Article abstract: In the course of his sixty-year career as a Broadway composer, Richard Rodgers helped to establish the prototype of the American musical.
Richard Rodgers was born in New York City at the dawn of the twentieth century. Tensions created by live-in grandparents and a competitive older brother were dispelled when Dr. William and Mamie Rodgers gathered the family around the Steinway to sing and play songs from current Broadway shows. It was here that Richard Rodgers received his first taste of the Broadway musical.
Rodgers started to play the piano at age four. Although he was given formal lessons, he was much happier picking out show tunes by ear. The family marveled at the boy’s achievements, and Rodgers quickly learned that music was a sure way of getting attention.
Rodgers had been stagestruck from his first visit to the theater. When he discovered the musicals of Jerome Kern, he quickly adopted Kern’s ideals as his own. Rodgers aspired to create a new form of American musical theater free from European stuffiness and grounded in a conscious attempt to relate songs to story.
Rodgers’ parents encouraged their son’s ambition to be a Broadway composer. When Rodgers attempted his first amateur score at the age of fifteen, his father and brother Mortimer helped with the lyrics and, through his father’s efforts, he got his first copyright on a song.
In order to pursue his career, he needed a lyric writer. When a mutual friend introduced him to Lorenz Hart, the professional attraction was immediate. They not only shared a disdain of the childish, old-fashioned quality of current musicals, but they also had a mutual hero in Kern. Hart’s eccentric, disheveled appearance and mercurial personality, however, were the antithesis of his new partner’s dependability and practicality. (Despite his boyish face and expressive eyes, Rodgers was known for his conservative habits and sober appearance.)
In 1919, Rodgers enrolled at Columbia University, primarily to be able to write the Varsity Show with his new partner. The team soon moved from amateur status to professional when Lew Fields, a respected Broadway producer, chose songs from two of the Varsity Shows for A Lonely Romeo (1919) and Poor Little Ritz Girl (1920).
Buoyed by the encouragement of his family and friends, Rodgers left Columbia after two years to study music at Juilliard. By 1925, however, in debt to his father and frustrated by his inability to get professional recognition on Broadway, the young composer nearly took a job in the garment business. An offer to write The Garrick Gaieties (1925) for the Theatre Guild, one of New York’s most prestigious producing organizations, became the unexpected opportunity that launched Rodgers and Hart’s career on Broadway.
Rodgers and Hart rapidly became one of Broadway’s most important songwriting teams. Between 1925 and 1930, they wrote fifteen full scores. Most were hits. Their greatest successes were shows in which they experimented with new subjects, ranging from the American Revolution to King Arthur’s court.
Rodgers married Dorothy Feiner in 1930 and, in the same year, signed a film contract and moved to Hollywood. Although he and Hart were challenged by their early work, they missed New York. Both returned to Manhattan soon after learning in the press that they had been all but forgotten on Broadway.
The late 1930’s were vintage years for Rodgers and Hart. On Your Toes (1936) was the first musical to incorporate a ballet into the story of a musical, The Boys from Syracuse (1938) was the first musical inspired by one of William Shakespeare’s plays, and Pal Joey (1940) was one of the first musicals that did not sugarcoat the disagreeable qualities of its characters.
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