BY WARREN BOROSON
More of his music is performed today, one music critic has persuasively claimed, than the music of any other composer.
Even today, in 2013, he has a big hit on Broadway—“Cinderella,” a musical that he and Hammerstein wrote for TV in 1957. (Julie Andrews was the star.)
He wrote some 900 songs, among them “Ten Cents a Dance,” “Mimi” (Maurice Chevalier’s theme song), “There’s a Small Hotel,” and “Blue Moon.” His better-known songs include “Where Or When” (my favorite), “Some Enchanted Evening,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “If I Loved You,” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”
“I can pee melody,” the composer supposedly said.
Yet many people don’t know zilch about this amazing man, Richard Rodgers. For example, that he went to Juilliard. (To the Institute of Music and Art, which became Juilliard.) And that he had an “enemies’ list”—which included everyone from Ezio Pinza (who missed many performances of “South Pacific”) to Danny Kaye.
What may surprise people more than anything else is in what high regard music critics hold Richard Rodgers (1902-1979).
Alec Wilder, in his classic book, “American Popular Song” (1972), wrote: “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.” (Among the other composers considered in the book: Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern.) Curiously, Wilder didn’t care for “Some Enchanted Evening,” writing: “I find it pale and pompous and bland.”
In Geoffrey Block’s scholarly book, “Richard Rodgers” (2003), he concludes that “The end of Rodgers’s parade has not passed by. In fact, it is not yet in sight.” And at the book’s conclusion he writes: “Every day is Rodgers’s day, and he walks alone.”
The Mysterious Mr. Rodgers
He “left behind no legend,” writes Wilfred Sheed in his remarkable book about popular music, “The House That George [Gershwin] Built” (2007). His identity is “hard to pin down….” He seems “invisible.” A man “without friends or hobbies or any life at all.” Apart from creating wonderful musicals.
Sheed added that Rodgers seemed “permanently depressed and half-stoned.”
In fact, at one point he checked into a high-class psychiatric facility, Payne Whitney, where Marilyn Monroe and Mary McCarthy had sojourned, and stayed for three months.
Peggy Lee, the singer, did an unusual version of a great Rodgers song, “Lover.” His angry response: “I don't know why Peggy picked on me. She could have fucked up ‘Silent Night.’ ”
Liv Ullman, famous for her roles in Ingmar Bergman films, was chosen to star in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “I Remember Mama,” even though she had a godawful voice. In her autobiography, she writes:
“Could you please sing a little tune?,” Richard Rodgers asks politely. “It will make it so much easier for me when I compose your songs.”
“I don’t dare to.”
“Sooner or later you will have to sing anyway,” the old genius says mildly. “This is a musical.”
“Oh, please wait—I am so ashamed of my voice.”
“I have heard it all. Nothing would surprise me,” he comforts me. “Don’t be afraid. I just need to know your key. Sing anything. Sing ‘Happy Birthday to
You.’ The lovely man takes my hand and looks at me encouragingly.”
Before my eyes he ages 20 years.
LORENZ HART & HAMMERSTEIN
When Rodgers met Hart, at Columbia University, “…I was enchanted by this little man and his ideas. I left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.” (Hart’s work was unreliable—and he was frequently drunk.) Eventually, Rodgers replaced him with Hammerstein, and their first musical was the classic, “Oklahoma!”
Rodgers loathed that wretched film about him and Hart, “Words and Music.” Mickey Rooney played Hart, Tom Drake played Rodgers. Said Rodgers, “The only good thing about that picture was that they had [beautiful] Janet Leigh play my wife. And I found that highly acceptable.”
Sheed comments that Rooney played Hart as “a lovelorn dwarf, so perhaps it’s worth noting that offscreen Rooney himself married the likes of Ava Gardner and Martha Vickers, proving if nothing else that dwarfs and near-dwarfs don’t have to be lovelorn.”
As an example of Hart’s gifts as a lyricist, Sheed quotes this “immortal thought”: “I’d go to hell for ya, or Philadelphia.”
Many music lovers prefer Hart to Hammerstein, although the musicals Rodgers wrote with Hart are rarely revived.
Alec Wilder wrote: “Though he wrote great songs with Oscar Hammerstein II, it is my belief that his greatest melodic invention and pellucid freshness occurred during his years of collaboration with Lorenz Hart.”
Rodgers joining Hammerstein was, Sheed writes, “the artistic equivalent of moving to the suburbs….” He calls “The Sound of Music” “a festival of high camp,” and reports that Rodgers was “stunned” to find that later generations preferred his work with Hart to his work with Hammerstein. Sheed disdains Hammerstein’s “proudly corny words,” his “antiquated taste,” the “gorgeously inauthentic” effects in his musicals.
Block calls Hammerstein’s songs “perhaps overly optimistic, sentimental, and occasionally even ‘preachy.’”
Still, Sheed gives Hammerstein his due—he wrote some wonderful lyrics—and what he wrote with Rodgers has proved far more popular than his work with Hart.
On Broadway, apparently, wit cannot compete with sentiment.
Some Other Things You May Not Know
Nicol Williamson, the star of a rare Rodgers/Hammerstein failure, “Rex,” thought he heard the dancer Jim Litton say, during a curtain call, “That’s crap,” when he actually said, “That’s a wrap.” Williamson, a volatile fellow, slapped Litton on the bottom with a wooden sword. Williamson was actually the fifth choice for the starring role, Block reports. Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, and Rex Harrison had turned it down.
When Mary Martin expressed reluctance to sing with the powerful bass Ezio Pinza in “South Pacific,” Rodgers promised to write the score without a single duet for the two of them. (Though there was one.)
Another Rodgers and Hammerstein failure, “Two by Two,” involved Danny Kaye. At the time he had a leg injury and moved around in a wheelchair. To liven things up on stage, during performances he tried to run down other actors with his wheelchair, unzipped the dress of an actress, and goosed “other female cast members with his crutch….”
Hammerstein and Rodgers worked for a year on a musical based on Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” then gave up. Another team (Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner) turned it into “My Fair Lady.”
“Carousel” was Rodgers’s favorite.
The Times critic, Brooks Atkinson, called “Pal Joey” “odious—although it is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” A few years later, he changed his mind.
Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland were supposed to star in the musical version of “Carousel”—but, alas, it didn’t work out. Rodgers was disappointed with the actual film, which starred Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones.
Rodgers on the film, “South Pacific”: It was awful.
Some Enchanted Evening – Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin
Some Enchanted Evening – Paul Robeson
I’m Gonna Wash That Man – Reba McIntire
Where Or When? – Lena Horne
I Didn’t Know What Time It Was – Kiri Te Kanawa
You’ll Never Walk Alone – Kiri
If I Loved You – Mario Lanza
Lover – Deanna Durban
Johnny One-Note – Judy Garland
Mimi – Maurice Chevalier
Rodgers & Hammerstein on What’s My Line?