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.

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."

Beyond Hammerstein

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.

The same might be said for the tunes in "Oklahoma!" many of which sound as though they could be traditional American folk songs. One producer had given that show little chance on Broadway when it debuted in 1943: "No girls. No gags. No chance," he reported. But far from being corny and homespun, or a flop, "Oklahoma!" hit like a lightning bolt in 1943, combining drama, humor, action, dance, and song. This first collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein became "The Work That Changed the Form" of Broadway musicals, as one observer has called it.

Work first, family second

Rodgers came from a comfortable middle-class home and was trained in musical composition at what later became the Juilliard School. But despite his phenomenal success, and the image that he worked effortlessly (he is quoted as saying "It's easier to write a tune than to bend over and tie your shoelaces"), he seemed to suffer quietly for his art.

"He was a difficult man," Block says. "Depressed a lot.... He neglected his family – not financially, but emotionally. Basically the only thing that pleased him in life was working."

Yet "some things really did come easily to him," Block says. "And one of those things was melody.... He could write quickly and perfectly.... That's quite a gift."

In both "The Boys From Syracuse" and "Flower Drum Song," the book (spoken dialogue) has been rewritten and updated, characters added or subtracted. But the Rodgers songs have been almost completely left alone. Unfortunately, "Boys," with an updated book by Nicky Silver, never builds a head of steam and includes some forgettable dancing, though Rodgers's songs like "This Can't Be Love" still leave you humming.

"Flower Drum Song" is a different story: Tony-award-winning Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang has rewritten the plot in a refreshing, believable way. Instead of being a mail-order bride, young Mei-Li has escaped Mao's China and landed in San Francisco. Can she be 100 percent Chinese and 100 percent American, and find her true love, too? Hwang's interest in the search for cultural identity is in harmony with other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows such as "The King and I."

Not that serious issues take center stage. Mostly what's in evidence are technicolor costumes, scantily clad showgirls, a tender love story, and songs that touch the heart. Even numbers like "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "Chop Suey," whose lyrics express out-of-date gender and racial attitudes, are cleverly integrated by setting them in a nightclub, circa 1960.

Especially with Hammerstein, Rodgers wanted his work to have some serious point at its core. But it was always thickly layered over with entertainment. According to author Cleveland Amory, a prominent politician once told Rodgers, "You know what I really love about your shows? It's that they don't try to say anything."

"We do try to say something," Rodgers protested.

"That's just what I mean," the pol said. "But you do it so beautifully that nobody minds it."

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