• Email
  • Print

He Took Manhattan

Early in Richard Rodgers’s career as a musical-theater composer, his rapid ascension on Broadway earned him an invitation to one of Elsa Maxwell’s masquerade balls. He was expected to wear a cheekily imaginative costume, and Rodgers came up with something appropriate. Looking exactly as he always would, conservatively attired in a dark business suit and tie, Rodgers went as Zeppo Marx—the Jazz Age icon of anonymity. A New York newspaper would later describe Rodgers as a person “like anybody else.” Indeed, despite the extravagant success of his music during most of the past century, he would always seem a figure of indeterminate identity, a man whose image is most striking for its extraordinary ordinariness.

June 28, 2002, marked the hundredth anniversary of Rodgers’s birth to a doctor and an amateur pianist in Jewish Harlem. It is the latest in a string of centennials of composers and other musicians whose work contributed substantially to twentieth-century American culture, including Duke Ellington (1999), Aaron Copland (2000), and Louis Armstrong (2001). Like those peers of his in jazz and concert music (and hybrids thereof, in Ellington’s case), our most celebrated composer of music for the theater is getting the full centennial treatment: new productions of his shows in New York and Los Angeles (including a much-praised restaging of Oklahoma! by the English National Theater, now on Broadway); tribute CDs; a PBS documentary; a gossipy new biography by Meryle Secrest (author of books on Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim), researched with the cooperation of Rodgers’s estate; and, to promote it all, a Web site (www.RR2002.com) designed with an on-line gift shop offering “Rodgers Centennial merchandise.”

The world would scarcely seem in need of a Richard Rodgers revival. The 1965 film version of The Sound of Music is not only one of the best-selling videos ever released, but a current box-office phenomenon as the backdrop for a kitchy sort of group karaoke; meanwhile, the other most-famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel, and The King and I) are running in perpetual rotation at numerous high school and summer theaters across the country. What we could always use is help in reconciling Rodgers—the composer “with the soul of a banker”—with the emotional depth and complexity of his best work, which is by no means his most popular. Meryle Secrest’s biography is of welcome use, then, for its portrayal of Rodgers as a man with dark, hidden passions, as well as one with a gift for producing unshakable melodies. His benign façade, that appearance as the Zeppo of American music, may have been a disguise after all.

Besides composing “My Funny Valentine” (with Lorenz Hart, his first important partner), “I Have Dreamed” (with Oscar Hammerstein II, his second), and dozens of other standards of American popular song (including a few written with lyricists such as Sondheim and Sheldon Harnick), Rodgers apparently drank too much, suffered bouts of depression so serious that he required hospitalization on occasion, and had a shadowy sex life (with the chorus girls in his shows, among others). That is, Rodgers was a lot like Hart—far more so than anyone, especially the former, would ever acknowledge. (Secrest leaves this parallel implicit.) A lyricist of exquisite sensitivity and wit, Lorenz Hart was also a notorious drunk, emotionally tortured, and a sexual enigma; the collaborators submitted to kindred demons. No wonder Rodgers found Hart discomforting, “a permanent source of irritation,” while they worked together to write bittersweet and wry popular masterpieces.

If Rodgers has had an uncertain place in the public consciousness, one reason is that he was never an artist in the romantic American mold, no rebel outcast following his vision to buck the status quo. Composing on demand, he would meet the dramatic needs of a show like manufacturing specs, and the results were geared for mass consumption. “This isn’t a question of sitting on the top of a hill and waiting for inspiration to strike,” he told an interviewer in the 1950s. “It’s work…. It’s my job.” He liked to collaborate and preferred to have a full set of lyrics ready to be set to music—a completed purchase order. Rodgers was a creative person who worked cooperatively and with exceptional powers of empathy and who did so with the fixated discipline of a piece worker.

Ever since Rodgers broke away from Hart in the early 1940s to write Oklahoma! with Hammerstein, it has been a truism of the American musical theater that there were essentially two Richard Rodgerses, the Rodgers “and Hart” and the Rodgers “and Hammerstein.” The point bears emphasis half a century later, if only to remind the generations overexposed to the Hammerstein musicals that the Hart era existed and as something other than Rodgers’s apprenticeship; it was nothing of the sort but, rather, the period of Rodgers’s most mature songwriting. (Compounding the matter, Hammerstein gets favored treatment in the publicity surrounding the Rodgers centennial, which is being supervised by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.) Anyone tempted to dismiss Richard Rodgers’s work as theme-park Americana, children’s music, or camp is likely thinking of the Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Hart, who was seven years older than Rodgers, prodded and inspired his junior partner nearly as much as he vexed him from the first years of their professional relationship, when they were laboring for a Theater Guild inconsequence of the 1920s called The Garrick Gaieties. As Secrest points out, Hart “insisted they write something of value for this frivolous undertaking.” Their contributions included an early “jazz opera” (The Joy Spreader long forgotten) and the song “Manhattan” (or “I’ll Take Manhattan”), a hummable little paean to amorous delusion that has endured for more than seventy-five years, through countless transformations in New York’s physical and social landscape. In more than five hundred songs written primarily for stage musicals and films, Rodgers and Hart brought the value of art to the realm of frivolity. Their legacy as collaborators is a body of (mostly) sophisticated, musically resourceful, emotionally probative, multidimensional songs written for otherwise artless and duly forgotten musicals: mournfully lyrical ballads such as “Blue Room” from The Girl Friend, “This Funny World” from Betsy, and “A Ship Without a Sail” from Heads Up!; and swinging provocations such as “You Took Advantage of Me” from Present Arms and “A Lady Must Live” from America’s Sweetheart, the last of which concluded, in 1931, “With my John and my Max, I can reach a climax/That’s proof positive that a lady must live.” Hammerstein was already prominent as coauthor with Jerome Kern of Showboat, which was revered as the first American musical with the formal integrity and grandeur of operetta. Yet Rodgers preferred Hart during most of their years of association and took pride in the venturesome modernity of the work they did together—particularly their mordant vernacular masterpiece, Pal Joey. Hammerstein “had always been part of a romantic, florid kind of theatre, more operetta than musical comedy, which was quite different from Larry’s and mine,” Rodgers wrote in his memoirs.

The notion that Rodgers’s move from Hart to Hammerstein was evolutionary, an act of progression, is pervasive but inaccurate. In his lucid and thorough biography of Lorenz Hart, Frederick Nolan recounts an anecdote that the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner used to tell. He and his partner Frederick Loewe were stuck in the dark with Hart during a wartime air-raid drill, a short while after Rodgers had teamed up with Hammerstein. Hart clicked through the channels on a radio, and Lerner could see his cigar glowing redder and redder as every station played a different song from Oklahoma!. “They knew what they had witnessed was the sight of a man made all too painfully aware of his own obsolescence,” Nolan writes. Well…Oklahoma! may have been an epiphany for Lerner and Loewe, who proceeded to devote their careers to writing Rodgers and Hammerstein emulations such as Camelot and My Fair Lady; but whatever pain Hart was suffering then, as ever, had sources even more insidious than “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” (He died soon after, in 1943.)

For all its triumphs as an integration of theater music, character, and dance, Oklahoma! was a show with vastly different aesthetic intentions than Hart’s signature work with Rodgers—affirming and sentimental, provincial and bright, rather than defiant, sexy, urban, and bleak. Just the right thing for a homefront audience several years into a vast war, Secrest points out, Oklahoma! spoke to “the need to believe in a brighter future.” Hart’s world was a place that makes fun of the things you strive for, laughs at the dreams you’re alive for. How could you feel obsolete, if life is a pointless joke?

Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein had little in common, except Richard Rodgers, and he was different with each of them. Rodgers held Hart in open contempt, berating him for his unconventional work habits and “morals.” (According to Secrest, he once told Diahann Carroll, when they were rehearsing No Strings, “You just can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to have written this score and not have to search all over the globe for that drunken little fag.”) Still, he seemed wholly attuned to Hart’s melancholy sensibility in their songs; the melodies ache as deeply as the lyrics. In fact, the music came first for most of the Rodgers and Hart songs (despite Rodgers’s preference for working the other way around). Performed as an instrumental, “My Funny Valentine” is no less poignant; nor, for that matter, is “Little Girl Blue,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” “You Are Too Beautiful,” or “Spring Is Here.” There are so many pieces of wracking beauty in the Rodgers and Hart catalog and they ring with such veracity that ultimately one wonders whose sensibility was whose. As Secrest shows us repeatedly, Rodgers kept his darker self concealed, releasing it only in the wrenching music he made with the partner he resented.

Working exclusively with Hammerstein from 1943 until the lyricist’s death in 1960, Rodgers achieved what Secrest calls “a new unanimity of tone.” Rodgers and Hammerstein, who had known each other since boyhood, were compatible spirits: assimilated New York Jews, buttoned-down, family men, gifted and compulsively disciplined. Gone was the personal conflict Rodgers had with Hart, along with a certain tension in the music. That loveless spring passed. June was bustin’ out all over. The grays and muted hues began to disappear from Rodgers’s musical palette, and the light tones brightened. Although his inner life remained troubled, Rodgers no longer had a collaborator eager to give it voice. Jerome Kern, Rodgers’s youthful idol, called his new music “condescending.”

Sensitive to charges of excessive sentimentality in his music with Hammerstein, Rodgers told an interviewer, “What’s wrong with ‘sweetness and light’?… I love satire but couldn’t write it.” He had evidently forgotten what he once could do; with Hart he had written one of the most piercing satires of romance ever set to notes, “I Wish I Were in Love Again” (“When love congeals it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals/the double-crossing of a pair of heels…”), as well as a serial murderer’s lament, “To Keep My Love Alive” (rhyming “mattress side” with “patricide”)—and, for Pal Joey, a scathing parody of the sort of mush he would make a specialty with Hammerstein, “Flower Garden of My Heart.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s career ballooned in accord with the rest of mainstream America during the postwar years. In the early 1950s, Secrest reminds us, they had four shows (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, and Me and Juliet) running on Broadway at once, and New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner made a proclamation for Rodgers and Hammerstein Week. Ed Sullivan devoted two consecutive hour-long programs to their music (with some Rodgers and Hart included). In 1954, a ninety-minute tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein aired simultaneously on all four television networks of the era (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Dumont)—a national event, accorded the same kind of attention as the McCarthy hearings and the World Series. Meanwhile, young people were beginning to reject what they saw as inflated artifice in the musical theater Rodgers and Hammerstein represented (and the generation which that theater represented), and they were turning to the simple, intimate, and earthy sounds of rock-and-roll and folk music. In 1956, Ed Sullivan’s star attraction was Elvis, who did not sing “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Richard Rodgers kept working. While he talked about Kern as a primary musical influence, his real role model was Lew Fields, a one-time vaudeville comedian who took up producing and built a theatrical empire in the first decades of the twentieth century, when Rodgers was knocking on doors, Fields’s among them. (Rodgers and Hart astutely chose Fields’s son Herbert to write the books to several of their early shows.) Unlike Hart, who called himself an artist and rationalized his erratic behavior as the product of a creative temperament, Rodgers saw honor and opportunity in business, and he flourished within its structure; even when he was composing, he always went to an office, where he worked from nine to five. Rodgers, once established with Hammerstein, built a theatrical and music publishing operation to surpass Fields’s, producing not only his own shows (on Broadway and in touring companies around the world), but musicals by others (including Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun) and straight dramas (such as Norman Krazna’s John Loves Mary). By 1953, Rodgers was chairman of the board of a conglomerate (based in a ten-room complex on Madison Avenue) with gross revenues of between $15 and 20 million.

During the rock era, popular musicians took to condemning business as corrupting—the Beatles gave away assets on principle when they formed their own company—and Richard Rodgers, the organization man of American musical theater, fell further into disfavor with young people who knew anything about him. Not only did he write the music on all those original-cast albums their mothers played around the house; he was a suit, man. Some of his colleagues in the Tin Pan Alley tradition were rediscovered from time to time; Harold Arlen came into vogue briefly (thanks to Barbara Streisand), as did Hoagy Carmichael (through Maria Muldaur), Kurt Weill (by way of Lou Reed), and others for varying periods. Not Rodgers. He was too tainted by the monolithic conformity of his success. Only recently in the hip-hop world have pop musicians again taken up moguldom with social impunity, founding their own companies, producing other artists, and diversifying beyond entertainment businesses for the same benefits (profit, freedom, power, esteem) that Lew Fields and Richard Rodgers sought.

He kept right on working until the last weeks before he died in December 1979. Rodgers had a new musical open in May of that year: I Remember Mama, a misguided affair cowritten by two dissimilar lyricists, Martin Charnin (of Annie) and Raymond Jessel (brought in when Charnin was fired) and starring Liv Ullmann (who could not sing a note), which closed after 108 performances. It was the only Richard Rodgers show I saw during his lifetime, so I am inclined to view it with proprietary lenience. I’ve always thought of it as a joli-laid work undervalued by critics expecting a Richard Rodgers musical. He was ravaged by cancer and no longer the Richard Rodgers anyone knew; the music he somehow mustered is simple, repetitive, and almost unbearably fragile. In its best moments (the ballads “You Could Not Please Me More” and “Ev’ry Day”), Rodgers’s final music had an unmannered delicacy all too rare in his big, famous shows.

Rodgers was dispirited by the course popular music had taken in his last years. He didn’t care much for rock and told a friend that his kind of musical theater was “over.” He had begun writing in the days of the Charleston, and I Remember Mama closed with Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” on the radio. Rodgers’s work endures more than twenty years after his death, of course, still split on the planes of his major partnerships. The beloved Hammerstein musicals will no doubt be running somewhere forever; being works of nostalgia from the beginning, they can never go out of date. As for the Rodgers and Hart songs, jazz musicians and singers have been rediscovering them for decades.

In the first week of September last year, I met an old colleague, the magazine writer Kristin White, at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel. We were both there to see Eric Comstock, the jazz-cabaret singer and pianist, who had recently recorded a CD of Rodgers and Hart songs. We had cocktails in the hotel lobby after the show, and Comstock joined us. Five days later, Kristin was on one of the flights out of Boston hijacked to New York. When I heard the news, I put on Comstock’s CD and listened to it through track number 11, an obscure tune from Lido Lady which no one had bothered recording before, called “What’s the Use?” It’s a funny, plaintive song about futility and confusion, written in 1926. Nothing I’ve heard since has seemed so perfect.

  • Email
  • Print