 28, 1902. He started piano at the age of six and attended public schools in New York. He entered Columbia University, which his future collaborators Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart also attended. However, he soon switch to the Institute of Musical Art, which became The Julliard School.
He met and started working with Lorenz Hart in 1919; that year they wrote the song “Any Old Place With You” for the 1919 Broadway musical comedy A Lonely Romeo. The following year, they contributed to their first professional production: Poor Little Ritz Girl with music by Sigmund Romberg. Their next professional show, The Melody Man, did not premiere until 1924. During that time, Rodgers was musical director for Lew Fields, father of lyricist Dorothy Fields.
The Rodgers and Hart partnership took off the late 1920s. While the productions they did aren’t very well-known, they were writing some of their best songs, including “Mountain Greenery,” “Manhattan,” and “You Took Advantage of Me.” By the 1930s, they were untouchable and the major hits rolled out: Jumbo, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms and The Boys from Syracuse. Hollywood also came calling. Songs during this period included “Blue Moon,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Where of When.”
By the 1940s, Hart’s alcoholism was starting to take its toll. They wrote only two shows: Pal Joey in 1940 and By Jupiter in 1942. Larry Hart died in 1943.
They had been working on a musical based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, though not much had been accomplished. It was then that Rodgers started the second major part of his career when he teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein and wrote what is now considered one of the first modern musicals: Oklahoma! Working with Hammerstein, they created a series of beloved American musicals including: Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, Cinderella and The Sound of Music.
The Sound of Music was their last show. Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960, the year after the opening on Broadway.
After Hammerstein’s death, Rodgers continued to work, including a production of Do I Hear a Waltz with Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim was a protegé of Hammerstein, who very much wanted Sondheim to work with Rodgers. Unfortunately, the two did not get along well, and by that time Rodgers was suffering from his own battles with alcoholism. He died on December 30, 1979.
Rodgers left an enormous legacy, having written on 900 songs for 43 different productions. His career covers the period of the light, fluffy Broadway musical comedies to the significant musicals, starting with Pal Joey and continuing with his work with Hammerstein; their work together tackled social themes ahead of their time. His daughter Mary Rodgers was an important influence on the American musical and wrote the score for Once Upon a Mattress. Her son, Adam Guettel is also a composer and won the Tony Award in 2005 for The Light in the Piazza.
I close with this quote from Alec Wilder, who wrote in his book American Popular Song:
Of all the writers whose songs are considered and examined in this book, those of Rodgers show the highest degree of consistent excellence, inventiveness, and sophistication…[A]fter spending weeks playing his songs, I am more than impressed and respectful: I am astonished.