We cain't say no to Rodgers
Broadway is alive with the sound of Richard Rodgers. The celebrated composer, who died in 1979, would have been 100 this year. Far from fading away, his work is being performed around the world. His show "South Pacific" (with partner Oscar Hammerstein II) is playing in London. Next spring, it will be joined by a revival of the team's "The Sound of Music," backed by British showman extraordinaire Andrew Lloyd Webber.Skip to next paragraph
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In New York, a new version of "Flower Drum Song" opened last night. It meant that, briefly, three Rodgers shows were lighting up Broadway marquees: "The Boys From Syracuse" (written with Lorenz Hart) is closing Oct. 20. "Oklahoma!" (with Hammerstein), which reopened in 2001, is going strong.
On top of these high-profile stagings have come numerous tributes by symphony orchestras, television specials, new books and recordings, and regional and amateur productions of Rodgers's work.
Serious scholars talk about his technique his brilliant use of simple devices such as ascending scales (as in the introduction to the song "Oklahoma!" or even more obviously in "Do Re Mi"). But the source of his many and varied melodies (he wrote more than 900 songs) is less clear.
"Where does genius come from? That's hard to say in any composer," says Geoffrey Block, the author of "The Richard Rodgers Reader," a compilation of essays on Rodgers, as well as a forthcoming biography of the tunesmith. "The people who study him see enormous quality to the work. I'm very impressed by how he's able to achieve such interesting songs out of very simple [melodies]. He reminds me a lot of [Franz] Schubert in that sense."
Most of the shows of Rodgers and his longtime lyricist partner Hammerstein are known worldwide through their movie versions. They include "Oklahoma!" "Carousel," "The King and I," and "The Sound of Music," the highest-grossing musical film ever.
What has emerged in this centennial year is the work that Rodgers did outside that famous partnership, including his musicals with lyricist Hart, such as "Babes in Arms," "On Your Toes," and "Pal Joey."
Hart was a witty New Yorker, whose clever and topical lyrics appealed to "the boys at Sardi's an urbane, sophisticated audience," says Meryle Secrest, author of "Somewhere for Me," a Rodgers biography published last year. In contrast, she says, Hammerstein "agonized" over his lyrics to make sure that ordinary middle Americans caught every bit of his meaning.
As popular as they are, Rodgers's songs may be underappreciated simply because they are so well known. People don't realize they come from him, Ms. Secrest says. She tells how Theodore Bikel, the original Captain Von Trapp in the stage version of "The Sound of Music," once greeted a visitor backstage. "Your number 'Edelweiss' was so great," the visitor said in a German-accented voice. "I had heard it before only in the original German." The trouble was, Rodgers had written the tune specifically for the show: It only sounded like an authentic Austrian folk song.