December 10, 2001


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A fulfilling biography of composer Richard Rodgers

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By John Hartl. John Hartl was a film critic for the Seattle Times for 35 years and has written for the Portland Tribune and Cinefantastique magazine
Published November 25, 2001

Three words from Richard Rodgers' early 1960s Broadway tune "The Sweetest Sounds" provide the downbeat title for this engrossing biography, which sets out to tell what author Meryle Secrest calls "a true story that no one knows." In the context of the song, which suggests a need to express things that are "still inside my head" or "waiting to be said," the longing for a place "somewhere for me" indicates an unfulfilled life.

Yet by any standard Rodgers must be counted one of the 20th Century's most successful and beloved artists whose abundant gift for melody was expressed in works as different as "Carousel" and "Victory at Sea" and "Pal Joey." It's that potential for contradiction that fascinates Secrest and leads her to look for signs of melancholy in Rodgers' professional relationships, his stoic upbringing, his lengthy marriage and his surprisingly spotty record for judging public taste.

Introduced as a child to the Viennese operetta tradition, Rodgers was 6 when he was taught how to play "Chopsticks" and found himself fitting it to "whatever song he wanted to play." He was writing semiprofessional musical revues by the time he was a teenager. He didn't finish high school but went straight to Columbia University because the school wanted him to write the Varsity show. In 1926, when he was 23, he had two hit shows running on Broadway.

Nevertheless, Rodgers soon acquired a habit of scowling during rehearsals, he was sometimes described as "a man with the soul of a banker," and at one point he was downing a bottle of vodka a day. The scowls could be so discouraging that Irving Berlin, troubled by Rodgers' facial reactions to an audition performance of "There's No Business Like Show Business," almost cut the song out of "Annie Get Your Gun."

He also appears to have been somewhat less popular than his life-of-the-party partner, Lorenz Hart, who drank even more, had a fondness for boys and disappeared from songwriting sessions for long stretches. Indeed, Secrest claims that in the late 1920s, Rodgers "was becoming a parent figure and Hart a disreputable and irresponsible adolescent." Rodgers' shipboard romance with his future bride, Dorothy, quickly cooled and nearly ended with Dorothy's terse telegram to him: " `Goodbye.' " Their relationship recovered, as Secrest demonstrates via a somewhat indulgent barrage of love letters (few of which are illuminating), but the marriage was rocky. Stephen Sondheim, who became an acquaintance of the family's as a teenager, thought Dorothy " `was genuinely an awful person,' " and Rodgers had many one-night stands with showgirls (Shirley Jones and Madeline Kahn managed to sidestep his attempted seductions). Their daughter Mary claimed that composing " `was the only thing he really enjoyed.' " Another daughter, Linda, thought " `[h]e had all he could do to take care of himself, and there wasn't much left over.' "

In the 1930s, Rodgers and Hart went to Hollywood, where they created one Depression classic ("Love Me Tonight"), then returned to even greater success on Broadway ("Babes in Arms"). By the early 1940s, the relationship between the disciplined composer and his increasingly absent lyricist became impossibly strained, and Rodgers began another partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II, creating a Broadway musical revolution with "Oklahoma!" as well as "Carousel."

Something essential may have been lost in that transition. A national news magazine's recent preview of the fall theater season erroneously referred to a revival of 1958's "Flower Drum Song" as a Rodgers and Hart musical. Perhaps the writer was wishing the lyrics had been written by the wittily elusive Hart rather than the more stolid and obvious Hammerstein, who actually provided the words for that show.

As one of Hart's buddies put it, Hammerstein " `wanted the material understood and appreciated in forty-eight states. Larry Hart was happy if two guys in Sardi's understood it.' " There will always be theater fans who prefer the earlier songs, even though they were less securely tied to the shows in which they first appeared.

Can anyone name which Rodgers and Hart collaborations introduced "Blue Moon," "Manhattan" or "10 Cents a Dance," which Jerome Kern praised as " `the best character sketch since "Camille" ' "? On the other hand, can anyone not identify the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that produced "My Favorite Things" and "Some Enchanted Evening"? Partly this is the difference between 1920s stage musicals, which had such flimsy plots that songs could be moved from one show to another, and 1940s/1950s Broadway blockbusters, in which the songs were largely plot-driven. But it also tells us something about the special qualities of Rodgers and Hart, who related to the dizzying 1920s and the Depression, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were more in tune with World War II and its aftermath.

The heaviness of the latter can inspire a reacquaintance with the former, and Secrest is at her best analyzing an early Rodgers and Hart hit tune, "Thou Swell," suggesting that the composer had "absorbed the rhythms of the jazz age" and learned to "twist them into new and provocative shapes." But she notes that critics such as Alec Wilder, author of "American Popular Song," found "something bordering on musical complacency" in the Hammerstein collaboration. Still, there is no denying the revolutionary impact of "Oklahoma!" when it made its debut in 1943, and Secrest does a superb job of explaining why. Even theater veterans often misunderstand its innovations, claiming it was the first Broadway musical to tackle serious themes ("Show Boat" had led the way 16 years before) or that it was the first to successfully blend song and story (several of Rodgers and Hart's shows had done that, notably "Pal Joey").

Secrest points out that what made "Oklahoma!" unique was "the extent to which song, dance, story, costumes, scenery, and lighting had coalesced into the kind of total theatre so often extolled in theory and so difficult to achieve in fact."

She also notes that raising money for "Oklahoma!" was nearly impossible, thanks in part to Hammerstein's string of 1930s box-office failures and the fact that the storyline seemed to strike everyone as a dismal idea.

Rodgers himself did not always recognize his best work. He insisted that his 1928 flop, "Chee Chee," represented a peak (" `I know we've done something fine at last' "), but critics hated the show and so did audiences. Moss Hart, another of his collaborators, thought he was insecure and could be easily persuaded that his work was lacking: " `One harsh look, and he completely believes his song is no good.' " Just like Irving Berlin, it would seem.

Hollywood's official celluloid portrait of Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, "Words and Music" (1948), includes no mention of Hart's boozing or homosexuality, or of the team's messy breakup, which did not truly end with Hart's death at 48. Rodgers battled Hart's relatives over Hart's will, generating considerable ill will, though years later he tried to apologize for his behavior.

Hammerstein was at a low point in his career when he and Rodgers got together, and their relationship was as strained in its way as Rodgers and Hart's. Secrest finds "a gulf between the two men that was never bridged," whether they were celebrating the success of "South Pacific" or dealing with the failure of such forgotten musicals as "Pipe Dream" and "Allegro."

Nevertheless, something about these partnerships flourished, allowing Rodgers to create what Secrest calls "the inevitable melody" for "If I Loved You," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Where or When" and so many other standards.

Rodgers' career never fully recovered from Hammerstein's death in 1960. He went on to create misguided musicals about Henry VIII and Noah, and he tried to mount a show about the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten, and his wife, Nefertiti, but nothing clicked. His collaborations with Sondheim and Alan Jay Lerner ended bitterly. Writer Peter Stone, working with Rodgers on one of these late-career shows, wondered " `how could beauty come out of this morass of anger?' "

It's a question that haunts this book.

Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune


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