Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II not only gave us The Sound of Music; they gave us the sound of music. For several decades, when Broadway was at the pulse of mainstream culture and musicals provided most of the popular music of the day, Rodgers & Hammerstein were at the forefront of this Golden Age. Indeed to this very day, the classic musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein — and the timeless songs they wrote for them — remain the epitome of the great American indigenous art form, musical theatre.
(July 12, 2016, would have marked Hammerstein's 121st birthday.)
10. "Ten Minutes Ago" from Cinderella
There have been numerous adaptations of the Cinderella story before and after Rodgers & Hammerstein tackled it with a television musical starring Julie Andrews in 1957, which itself has been revised and revived several times over with television and stage productions and, most recently, the current Broadway premiere. At its heart, though, this is a fairy tale, the quintessential romantic love story, and as such, no one could have scored it better than Rodgers & Hammerstein. "Ten Minutes Ago," the love theme from Cinderella, if you will, perfectly employs Richard Rodgers' gift for soaring melody and Oscar Hammerstein's talent for accessible poetry.
9. "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific
South Pacific's sweeping "Some Enchanted Evening" is another in Rodgers & Hammerstein's collection of love-at-first-sight ballads. Or perhaps "Some Enchanted Evening," in all its operatic majesty, is more of an anthem than a ballad. It has certainly insinuated itself into our culture. There's even a knock-knock joke: "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Sam and Janet." "Sam and Janet Who?" (singing) "Some Enchanted Evening."
8. "Oklahoma" from Oklahoma!
Rodgers & Hammerstein's groundbreaking first collaboration, Oklahoma!, set a new standard for book musicals, where the songs and dances were integral to the plot and character development. This goal was so fully realized in Oklahoma! that I could have selected any of its songs for this list. Ultimately, I chose the title number because of its irresistible verve, which is the perfect embodiment of the uniquely American pioneering spirit.
7. "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music is another show, like most Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, where any one of its songs could stand up on a Top Ten list. "Do-Re-Mi" is noteworthy not only for its buoyant melody and mnemonically memorable lyrics, but because beyond serving as a method for Maria to teach music to the von Trapp children, "Do-Re-Mi" has literally taught music to generations of children around the world.
6. "I'm In Love with A Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific
Cynics may balk at the character Nellie Forbush's corniness "I'm In Love with A Wonderful Guy," but she calls herself out on it right there in the lyrics, proclaiming, "I'm as corny as Kansas in August." That's the point. The genius of the song is the opening verse ("I expect everyone of my crowd to make fun of my proud protestations of faith in romance"), which tells us Nellie knows she's being cheesy. It's not that she's dumb or ignorant — it's just that she's so much in love. If the actress can make the connection with that set-up, then we can go with her on the ride of her high in this peak experience, the honeymoon phase of a relationship at its most joyous, celebrated passionately with Rodgers & Hammerstein's peerless relish.
5. "What's the Use of Wond'rin" from Carousel
"What's the Use of Wond'rin" is a somewhat eclectic choice, given the other, more famous, songs from Carousel, but I'm in good company as it was included by no less than Stephen Sondheim on his list of songs he wishes he'd written. A lot of responsibility falls on this little ode, particularly in contemporary revivals of Carousel, as Julie must justify for the audience why she still loves the man who hit her. Rodgers' folky, plaintive tune and Hammerstein's conversational introspection perfectly capture not only the character of Julie, but a real kernel of humanity, as demonstrated beautifully in recordings by such diverse artists as Bernadette Peters and even punk cabaret superstar Amanda Palmer.
4. "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair
A multitude of changes have been made to the various stage and screen incarnations of State Fair since its debut as an original Hollywood musical in 1945, but one element that won't ever be altered is the inclusion of the first-rate song "It Might As Well Be Spring." A true standard of the Great American Songbook, "It Might As Well be Spring" has been covered by countless singers drawn to its rich music and evocative lyrics, both of which manage to be simultaneously moody and soaring, coolly jazzy and unabashedly emotional.
3. "If I Loved You" from Carousel
The complete 12-minute "If I Loved You" as it appears in Carousel (commonly referred to as the "bench scene") was another landmark achievement for Rodgers & Hammerstein in its extensive sequencing of continuous music and lyrics to play out a dramatic situation, a reinvention of opera for modern American storytelling. What sold this technique was the song at is core, a classic Oscar Hammerstein pretending-not-to-love-someone number (along the lines of "People Will Say We're In Love" from Oklahoma! or Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's "Make Believe" from Show Boat), set to one of Richard Rodgers' most lush melodies.
2. "Something Wonderful" from The King and I
"Something Wonderful" from The King and I may not be as well known as the songs, "Getting To Know You," "I Whistle A Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance," or as dramatically dynamic as the sophisticated soliloquies, "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?" and "A Puzzlement." Still, it's my single choice from The King and I because of the depth of feeling in Richard Rodgers' ethereal music and, particularly, in Oscar Hammerstein's exemplary words, which express tremendous empathy with effortless poetry.
1. "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound Of Music
Perhaps more than even any other Rodgers & Hammerstein song, "Climb Every Mountain" can run the risk of being seen as a cliché, a saccharine sentiment suitable for a Hallmark card. True, such bold, inspirational ideas as, "A dream that will need all the love you can give" can be syrupy and cloying in the wrong hands, particularly to the song's abundant exposure. We can take it for granted. But, of course, the song is so ubiquitous because of its quality and impact. When performed with heart and conviction, as it was recently by Audra McDonald in NBC's The Sound Of Music Live!, it is goosebump-inducing and impossible to resist. There's a reason Rodgers & Hammerstein gave this song to a nun; it is spiritual. The theatre is a temple and Rodgers & Hammerstein have given us a holy benediction.
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(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)