The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein

 

When the curtains rose on the Broadway premiere of Okalahoma in March, 1943, audiences got quite the surprise.

 

Instead of the usual army of glitzy dancing girls performing high-flying theatrics to a rousing Broadway overture, theatergoers were met by a mere solitary cowboy singing a quiet and simple phrase, “Oh, what a beautiful morning”,  as he crossed the flat, Oklahoma plains. This departure from the conventional over-the-top opening number  proved electric—so electric in fact, that Oscar Hammerstein would later say he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand right up on end.

 

Thus began the first offering from the newly formed partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II—a partnership that would reinvigorate both artists during the second half of their already notable careers and, in turn, revolutionize musical theatre forever.

 

The Early Years

 

Although both men had known each other for over two decades, having attended Columbia University together, Rodgers and Hammerstein each came to the new writing team as veterans of musical theatre partnerships. 

 

For twenty-four years, Rodgers had collaborated with lyricist Lorenz Hart on over 30 musicals including The Connecticut Yankee (1927, The Boys from Syracuse (1938), and Babes in Arms (1937). Although the shows themselves may not be memorable, individual songs from these productions like Blue Moon, Isn’t it Romantic, and The Lady is a Tramp are still considered American music standards.

 

By the early 1940’s, unfortunately, the team of Rodgers and Hart was at a crossroads. A notorious alcoholic, Hart was growing increasingly difficult to work with. His bouts of drunkenness were growing longer, and Rodgers often found himself having to chase his partner down and drag him back to work. The growing tension between the two  finally came to a head when the New York City Drama League approached the pair to adapt the novel Green Grow the Lilies into a musical. While Rodgers was eager to get to work, Hart refused to have anything to do with the project.

 

Frustrated, Rodgers approached his old school friend Oscar Hammerstein II—a choice initially questioned by some. Despite Hammerstein’s early successes with partner Jerome Kern on shows like Show Boat (1927) and Sweet Adeline (1929), he was in the midst of an eleven year slump that culminated with the death of Kern in the early 1940’s. At first, Hammerstein demurred, insisting he did not want to be responsible for breaking up the Rodgers and Hart partnership, and even offered to do the work anonymously and let Hart take the credit. Despite the generous offer, however, Hart remained adamant that he wanted nothing to do with the adaptation.

 

And so the writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein was born.

 

A New Approach - A New Kind of Musical

 

Sometimes revolutions aren’t borne out of intention, but rather as a result of process.

 

Rodgers and Hammerstein never set out to change how musicals were written, but a reversal of the writing process coupled with a new shared sensibility about their work did just that. When collaborating with Hart, Rodgers would provide the melodies first and Hart would then write lyrics to fit the music. The result, which was typical of musicals of that era, were plays in which the songs felt as if they were just inserted into the story rather than integrated into it.

 

For Oklahoma, Hammerstein insisted on reversing the traditional method. He considered himself a dramatist first and lyricist second, and so wanted to infuse his words with character and plot before sending them off to Rodgers to add the score. It was an inspired approach that produced the first American Musical in which the music, lyrics, and even the dance numbers were used to develop the characters and move the plot forward. It was such a revolutionary approach that it raised the bar for every writer of musical theatre who came after, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Hammerstein’s own protégée Stephen Sondheim. 

 

A String of Hits

 

Rodger’s collaboration with Lorenz Hart is now said to have produced shows with some of the greatest songs in American music while his collaboration with Hammerstein, on the other hand, is said to have produced some of the greatest musicals in American theatre. For the next fifteen years, the team would develop a show a year including such memorable titles as South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and Flower Drum Song (1958).

 

Shortly after their final collaboration, The Sound of Music, opened on Broadway in 1959, Oscar Hammerstein succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 65. Mourned in America and abroad, lights on Broadway and London’s West End were dimmed in recognition of the lyricist’s passing. Richard Rodgers would continue working for the next twenty years, but would never achieve the success he had enjoyed with Hart or Hammerstein. He died in 1979 at the age of 77.