The Year of Tony Bennett marks the anniversary of the birth of the great American composer, Richard Rodgers, who was born on June 28, 1902 in New York City.
Over his remarkable career, Rodgers wrote more than 900 songs for 43 Broadway musicals. Between his partnership with Lorenz Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers was one of most important film and stage composers of the 20th century, writing actively from 1920 until 1979.
The son of a well-to-do German Jewish physician, Rodgers began playing piano at the age of six. He began his college studies at Columbia University, but transferred to the Institute of Musical Art (from which the Julliard School arose) in 1921.
Rodgers and Hart
He had met Lorenz Hart in 1919 and the two began writing songs immediately; one of their songs had its professional debut in 1919. In 1920, their first show, Poor Little Ritz Girl, opened on Broadway. By 1925, the pair had their first major breakthrough with The Garrick Gaieties, which introduced one of their most iconic songs, “Manhattan.”
As the Great Depression hit New York hard, the pair moved to Hollywood and wrote for a series of films. “Blue Moon” is one of their early songs written for the movies. The tune, with completely different lyrics, was sung in the 1934 movie Manhattan Melodrama. YouTube has this clip of the song:
In 1935, Rodgers and Hart returned to New York and wrote some of their best shows: Jumbo, Babes In Arms, The Boys From Syracuse and Pal Joey.
Their collaboration ended in 1943 with the death of Lorenz Hart.
Rodgers and Hammerstein
As Hart’s health began to decline, Rodgers had begun to work with Oscar Hammerstein. Their first show together, Oklahoma, opened in 1943 and changed the face of musical theater. With that production, the American musical, which had been characterized by songs and dances, glued together with snappy dialog and comedy, grew to be a fully integrated dramatic form. This was followed by a string of incredibly successful musicals: Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, as well as other less successful productions. They also wrote the very stirring music for the television series Victory At Sea.
Oscar Hammerstein passed away in 1960, with The Sound of Music being his last production. Rodgers continued to write for Broadway, including Do I Hear A Waltz? with Hammerstein protegé Stephen Sondheim and Two By Two with Martin Charnin.
Richard Rodgers died in New York on December 30, 1979.
The Legacy of Richard Rodgers
The legacy of Richard Rodgers continues on Broadway up to today. His daughter, Mary Rodgers Guettel, who passed away just two days ago on June 26, 2014, was a noted composer and author in her own right, writing Once Upon A Mattress and the young adult novel, Freaky Friday. She worked with Stephen Sondheim in the early part of his career as well.
Her son and Richard Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel, is a prominent young Broadway composer who wrote the beautiful 2005 musical The Light In The Piazza.
Richard Rodgers has been a major influence in the world of musical theater for nearly a century. His works, especially those with Oscar Hammerstein, are regularly produced throughout the world and likely will be for decades to come.