RICHARD RODGERS composed his first songs at a summer camp, then wrote music for shows at Columbia University. A friend introduced him to a smart young lyric writer, Larry Hart, who shared his ambitious artistic goals. The two wrote several clever scores, but they attracted little attention and Rodgers seriously considered an offer to quit and sell children’s underwear.
They finally got their big break in 1925 with a small benefit show that won raves from the critics. For the next fifteen years Rodgers & Hart were one of the top teams on Broadway, writing 28 stage musicals and over 500 songs.
OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II was born into a show business family. His grandfather built theaters and opera houses, and his father managed the biggest vaudeville palace in Manhattan. The family wanted him to become a lawyer, but show business was in his blood and he quit law school to write lyrics for Broadway musicals.
Hammerstein had a huge hit with the groundbreaking 1927 musical Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern. But for years he wasn’t able to follow Show Boat with another hit, and by 1940, Hammerstein wondered if his time had passed.
IN THE EARLY ’40s a producing organization asked Rodgers and Hart to turn an old play about early-twentieth century farm folk and cowboys into a musical. Larry Hart, who was battling ill health and serious addictions, said no. He was a city boy and had no interest in rural “hicks.” With Hart’s blessing, Rodgers asked his old friend Oscar Hammerstein to step in. The show they created, Oklahoma!, was the biggest hit Broadway had ever seen, running for over five years at a time when even the most successful shows lasted only a season or two.
Now Rodgers & Hammerstein were Broadway’s musical kings. They wrote nine shows, five of which are among the greatest hits of all time: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. They also wrote a movie musical, State Fair, and a made-for-television musical, Cinderella, which aired live in 1957 and was seen by 107 million people—60 percent of the American population!
The Sound of Music was their last show, and “Edelweiss” their last song. Hammerstein died in 1960, a few months after the opening. Rodgers lived till 1979. He continued to compose—at first writing his own lyrics (including some for The Sound of Music movie), then working with other writers, including Oscar Hammerstein’s neighbor and protégé, Stephen Sondheim.
By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate