Richard Rodgers – my favorite things

If you broke into "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" in the shower at dawn's early light or felt the urge to "Whistle a Happy Tune" on the way to work, remember to think of Richard Rodgers.

The composer of those songs would have been 100 years old today, and all over the world he's getting his due. Museums are honoring him. "Oklahoma!" is playing again on Broadway. "The Boys From Syracuse" opens there in July, and "Flower Drum Song" in October. And expect to hear lots of great Rodgers tunes on the programs at July 4th concerts.

He's hardly forgotten. Each year, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization authorizes more than 4,000 amateur and professional productions of the team's shows ("Oklahoma!" is the most popular). Singalongs to the movie version of "The Sound of Music" pop up around the world. Rodgers is even getting a posthumous star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has called Rodgers the greatest writer of melodies of the 20th century. "The partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein has not yet been equaled. It probably never will be," he told the newsletter of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

Everyone has a story or a memory about some Rodgers tune. Mine involves the "Soliloquy" from "Carousel." As a teen, I wandered around the house singing it over and over, memorizing every line of the seven-minute song for use as a tryout number for a school production. To this day, my sister still holds her hands to her ears, eyes wide with alarm, if I even hint at launching into what she refers to in disgust as "My Boy Bill."

According to Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers's partner for 17 years, "Soliloquy" was written in typical Rodgers and Hammerstein fashion: separately, with Hammerstein the poet sweating out the words and handing them off to Rodgers, from whom the music (keep in mind, "Soliloquy" includes eight separate melodic elements) seemed to just flow.

"We didn't write it together," Hammerstein once said. "I wrote [the lyrics] all out first, and it took me several weeks. Then, I gave it to [Rodgers], and two hours later he called me and said, 'I've got it.' I could have thrown a brick through the phone."

Rodgers was a prolific and talented tunesmith in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, creator of hummable melodies that stuck like a melted snow cone ("Help, save me from another chorus of 'Do Re Mi'!"). In all, he wrote more than 900 songs for 40 Broadway shows.

But he was also much more, a musical chameleon who could work in a wide variety of styles, grand and intimate, dramatic and subtle, complex and simple, to fit the characters, locales, and situations of each show. While the stories in these shows may become dated and politically incorrect, and Hammerstein's lyrics may be too saccharine for some, Rodgers's tunes are likely to live on indefinitely.

One thing the Rodgers retrospective is revealing to a wider audience is his early collaboration with lyricist Lorenz Hart in shows such as "Pal Joey" and "On Your Toes." Rodgers met Hart when Rodgers was 16 and already banging out tunes. Hart was 23. "I acquired in one afternoon a partner, a best friend – and a source of permanent irritation," Rodgers famously said. By 1926, they had six shows on Broadway and were earning the princely sum of $1,000 per week each.

Hart asked for time off in 1942 to vacation in Mexico and regain his failing health. The sophisticated New Yorker wasn't interested in the next project anyway, the job of converting the folk play "Green Grow the Lilacs" into a musical. Rodgers turned to Hammerstein, a well-known Broadway lyricist (he had written "Show Boat" in 1927 with Jerome Kern) who hadn't had a hit in years. The result was 1943's "Oklahoma!" The most famous team in American musical theater history had been joined.

* * *

On Monday a talented editor, Yvonne Zipp, takes over these Arts and Leisure pages. It's been a joy to be in the editor's chair the last four years. I expect to show up in these pages again in my next role, as a fulltime Monitor writer.

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