Richard Charles Rodgers (June 28, 1902 – December 30, 1979) was an American composer of music for more than 900 songs and for 43 Broadway musicals. He also composed music for films and television. He is best known for his songwriting partnerships with the lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. His compositions have had a significant impact on popular music down to the present day, and have an enduring broad appeal.
Rodgers is one of only two persons to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (known collectively as an EGOT), and a Pulitzer Prize (Marvin Hamlisch is the other).
Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Arverne, Queens, New York City, Rodgers was the son of Mamie Levy and of Dr. William Abrahams Rodgers, a prominent physician who had changed the family name from Abrahams. Richard began playing the piano at age six. He attended P.S. 10, Townsend Harris Hall and DeWitt Clinton High School. Rodgers spent his early teenage summers in Camp Wigwam (Waterford, ME) where he composed some of his first songs. Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Rodgers's later collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II all attended Columbia University. During his time at Columbia he became a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. In 1921, Rodgers shifted his studies to the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard). Rodgers was influenced by composers like Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, as well as by the operettas his parents took him to see on Broadway when he was a child.
Rodgers and Hart
In 1919, Richard met Lorenz Hart, thanks to Phillip Leavitt, a friend of Richard's older brother. Rodgers and Hart struggled for years in the field of musical comedy, writing a number of amateur shows. They made their professional debut with the song "Any Old Place With You", featured in the 1919 Broadway musical comedy A Lonely Romeo. Their first professional production was the 1920 Poor Little Ritz Girl. Their next professional show, The Melody Man, did not premiere until 1924.
When he was just out of college Rodgers worked as musical director for Lew Fields. Amongst the stars he accompanied were Nora Bayes and Fred Allen. Rodgers was considering quitting show business altogether to sell children's underwear, when he and Hart finally broke through in 1925. They wrote the songs for a benefit show presented by the prestigious Theatre Guild, called The Garrick Gaieties, and the critics found the show fresh and delightful. Only meant to run one day, the Guild knew they had a success and allowed it to re-open later. The show's biggest hit — the song that Rodgers believed "made" Rodgers and Hart — was "Manhattan". The two were now a Broadway songwriting force.
Throughout the rest of the decade, the duo wrote several hit shows for both Broadway and London, including Dearest Enemy (1925), The Girl Friend (1926), Peggy-Ann (1926), A Connecticut Yankee (1927), and Present Arms (1928). Their 1920s shows produced standards such as "Here in My Arms", "Mountain Greenery", "Blue Room", "My Heart Stood Still" and "You Took Advantage of Me".
Rodgers (left) and Irving Berlin circa 1960
With the Depression in full swing during the first half of the 1930s, the team sought greener pastures in Hollywood. The hardworking Rodgers later regretted these relatively fallow years, but he and Hart did write a number of classic songs and film scores while out west, including Love Me Tonight (1932) (directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who would later direct Rodgers' Oklahoma! on Broadway), which introduced three standards: "Lover", "Mimi", and "Isn't It Romantic?". Rodgers also wrote a melody for which Hart wrote three consecutive lyrics which either were cut, not recorded or not a hit. The fourth lyric resulted in one of their most famous songs, "Blue Moon". Other film work includes the scores to The Phantom President (1932), starring George M. Cohan, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933), starring Al Jolson, and, in a quick return after having left Hollywood, Mississippi (1935), starring Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields.
In 1935, they returned to Broadway and began writing with a vengeance, resulting in an almost unbroken string of hit shows that ended only with Hart's death in 1943. Among the most notable are Jumbo (1935), On Your Toes (1936, which included the ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue", choreographed by George Balanchine), Babes in Arms (1937), I Married an Angel (1938), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940), and their last original work, By Jupiter (1942). Rodgers also contributed to the book on several of these shows.
Many of the songs from these shows are still sung and remembered, including "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", "My Romance", "Little Girl Blue", "I'll Tell the Man in the Street", "There's a Small Hotel", "Where or When", "My Funny Valentine", "The Lady is a Tramp", "Falling in Love with Love", "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", and "Wait Till You See Her".
In 1939 he wrote the ballet Ghost Town for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with choreography by Marc Platoff .
Rodgers and Hammerstein
His partnership with Hart having problems because of the lyricist's unreliability and declining health, Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he had previously written a number of songs (before ever working with Lorenz Hart). Their first musical, the groundbreaking hit, Oklahoma! (1943), marked the beginning of the most successful partnership in American musical theatre history. Their work revolutionized the form. What was once a collection of songs, dances and comic turns held together by a tenuous plot became an integrated masterpiece.
The team went on to create four more hits that are among the most popular of all musicals and were each made into successful films: Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949, winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Other shows include the minor hit, Flower Drum Song (1958), as well as relative failures Allegro (1947), Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955). They also wrote the score to the film State Fair (1945) (which was remade in 1962 with Pat Boone), and a special TV musical of Cinderella (1957).
Their collaboration produced many well-known songs, including "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", "People Will Say We're in Love", "Oklahoma!" (which also became the state Oklahoma's state song), "If I Loved You", "You'll Never Walk Alone", "It Might as Well Be Spring", "Some Enchanted Evening", "Getting to Know You", "My Favorite Things", "The Sound of Music", "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", "Climb Ev'ry Mountain", "Do-Re-Mi", and "Edelweiss", Hammerstein's last song.
Much of Rodgers's work with both Hart and Hammerstein was orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett. Rodgers composed twelve themes, which Bennett scored for the 26-episode World War II television documentary Victory at Sea (1952–53). This NBC production pioneered the "compilation documentary"--programming based on pre-existing footage—and was eventually broadcast in dozens of countries. The melody of the popular song "No Other Love" was taken from one of the 'Victory at Sea' themes No Other Love (1953 song). Rodgers won an Emmy for the theme music for the ABC documentary Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years, scored by Eddie Sauter and Robert Emmett Dolan.
In 1950, Rodgers and Hammerstein received The Hundred Year Association of New York's Gold Medal Award "in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York."
In 1954, Rodgers conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in excerpts from Victory at Sea, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and the Carousel Waltz for a special LP released by Columbia Records.
Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals earned a total of 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards.
After Hammerstein's death in 1960, Rodgers wrote both words and music for his first new Broadway project No Strings (1962, which earned two Tony Awards). The show was a minor hit and featured perhaps his last great song, "The Sweetest Sounds". He went on to work with lyricists Stephen Sondheim (protege of Hammerstein), Sheldon Harnick, and Martin Charnin, with uneven results.
At its 1978 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Rodgers its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.
Rodgers died in 1979 at age 77 after surviving cancer of the jaw, a heart attack, and a laryngectomy. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea. In 1990, the 46th Street Theatre was renamed "The Richard Rodgers Theatre" in his memory. In 1999, Rodgers and Hart were each commemorated on United States postage stamps. 2002 was the centennial year of Rodgers's birth, celebrated worldwide with books, retrospectives, performances, new recordings of his music, and a Broadway revival of Oklahoma!. The BBC Proms that year devoted an entire evening to Rodgers' music including a concert performance of Oklahoma!
Several American schools are named after Richard Rodgers.
Alec Wilder wrote the following about Rodgers:
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.
In April 2009, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama met Queen Elizabeth II, for the first time at Buckingham Palace. The Obamas gave the queen a gift of an iPod and a rare songbook signed by Richard Rodgers.
In 1930, Rodgers married Dorothy Belle Feiner. Their daughter, Mary, is the composer of Once Upon a Mattress and an author of children's books. The Rodgers later lost a daughter at birth, but another daughter, Linda, was born in the 1930s. Rodgers' grandson, Adam Guettel, also a musical theatre composer, won Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Orchestrations for The Light in the Piazza in 2005. Peter Melnick, another grandson, is the composer of Adrift In Macao, which debuted at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2005 and was produced Off Broadway in 2007.
Shows with music by Rodgers
Hart as lyricist
Hammerstein as lyricist
Other lyricists and solo works
- The Internet Movie Database lists 276 film and TV soundtracks using songs by Rodgers, as well as 46 films and TV events that credit him as the composer.
In 1960, the saxophonist John Coltrane recorded a jazz version of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music whose rich modal improvisations proved seminal. The tune became a regular part of his repertoire.
The entry "Blue Moon" discusses in detail the extraordinary origins, subsequent history, and enduring popularity of the song. It is the only hit song by Rodgers not taken from a show or movie. The 1961 doo-wop arrangement by The Marcels so incensed Rodgers that he wanted to litigate. Hammerstein talked him out of it, arguing that the recording would ultimately increase royalties, which turned out to be the case.
The entry "You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Carousel) discusses in detail the many cover versions of this song, and its extraordinary popularity with professional soccer teams and their fans.
Jerry Lewis ends his Labor Day telethon by singing "You'll Never Walk Alone".
"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" from Oklahoma! is sometimes mistaken for a traditional folk song.
"Edelweiss", "Ländler" (Rodgers' adaption of a traditional Austrian folk dance tune), and "Do-Re-Mi", all from The Sound of Music, frequently go unrecognized as Rodgers' tunes.
"Happy Talk" is covered by Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair. Captain Sensible did a jaunty rendition in the 1980s, complete with burlesque organ. The British rapper Dizzee Rascal uses the chorus of this song.
Several professional awards in musical theater are named for Rodgers.
^ Hyland, William G: Richard Rodgers. Chapter 1. Yale University Press, 1998. http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/h/hyland-rodgers.html
^ Musical Stages: An Autobiography (2002 Reissue), Richard Rodgers, pp. 12,20-21,44, DaCapo Press, ISBN 0-306-81134-0
^ DANCE REVIEW; Rodgers As Ideal Dance Partner
^ Wilder, Alec, 1973. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 Oxford University Press: 163. ISBN 0-19-501445-6