28 June 1902
New York, New York, United States
30 December 1979 (aged 77)
Richard Charles Rodgers (June 28, 1902, Arverne, Queens, New York City – December 30, 1979, New York City) was an American composer of the music for more than 900 songs and 40 Broadway musicals. He also composed music for films and television. He is best known 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 and Marvin Hamlisch are the only persons to have won an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, Tony Award, and Pulitzer Prize.
Life and career
Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Richard Rodgers was the son of Mortimer Rodgers, a prominent physician who had changed the family name from Rojazinsky, and Mamie Levy. Richard began playing the piano at age six. He attended P.S. 10, Townsend Harris Hall and DeWitt Clinton High School. Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Rodgers’s later collaborator 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 like Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, as well as by the operettas his parents took him to see on Broadway when he was a child.
Work with Hart
In 1919, Richard 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 premier until 1924.
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, including Dearest Enemy (1925), The Girl Friend (1926), Peggy-Ann (1926), A Connecticut Yankee (1927), and Present Arms (1928). Their 1920s shows produced standards such as “Here In My Arms”, “Mountain Greenery”, “Blue Room”, “My Heart Stood Still” and “You Took Advantage of Me.”
With the Depression in full swing during the first half of the 1930s, the team sought greener pastures in Hollywood. The hardworking Rodgers later regretted these relatively fallow years, but he and Hart did write a number of classic songs and film scores while out west, including Love Me Tonight (1932) (directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who would later direct Rodgers’ Oklahoma! on Broadway) which introduced three standards: “Lover”, “Mimi”, and “Isn’t It Romantic?.” Rodgers also wrote a melody for which Hart wrote three consecutive lyrics that did not fly. The fourth lyric resulted in one of their most famous songs, “Blue Moon.” Other film work includes the scores to The Phantom President (1932), starring George M. Cohan, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), starring Al Jolson, and, in a quick return after having left Hollywood, Mississippi (1935), starring Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields.
In 1935, they returned to Broadway and began writing with a vengeance, resulting in an almost unbroken string of hit shows that ended only with Hart’s death in 1943. Among the most notable are Jumbo (1935), On Your Toes (1936, which included the ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”, choreographed by George Balanchine), Babes In Arms (1937), I Married an Angel (1938), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940), and their last original work, By Jupiter (1942). Rodgers also contributed to the book on several of these shows.
Many of the songs from these shows are still sung and remembered, including “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”, “My Romance”, “Little Girl Blue”, “There’s a Small Hotel”, “Where or When”, “My Funny Valentine”, “The Lady Is a Tramp”, “Falling In Love With Love”, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”, and “Wait Till You See Her.”
Work with Hammerstein
His partnership with Hart coming to an end because of the latter’s declining health, Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he had previously written a number of songs (before ever working with Lorenz Hart). Their first musical, the groundbreaking hit, Oklahoma! (1943), marked the beginning of the most successful partnership in 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 work of art.
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, a Pulitzer Prize winner), 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 movie State Fair (1945) and a special TV production of Cinderella (1957).
Their collaboration produced many well-known songs, including “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’”, “People Will Say We’re In Love”, “If I Loved You”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, “It Might As Well Be Spring”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Getting To Know You”, “My Favorite Things”, “The Sound of Music”, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, “Do-Re-Mi”, and “Edelweiss”, Hammerstein’s last song.
Much of Rodgers’s work with both Hart and Hammerstein was orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett. Rodgers composed twelve themes which Bennett scored for the 26-episode World War II television documentary “Victory at Sea” (1952-53). This NBC production pioneered the “compilation documentary”—programming based on pre-existing footage—and was eventually broadcast in dozens of countries. Rodgers won an Emmy for the theme music for the ABC documentary Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years, scored by Eddie Sauter and Robert Emmett Dolan.
In 1950, Rodgers and Hammerstein received The Hundred Year Association of New York’s Gold Medal Award “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York.”
In 1954, Rodgers conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in excerpts from Victory at Sea, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and the Carousel Waltz for a special LP released by Columbia Records.
Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals earned a total of 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards.
After Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Rodgers wrote both words and music for his first new Broadway project No Strings (1962, which earned two Tony Awards). The show was a minor hit and featured perhaps his last great song, “The Sweetest Sounds.” He went on to work with lyricists Stephen Sondheim (protege of Hammerstein), Sheldon Harnick, and Martin Charnin, with uneven results.
At its 1978 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Rodgers its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.
Richard Rodgers died in 1979 at age 77 after surviving cancer of the jaw, a heart attack, and a laryngectomy.
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