A career in foreign policy with the Department of State and a long stint as editor of the influential quarterly Foreign Affairs might seem unusual qualifications to write a biography of Richard Rodgers, but William Hyland’s professional life has also included work in dance bands and an important book on American songwriters between 1900 and 1950. When he found that there was no modern biography of Rodgers, Hyland embarked on the research that led to this fascinating volume. His sprightly review of Rodgers’s life and times will evoke the Golden Age of American song, that period from 1920 to the mid-1950’s when such tunesmiths as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers created the musical standards that have become one of the enduring legacies of American popular culture.
Richard Rodgers had one of the most dazzling and successful lives of all these men. From the time he first began to work with Lorenz Hart around 1920 until the death of Oscar Hammerstein II in 1960, he produced a staggering array of memorable songs and successful shows. Rodgers had a talent for turning out sparkling melodies with speed and ease. The son of an upper-class Jewish family in New York City, he went to public schools and took extension courses at Columbia University before pursuing songwriting full time. From his early childhood, he showed obvious gifts as a songwriter, and he began composing tunes while still in his teens. In 1918, he formed a partnership with Lorenz (“Larry”) Hart. Their first big hit came in the “Garrick Gaieties” of 1925 with the song “Manhattan.” For the next two decades, Rodgers and Hart were one of the legendary musical teams in Broadway and Hollywood.
It was an unlikely pairing. The diminutive Hart had a large head and an undersized body that made him lovable to some and a figure of fun to others. His raffish lifestyle and ever-present cigar made him a difficult person to have around for many of Rodgers’s friends. When he could be persuaded to work, Hart turned out superb lyrics, but getting him to be on time and on hand was a constant chore for Rodgers. On the other hand, Rodgers was prompt, consistent, and a demanding taskmaster. His musical gifts gave him a facility at writing excellent songs with a speed that dazzled his contemporaries. He also had a shrewd business sense that produced a large personal fortune.
After an initial success in the mid-1920’s, Rodgers and Hart encountered a dry spell during the early 1930’s, when they wrote songs for Hollywood films. One Broadway commentator even asked in the early 1930’s: “Whatever happened to Rodgers and Hart?” Returning to Broadway in the middle of the decade, they began a string of successful productions such as On Your Toes (1936) and The Boys from Syracuse (1938). The songs that they produced during this period were among the best of their years together—“Little Girl Blue,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “My Romance.” Probably their most influential stage hit was “Pal Joey,” which advanced the concept of an integrated book and music to its most developed form up to that time. Few shows had a darker edge and a more unsparing portrayal of the underside of American culture. With Hart’s witty and poignant lyrics and Rodgers’s winning tunes, they put their stamp on a period of the American theater. They challenged their public by not repeating themselves or sticking to a formula.
By the early 1940’s, however, Hart’s alcoholism and homosexuality led to more and more erratic behavior on his part. For Rodgers, the pressures of getting the mercurial Hart to concentrate on their work became intolerable The resulting personal tensions caused the dissolution of their partnership after twenty-five years. Hart went into a personal tailspin and soon was drinking even more heavily. By the time Hart died of pneumonia in November, 1943, Rodgers and his new collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II had a smash hit on Broadway in the musical “Oklahoma!” Hammerstein had worked with such songwriters as Jerome Kern and Sigmund Romberg, but his own career needed a boost after a succession of flops.
Rodgers found that Hammerstein’s unabashed romanticism and simplicity suited his talents as well as had Hart’s more sophisticated style. Until Hammerstein’s death in 1960, the two men had a string of hit shows that made them household names across the United States. Their most popular productions were “South Pacific” (1949), “The King and I” (1951), and “The Sound of Music” (1959). In the years after World War II, before the advent of...
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