On October 27, New York City Center's annual Gala will celebrate the songbooks of Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. City Center has quite a history with the trio — with fabled productions such as Carousel (1957), which starred Barbara Cook as a heartbreaking Julie Jordan, and Pal Joey (1963), which offered Bob Fosse's louche, seedy turn in the title role. City Center's Encores! series has continued to honor the songwriters, presenting eight musicals that Rodgers wrote with either Hart, Hammerstein, or by himself. Here, Rodgers and Hammerstein president and City Center board member Ted Chapin answers the question: Why is Rodgers' music continually relevant and popular?
Richard Rodgers looked like a banker. Of course he lived at a time when men tended to wear suits and ties to work every day, but beyond that, he saw composing and managing his work as a job: the job he was destined to have. He turned out to be very, very good at that job. Here's what Alec Wilder said in his landmark book "American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950": "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. After spending weeks playing his songs, I am more than impressed: I am astonished."
Consistent excellence... inventiveness... sophistication. Strong words for a book that devotes chapters to George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter, among others. Add to that what Winthrop Sargeant said of Rodgers in a New Yorker profile: "The variety of his melodic invention, although it is now and then expressed in a traditional category, is probably greater than that of any other Broadway composer."
If it can be said that a composer of musical theatre and popular song is only as good as his or her lyricist, then Richard Rodgers was twice blessed. (Actually, more than that, as will be detailed later.) No other composer had two distinct careers, and with lyricists as different as Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Each seemed to tap into a different part of the endless reservoir of melodic invention that lurked within Richard Rodgers: with Lorenz Hart, there was a youthful, playful and even soulful series of great songs that occasionally appeared in great shows. With Oscar Hammerstein II, there was a maturity of theatrical craft, where the music was central to the overall drama, resulting in an astonishing collection of brilliant musicals. His work with Oscar Hammerstein showed what a great man of the theatre Rodgers was. It was the singularity of expression of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals that allowed them to lead Broadway into its golden age in the 1940s and 1950s.
And here's another remarkable aspect of Rodgers' career: the final third, which began after Oscar Hammerstein's death in 1960, lasted 19 years, longer than the 17 years with Hart and the 16 years with Hammerstein. While the consistency of his early output was not as much in evidence, there are gems to be found, in collaborations with a variety of first-class lyricists: Stephen Sondheim, Martin Charnin, Sheldon Harnick and, perhaps most surprisingly, himself. "Do I Hear A Waltz?", "Away From You," "I Do Not Know A Day I Did Not Love You" and "The Sweetest Sounds" are representative of this last part of his life.
For what may well be his final song, written for the musical version of I Remember Mama, Rodgers found a melancholy tune to go with Martin Charnin's lyrics about a mother realizing that her daughter has grown up and moved on: "Time, time, time — time to let go." I remember seeing Rodgers in the lower lounge of the Majestic Theater at a preview of that show and remarking to a friend who was with me that we were looking at a composer whose first show on Broadway had been in 1925, 54 years earlier.
For me, there is no better proof of the continued popularity of Richard Rodgers' works than simply looking around. The year after Rodgers died, his daughter Mary Rodgers called to ask whether I would be interested in talking to the families about possibly running "the office." That phone call began 30-plus years at an organization that now boasts a staff of more than 30 focusing on managing the shows, music, concerts, and movie and television adaptations of the Rodgers works. Most of the focus is on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, which continue to be loved the world over (NBC's phenomenal success last December with its live broadcast of The Sound of Music, which far surpassed anyone's wildest dreams, is a good indication that the work still lives on). You can catch their songs in movies and commercials, see their shows in venues large and small, and play any number of DVDs of the movie and television versions. When I took the job, I knew that part of the challenge would be to make certain the works and the songs stayed popular. What allowed us to meet that challenge is the simple fact that — as Alec Wilder wrote — the work is consistent, and of a very, very high caliber.