Their Songs Made the Hills Come Alive

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Ju­lia M. Klein


Richard Rodgers and Os­car Hammerstein II met cute at Columbia Univer­sity’s Var­sity Show. Hammerstein had helped write the mu­si­cal va­ri­ety show. Rodgers’s el­der brother, Morty Rodgers, a fra­ter­nity pal of Hammerstein’s, in­tro­duced the two af­ter­ward. Rodgers, not yet in col­lege, com­pli­mented Hammerstein. Two years later, for a    charity ben­e­fit, Hammerstein would write lyrics for three of Rodgers’s songs.

“So, twenty-four years be­fore their col­lab­o­ra­tion rev­o­lu­tion­ized Broad­way,” Pur­dum tells us in his en­gag­ing dual bi­og­ra­phy, “they had al­ready taken each other’s mea­sure and worked suc­cess­fully to­gether.”

“Some­thing Won­der­ful” ben­e­fits from the

Rodgers and Hammerstein each had wives named Dorothy who worked as in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tors.

co­op­er­a­tion of Rodgers & Hammerstein, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that con­trols the duo’s copy­rights. Pur­dum ex­plores the men’s oc­ca­sional ten­sions and per­sonal pec­ca­dil­loes in a lively, some­times gos­sipy nar­ra­tive. Over­all, how­ever, the book re­mains an un­abashedly ad­mir­ing trib­ute by an ad­mit­ted fan.

This sym­pa­thetic reap­praisal of the duo re­flects a larger cul­tural shift. Af­ter an undis­puted reign in the  ­€‚s and ’ƒ‚s, the team was over­shad­owed for a while by younger, edgier tal­ents — in­clud­ing Hammerstein’s sur­ro­gate son and pro­tégé, Stephen Sond­heim. “As the… tu­mult of the  ­‰‚s up­ended Amer­i­can so­ci­ety… the mu­si­cals that had once been hailed as pi­o­neer­ing and dar­ing would come to be seen in some crit­ics’ eyes as con­ven­tional, con­form­ist, pa­tron­iz­ing, pa­ter­nal­is­tic, ret­ro­grade,” Pur­dum writes.

But West End and Broad­way re­vivals of “Ok­la­homa!” “Carousel,” “South Pa­cific,” “The King and I” and even “The Sound of Mu­sic” — ac­cen­tu­at­ing the mu­si­cals’ darker, sex­ier and more dra­matic as­pects — have helped spark a re­newed ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Both Rodgers ( ­‚˜–š­) and Hammerstein ( œ­ƒ- ­‰‚) were born in New York City’s then-pros­per­ous Har­lem, the grand­sons of Euro­pean Jewish im­mi­grants. (Rodgers’s orig­i­nal fam­ily name was Ro­gozin­sky.) Pur­dum doesn’t dwell on this as­pect of their story — pos­si­bly be­cause, by both her­itage and choice, their real re­li­gion was mu­si­cal the­ater.

Hammerstein’s pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was “the most fa­mous the­atri­cal pro­ducer in Amer­ica, if not the world”; his fa­ther was a the­ater man­ager, and Hammerstein was stage-struck from child­hood on.

Mu­si­cal tal­ent runs in the Rodgers clan, from young Richard’s mother and pa­ter­nal aunt (his first pi­ano teacher) to his daugh­ter, Mary Rodgers (“Once Upon a Mat­tress”), and his grand­son, Adam Guet­tel (“Floyd Collins,” “The Light in the Pi­azza”). Rodgers him­self was a prodigy, com­pos­ing from a very young age.

Be­fore their col­lab­o­ra­tion, Rodgers and Hammerstein had had no­table, if un­even, ca­reers. The in­dis­putable high­light of Hammerstein’s career was “Show Boat” ( ­˜š), com­posed by Jerome Kern and based on Edna Fer­ber’s novel about show peo­ple on the Mis­sis­sippi River. It dealt with the charged sub­ject of racial prej­u­dice — a topic to which Hammerstein, an ar­dent lib­eral, would re­turn. (In the  ­ƒ‚s, Hammerstein’s ac­tivism would in­spire an FBI investigation and oblige him to de­fend his pa­tri­o­tism.)

For two decades, Rodgers worked with an­other Columbia grad, Lorenz Hart, pro­duc­ing a song cat­a­log “fizzy with the joys of the Jazz Age and  ­¨‚s es­capism.” Among their shows were “On Your Toes” ( ­¨‰), “The Boys From Syra­cuse” ( ­¨œ) and “Pal Joey” ( ­€‚).

Hart’s de­scent into al­co­holism com­pli­cated and cur­tailed their part­ner­ship. (Later, Rodgers, too, would be in­ca­pac­i­tated by de­pres­sion and al­co­holism.) At one point, the frus­trated Rodgers spoke to Hammerstein about his trou­bles with Hart. Hammerstein ad­vised Rodgers not to aban­don his song­writ­ing part­ner un­til he had to. “But if the time ever comes when he can­not func­tion, call me,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

That time came with “Ok­la­homa!” ( ­€¨), adapted from the play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which Rodgers and Hammerstein had separately ad­mired. When Hart saw the mu­si­cal, he de­clared, gen­er­ously, “I’ve never had a bet­ter evening in my life!” Pur­dum calls “Ok­la­homa!” “as rad­i­cal in its way as Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s ‘Hamilton’ would be more than seventy years later.” By in­te­grat­ing song, dance and se­ri­ous themes into its nar­ra­tive, the show set a new stan­dard for mu­si­cal the­ater.

Pars­ing early drafts of Hammerstein’s lyrics, Pur­dum shows how skill­fully he re­fined them. Typ­i­cally, Hammerstein, the more painstak­ing of the part­ners, would present a lyric to Rodgers, who was “pro­lific and light­ning fast.” James Mich­ener, whose linked short sto­ries in­spired “South Pa­cific” ( ­€­), said he be­lieved the pair “could make a great mu­si­cal out of three pages of the Bronx tele­phone directory.”

To the world, and in their tough busi­ness deal­ings, Rodgers and Hammerstein pre­sented, ac­cord­ing to Pur­dum, “an un­bro­ken public front of unity, har­mony, and calm.” But Pur­dum sug­gests they were not per­son­ally close, and each re­mained in­se­cure about the other’s ap­proval. “To the ends of their days,” he states in “Some­thing Won­der­ful,” “each main­tained that he’d never been sure whether the other re­ally liked him.”

Their fail­ings in­cluded a re­luc­tance to share credit and roy­al­ties with col­lab­o­ra­tors. Josh Lo­gan, who not only di­rected but co-wrote “South Pa­cific,” was among those short­changed, Pur­dum noted.

Rodgers and Hammerstein each had wives named Dorothy, and both women were in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tors. Hammerstein, who be­gan an a«air with his Dorothy when both were still mar­ried to oth­ers, was a gen­er­ally de­voted mate. Yet Pur­dum says he likely strayed at least once, with “a strik­ing show­girl” stage-named Tem­ple Texas, cast in the Rodgers and Hammerstein mu­si­cal “Pipe Dream” ( ­ƒƒ).

Rodgers, on the other hand, was “an in­cor­ri­gi­ble wom­an­izer with a girl­friend in al­most ev­ery show he pro­duced.” Shirley Jones, who played Lau­rey in the film ver­sion of “Ok­la­homa!” said the mid­dle-aged com­poser made a pass at her in his o¬ce. She turned him down and was grate­ful that he didn’t re­tal­i­ate.

Felled by cancer, Hammerstein died first, leav­ing Rodgers bereft and need­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal balm of work. One of his later col­lab­o­ra­tors was none other than Sond­heim, with whom he worked on “Do I Hear a Waltz?” ( ­‰ƒ)

In a Newsweek in­ter­view, the acer­bic Sond­heim would de­scribe Hammerstein as pos­sess­ing limited tal­ent and in­fi­nite soul — and Rodgers as hav­ing in­fi­nite tal­ent but limited soul. It was harsh judg­ment. Later, in a con­do­lence note, Sond­heim would tell Rodgers’s widow that, their di«er­ences not­with­stand­ing, “it was a priv­i­lege… merely to be around when such a com­poser was alive.”

“Some­thing Won­der­ful” beau­ti­fully cap­tures that same spirit.

Ju­lia M. Klein is the For­ward’s contributing book critic. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @Ju­li­aMKlein


GET­TING TO KNOW THEM: Richard Rodgers, left, and Os­car Hammerstein II. &

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