Richard Charles Rodgers (June 28, 1902 – December 30, 1979) was an American composer of music for more than 900 songs, 43 Broadway musicals, films, and television. Born into a prosperous ethnic German Jewish family in Arverne, Queens, New York City, Rodgers was the son of Dr. William Abrahams and Mamie (Levy) Rodgers. His father was prominent physician who had changed the family name from Abrahams. Richard began playing the piano at age six. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School and spent his early teenage summers at Camp Wigwam in Waterford, ME, where he composed some of his first songs.
Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein II all attended Columbia University. In 1921, Rodgers shifted his studies to the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard). Rodgers was influenced by composers such as Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, as well as by the operettas his parents took him to see on Broadway when he was a child. In 1919, Richard had met Lorenz Hart, thanks to Phillip Leavitt, a friend of Richard’s older brother. Rodgers and Hart struggled for years in the field of musical comedy, writing a number of amateur shows. They made their professional debut with the song “Any Old Place With You”, featured in the 1919 Broadway musical comedy A Lonely Romeo. Their first professional production was the 1920 Poor Little Ritz Girl. Their next professional show, The Melody Man, did not premiere until 1924.
When he was just out of college Rodgers worked as musical director for Lew Fields. Rodgers was considering quitting show business altogether to sell children’s underwear, when he and Hart finally broke through in 1925. They wrote the songs for a benefit show presented by the prestigious Theatre Guild, called The Garrick Gaieties, and the critics found the show fresh and delightful. Only meant to run one day, the Guild knew they had a success and allowed it to re-open later. The show’s biggest hit — the song that Rodgers believed “made” Rodgers and Hart — was “Manhattan.” The two were now a Broadway songwriting force. Throughout the rest of the decade, the duo wrote several hit shows for both Broadway and London. In 1930, Rodgers married Dorothy Belle Feiner. With the Depression in full swing during the first half of the 1930s, the team sought greener pastures in Hollywood. Rodgers and Hart did write a number of classic songs and film scores while out west, including Love Me Tonight (1932), which introduced three standards: “Lover”, “Mimi”, and “Isn’t It Romantic?”
In 1935, they returned to Broadway wrote an almost unbroken string of hit shows that ended only with Hart’s death in 1943. Among the most notable are is On Your Toes (1936) which included the ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” When Rodgers’s partnership with Hart began having problems because of the lyricist’s unreliability and declining health, Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he had previously written a number of songs, even before ever working with Lorenz Hart. Their first musical, the groundbreaking hit, Oklahoma! (1943), marked the beginning of the most successful partnership in American musical theatre history. Their work revolutionized the form. What was once a collection of songs, dances and comic turns held together by a tenuous plot became an integrated masterpiece.
The team went on to create four more hits that are among the most popular of all musicals and were each made into successful films: Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Other shows include the minor hit, Flower Drum Song (1958), as well as relative failures Allegro (1947), Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955). They also wrote the score to the film State Fair (1945). In addition, Rodgers composed themes for the orchestral score of the 26-episode World War II television documentary Victory at Sea (1952–53). After Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Rodgers wrote both words and music for his first new Broadway project No Strings (1962). Rodgers went on to work with lyricists Stephen Sondheim (Do I Hear A Waltz?); Martin Charnin (Two By Two and I Remember Mama); and Sheldon Harnick (Rex). Rodgers died in 1979 at age 77 after surviving cancer of the jaw, a heart attack, and a laryngectomy. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.
Richard Rodgers is best remembered for his songwriting partnerships with the lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. His compositions have had a significant impact on popular music down to the present day, and have an enduring broad appeal. Rodgers was the first person to win what are considered the top show business awards in television, recording, movies and Broadway—an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony—now known collectively as an EGOT. He has also won a Pulitzer Prize, making him one of two people (Marvin Hamlisch is the other) to receive each award. I have often said that just as we consider Johann Sebastian Bach to be the epitome of the Baroque Period and Wolfgang Mozart to be the epitome of the “Classical” Period, so hundreds of years from now, my personal opinion is that musicologists may consider Richard Rodgers as the epitome of twentieth century American music.
Some of Rodgers’s music that I have in my collection include the following:
Carousel (1945): The Carousel Waltz and Selections.
The King and I (1951): March of the Siamese Children.
Oklahoma (1943): Selections.
On Your Toes (1936): Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
The Sound of Music (1960): Medley.
South Pacific (1949): Selections.
State Fair (1945): It Might as Well Be Spring.
Victory at Sea (1952-1953): Suite No. 1 and Suite No. 2.