There are many well-known lyricists and composers, but only a few leave such a mark as Rodgers and Hammerstein. This duo produced nine musical plays during their partnership and caused a profound change in musical comedy. They set the standards that are followed to this day in musical history. They created the modern musical that we all know and love. Before they became Rodgers and Hammerstein, they were simply Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, both of New York City.
Hammerstein, born in 1895, was brought up in a theatrical family. His father was an “operatic impresario”, otherwise known as an opera director or manager. He built the Harlem Opera House(1888) and the Manhattan Opera House(1906) and also introduced many new singers to the US. From a very young age Hammerstein II committed to the theater even though his family discouraged him. As soon as he was old enough to have a job in his fathers theatrical business, he devoted himself to his duties and learned as much as he could about play production and the labors of the theater artist. Oscar eventually teamed up with author Otto Harbach and composer Vincent Youmans to produce Wildflower.
With help from Harbach, Hammerstein began to create professional material for Broadway. Through Otto Harbach, Hammerstein was led into collaboration with Jerome Kern for Sunday. He also worked with Herbert Stothart and George Gershwin on Song of the Flame, a very unsuccessful show. But despite the shows failure, it did lead Hammerstein to concentrate on creating operetta in order to integrate musical comedy with opera. With this in mind, he was able to achieve new standards for success in his career with his lyrics for The Wild Rose and The Desert Song. By 1927, after a few more productions, Hammerstein had achieved the technical skill that allowed him to provide a composer with a functional book and lyrics.
This was best shown in Showboat, the first modern American musical. Showboat was the first show that indicated Hammersteins great talent. Hammerstein was able to create a believable plot, situation,and characterization. At the forefront of this show was Hammersteins concern for the southern blacks. This show contributed commentary on racial prejudice which Hammerstein would continually do. This was a big step for the 1920s and a huge victory when the show was so widely appreciated.
Despite the promise indicated by Showboat, Hammerstein did not produce works of comparable success between 1928 and 1940. Some of his forgotten shows from that time are Free for All, Three Sisters, May Wine and several others. By 1941 it was apparent that except for Showboat, Hammerstein had not succeeded in creating a celebrated body of work outside the operetta form. Richard Rodgers , born in 1902, unlike Hammerstein, was not born into the theater, but his parents made sure he was cultured in the world of musical theater at a very early age. One of his earliest childhood memories was of his parents singing the full vocal scores from the latest musicals1.
By age six, Rodgers had taught himself to play piano and was then given piano lessons by his proud parents. They also encouraged him to make a career in music. Like Hammerstein, Rodgers devotion to the theater began early on in his life. Rodgers was especially influenced by Jerome Kerns shows and considered him a hero.
When Rodgers was nine, he began to compose melodies of his own and eventually learned how to write them too. At fourteen he produced his first two complete songs, “Campfire Days” and “The Auto Show Girl”. While still in high school, he wrote scores for two amateur shows, One Minute Please and Up State and Down, after which he was encouraged to find a lyricist and begin a professional song-producing arrangement. Rodgers found Lorenz Hart.
They met in 1918 and immediately hit it off. Both were very pleased with each others abilities and a creative union was made, as well as a close friendship. Their first show together was Fly with Me, which was performed for Columbia University. Broadway man Lew Fields saw the show and informed the duo that he intended to use some of their songs in his next Broadway musical, Poor Little Ritz Girl2 . Although only seven of the numbers were used, it brought Rodgers into the world of Broadway musicals.
Rodgers and Hart collaborated from 1918 to 1943 and produced twenty-seven stage musicals and eight motion picture scores. Almost all their work was successful and their chemistry as a creative team was paying off. In the late 1930s though, Hart and Rodgers grew apart because of emotional problems Hart was having. Eventually Hart walked out on Rodgers and died in 1943. Rodgers and Hammerstein finally met in the early 1940s.
Their first show was Oklahoma! which debut a success and began the series of smash hits for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their other shows were Carousel (1945), Allegro (1947), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), Me and Juliet (1953), Pipe Dream (1955), Flower Drum Song (1958), and The Sound of Music (1959). They also did the film, State Fair (1945), and the television musical, Cinderella (1957). The main reason Rodgers and Hammerstein were so successful and made such an impact on musical theater was that “…they formulated and demonstrated principles about their craft that elevated the popular musical stage from entertainment to art…”3 .
In other words, they raised the standards and expectations of the musical to more than just entertainment for the audience to enjoy, and made being a musical theater actor a skill and an art. The principles they created were as follows. First, they both agreed that the song served the play rather than vice-versa. This concept is what helps make a musical more believable. Second, Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were very sincere and honest. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein were romantics and saw nothing wrong with sweetness and simplicity.
Joseph Fields, a collaborator on Flower Drum Song, said that “Oscar really believed that love conquers all, that virtue triumphs, that dreams come true.”4 . Rodgers felt similarly. “Whats wrong with sweetness and light? Its been around for quite awhile. Even a cliche you know has a right to be true”5 This concept keeps people going back to see musicals, because no matter how tragic things are you can always find a ray of hope in a musical. For example, in The Sound of Music, the country is about to enter war, people are being arrested and there is tragedy everywhere, but the VanTrappes escape, which occurs to show that there is hope.
Finally, Rodgers and Hammerstein were sure to maintain a professional union between all members of a production team: producer, writer, composer, director, choreographer, actor, scenery etc. They proved that a takes team work to produce a show and that means collaboration from all sides at all times of a production. Hammerstein and Rodgers set the mold for the “sensitive relationship” between any group of collaborators through the way they worked together. Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized musical theater. They forged new levels of performance and also of production, that are now the standards for musicals in America.
Their success is rooted in their devotion to the theater, their ability to draw audiences in to their shows by making their shows believable yet sentimental and their ability to collaborate so well together. This is why their shows are still being performed in theaters all over the world. They are true fore fathers in American musical theater. Bibliography 1) The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, third ed.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 2) Fordin, Hugh. Getting to know him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II. New York: Ungar Pub.
Co., 1977. 3) Green, Stanley. Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book: a record of their works together and with other collaborators. New York: Lynn Farnol Group, 1980 4) Hyland, William. Richard Rodgers.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998 5) Kislan, Richard. The Musical. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1980. 6) Nolan, Frederick N. The Sound of their Music: the story of Rodgers and Hammerstein. New York: Walker, 1978