Portal Wisconsin presents a biographical sketch of a man who, 23 years after his death, has proven "easy to remember and hard to forget."
Richard Rodgers, born in New York City 100 years ago, stands as America's preeminent composer of Broadway musicals. Collaborating first with Lorenz Hart and then with Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers' career in the theater spanned six decades and saw the production of some 40 Broadway musicals. The list of Rodgers' standards--"Isn't It Romantic," "Thou Swell," "Where or When," "I Could Write A Book," "Some Enchanted Evening," "My Favorite Things"--is a durable testament to his remarkable gifts as a composer. "I remember every Richard Rodgers song I ever heard," says Rodgers biographer Meryle Secrest.
Something of a teenage prodigy, Rodgers had his first song published at age 15. After completing the score for his first full-length Broadway musical, the 17-year-old composer blithely departed for summer camp to work as a counselor. Despite these early successes, Rodgers contemplated leaving the theater before his 23rd birthday, calling the winter of 1924-25 "the most miserable period" of his life. "I was twenty-two and it all seemed to be falling apart," Rodgers remembered. He even contemplated leaving the theater for a $50-a-week position selling babies' underwear.
But what would a melodrama be without a happy ending? Six months later, Rodgers "was living the kind of life I'd always dreamed about." The musical revue "The Garrick Gaieties," with music by Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, was a Broadway sensation, spawning the hit song "Manhattan." Gaieties would set the stage, as it were, for the string of Rodgers and Hart hits that would follow.
Songs like "My Romance" and "My Funny Valentine" have long outlived the shows for which they were composed-"Jumbo" and "Babes in Arms," respectively. Despite their grander ambitions, Rodgers and Hart were rarely able to transcend the limits of slapdash musical comedy. "They weren't going to have musical comedies," notes Meryle Secrest. "There was going be a serious story told in a straightforward, extraordinarily experimental way. This was their goal in life, to produce something like this. What's ironic about it was Rodgers and Hart never quite did, whereas Rodgers and Hammerstein did it first time around."
That first time around was "Oklahoma!," Broadway's monster hit of 1943 and the standard by which all musicals would be judged for two decades. Following "Oklahoma!" with "Carousel," a show regarded by many critics as even more innovative than its predecessor, Rodgers and Hammerstein created a body of work unparalleled in the American musical theater. "I'm very convinced that what we've seen in the big Rodgers and Hammerstein shows is the true American opera," Secrest maintains. "I think that people are going to be watching those shows a hundred years from now."
This summer and fall, theater companies, symphony orchestras and vocalists across Wisconsin will present Richard Rodgers centenary events. The Racine Theatre Guild has created a special program entitled "A Grand Night For Singing." Says music director Gregory Berg, "What makes this particular program so intriguing is that it features plenty of favorites, like 'Shall we Dance' and 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,' but devotes comparable attention to more obscure songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's been a real eye-opener for the cast to be exposed to first-rate songs from shows like 'Allegro' and 'Me and Juliet'."
The Racine Symphony Orchestra will devote its entire summer season to the music of Richard Rodgers. For music director Alexander Platt, a Yale classmate of Rodgers' grandson, the centenary series is "a bit of a dream come true, for his music strikes a chord in me that is both personal and universally American. I'm very proud of the fact that this summer's Lakeside Pops Series will give a truly broad overview of Richard Rodgers' life and music."
Here is a list of Rodgers centenary events taking place around the state:
Also, watch "A Tribute to Richard Rodgers" on Wisconsin Public Television July 27 at 6:00 p.m. and "Rodgers and Hart" on August 3 at 6:00 p.m.