He Took Manhattan

Richard Rodgers
Richard Rodgers; drawing by David Levine

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…

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