The following is from my book Not Fade Away (Pierian Press, 1984)
The musical theater had a truly mesmerizing effect on Richard Rodgers. As a boy he was happy only when he had saved up enough money to get into a Broadway matinee. At the age of fifteen he wrote his first musical—a World War I benefit staged by an amateur group—and two years later he enrolled at Columbia with no goal other than to write its varsity shows. His first submission was accepted (Oscar Hammerstein II was one of the student judges) and a second varsity show brought him into contact with Larry Hart. Sparked by the prospect of a career in the theater, Rodgers and Hart left college and began to haunt Broadway, where they managed to interpolate a song ("Any Old Place With You") in a show called A Lonely Romeo (it starred Lew Fields, who was half of the comedy team of Weber and Fields and father of lyricist Dorothy Fields). Then, in 1920, two more Rodgers and Hart originals were used in a show called Poor Little Ritz Girl.
But they were unable to follow up on these initial successes. Hart had to go back to translating German plays and Rodgers was about to become an underwear salesman when, in 1925, they were asked to do a semi-amateur show for Broadway's Theatre Guild. The result, The Garrick Gaieties, opened at the Garrick Theatre on May 17th, and by May 18th the phrase "Rodgers and Hart" was well on its way into the national lexicon.
But success was not enough. From this point on it was Rodgers' goal to uplift musical comedy—to turn it into the musical play. At first he and Hart did this by satirizing the weather-worn formulas of revues and operettas. In that first edition of The Garrick Gaieties one of their songs, "Sentimental Me," made fun of overly emotional love ballads while another, "Manhattan" (their first big hit), presented a sophisticate's answer to that simple- minded paean, "The Sidewalks of New York." This show also lampooned the Canadian mounties of the Rudolf Friml/Oscar Hammerstein operetta Rose Marie. Like Rodgers, Hart was anxious to upset the applecart. He was, in Rodgers' words, "violent on the subject of rhyming in songs, feeling that the public was capable of understanding better things than the current monosyllabic juxtaposition of 'slush' and 'mush.’” Rodgers had no such zeal regarding his music per se. He was not out to reinvent the popular song or to infuse it with any new brew such as jazz. But he was determined that the shows that he, Hart and librettist Herbert Fields (Lew Fields' son) were associated with would bring the musical theater nearer his sacred goal—the integration and interdependence of songs and plot.
Steadily, they moved in that direction. In 1926 there was Dearest Enemy which, in telling through words and music how a British general was strategically detained by an American lady during the Revolutionary War, went beyond the usual Broadway confection of mistaken identities. Their next opus, produced in the same year, was The Girl Friend, a show which dispensed with the obligatory opening chorus and told its story in the form of a Freudian dream fantasy—surprising stuff for the 1920s. Rodgers and Hart continued this type of derring-do for the rest of their partnership. In the mid-to-late 1930s, after an unpleasant stay in Hollywood, they wrote On Your Toes (the first Broadway musical to advance its plot via an extended ballet), Jumbo (which took place in a circus arena) and on through Pal Joey (the first to feature an anti-hero). In fact, Rodgers and Hart sometimes seemed to enjoy the prospect of doing a show only if it included some new first—an attitude which Rodgers later brought to his collaboration with Hammerstein (Carousel was the first in which the hero died; Allegro was the first to feature a Greek chorus; South Pacific was the first to deal with interracial romance, and so on). It will be noted that in the above discussion little has been said about Rodgers as a songwriter. It is a tribute to his success that his shows are often discussed as works in their own right and not simply as the packaging for his songs. With several notable exceptions (Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate, The Wizard of Oz) this cannot be said of the shows of any of his contemporaries. In recalling Gershwin's works, for example, one is much more likely to have heard of "A Foggy Day" than A Damsel in Distress, the film for which it was written. But Rodgers was happiest when he could put his melodies in service of the plot and characters of the show.
That being the case, one might expect that his songs would have less of a life outside the theater than did those of the other writers. Not so. Rodgers' songs are everywhere—radio, television, nightclubs, elevators—and he probably wrote more hit songs than anyone, including Irving Berlin. He and his lyricists were never so consumed by the needs of their shows as to write songs that would be unintelligible outside the theater. No Broadway score is better integrated than Carousel but none of that show's big songs - "If I Loved You," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" - refers to the names of the characters or to anything that would puzzle anyone unfamiliar with the plot of the play. This is one of the factors which separates such a show from opera. In Porgy and Bess, for instance, Gershwin had no qualms about indelibly marking some of its most important numbers with the proper names of its principals ("Bess You Is My Woman Now," "I Loves You Porgy"). But Rodgers, though willing to let his music do the bidding of the play, was even in his most ambitious moments attuned to the requirements of the wider pop song marketplace.
Though he was always sophisticated and sometimes brilliant in his use of harmony ("I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea") and rhythm ("Mountain Greenery," "This Can't Be Love"), it was melody that made up the lion's share of his musical gift. "Pure talent" was how Igor Stravinsky described this kind of ability and it is certain that Rodgers had a vast surplus of it. Analysts have tried to understand his methods, pointing out that many of his melodies are built on arpeggios of tonic and dominant chords ("Oh, What a Beautiful Morning") or the effective use of leading tones ("Bewitched," "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy"). He worked hard at his music. But he was very often—more often than most—inspired.
Another factor that helped him both on Broadway and on the radio was the essentially American sound of his music. In this case "American" is not synonymous with "jazz," for Rodgers was a less jazzy composer than Gershwin, Arlen or Berlin. But his music was always very American. Unlike Kern, who never completely abandoned his ties to European operetta, Rodgers always wrote music that was entirely indigenous—even when he was writing about Bali H'ai or edelweiss. But his America, especially in his later years, was the heartland, not the city. His best songs are full of breeziness and open air. An example is "A Wonderful Guy," from South Pacific. The chorus of this brisk waltz passes through a long succession of chords, all of them close relatives of one another—Rodgers rarely leapt into the harmonic unknown as did Kern—but because the changes are so frequent and because they almost always come on the downbeat, the piece really moves and dances. This is typical of Rodgers’ waltzes (Winthrop Sargeant called them "scherzos"), from "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (1935) to "Do I Hear a Waltz" (1965). They are not slow ballads like Berlin's waltzes. They are up-tempo and whirly, like the waltzes of Tchaikovsky, who was also at home and unbuttoned in three-quarter time. In fact, Rodgers could well have written The Waltz of the Flowers or the waltz from Eugene Onegin; and Tchaikovsky, conversely, could have written The Carousel Waltz. In a way, Rodgers was an American version of Tchaikovsky, for the emotionalism in the work of both men is very similar. Rodgers' melodies, especially those written to Hammerstein's lyrics, are often very touching (Irving Berlin once said that "You'll Never Walk Alone" was as affecting as the Twenty-Third Psalm). Carousel is the show most chock-full of melodies which bring a lump to the throat—“Soliloquy,” "What's the Use of Wondering," "If I Loved You" and the above-mentioned hymn. But so do "This Nearly Was Mine" from South Pacific, "Hello, Young Lovers" from The King and I and the title tune from The Sound of Music. There is religiousness in these and in many of Rodgers and Hammerstein's songs, a quality that had asserted itself in Rodgers' work with Hart ("Where or When," for instance), but less often. Theatergoers and the public at large responded to the directness of this kind of emotional appeal.
Rodgers, despite his prowess as a songwriter, was not a musician in the sense that Gershwin and Arlen were musicians. That is, music was never an end in itself with him. Between shows he could forget about composition entirely; nor did he play the piano for his own amusement: he was about as interested in composing music for his own pleasure as Houdini was in performing dangerous escapes away from an audience. A magician needs an audience and Rodgers was not interested in amusing himself. As it turned out, this conviction that "the play's the thing" was the source both of his long reign on Broadway and of his eventual decline and fall. His preoccupation with the Broadway musical as an art form certainly extended the length of his prime—for when the play was a good one he could rise to the occasion. But when the libretto was sub-standard, he was stranded—and that is how his decline began. It did not happen all at once, but with hindsight it is clear that the year of The King and I, 1951, was the last year of Rodgers' infallibility.
Being so much a theater man and so committed to theatrical innovation, his gift was dependent on a good story and on interesting characters. His music for the somewhat pretentious Allegro (of 1947) had not been nearly as good as what he had written for Carousel (1945) which preceded it, or for South Pacific (1949) which followed. Those two shows, having been artfully adapted from stories which had already been successful in other media, brought out his best. Allegro, on the other hand, was an original story by Hammerstein and it did not work. After The King and I (another adaptation), Hammerstein wrote a second original and equally unsuccessful play, Me and Juliet (1953) and Rodgers provided it with one of his least distinguished sets of tunes. The show's only hit was "No Other Love," a melody originally composed for Victory at Sea. The team then returned to the adaptation route. But by turning John Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday into Pipe Dream (1955), Hammerstein got himself involved in a plot and characters whose seediness did not suit him. Again, the poor libretto failed to spark Rodgers, a pattern which continued to the end of his life. Whenever the vehicle had life, so did his songs. This was certainly true of The Sound of Music (1959), which was immensely successful. But after Hammerstein's death in 1960 Rodgers spent almost two decades looking for a suitable project. He and playwright Samuel Taylor thought up their own story for No Strings (1962) but this tale of star-crossed lovers in Paris was hardly any story at all. Poor libretti plagued each succeeding project, from Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) through I Remember Mama (1979). The forward momentum on which he had always counted so much was gone.
Rodgers’ road as a composer was thus a tricky one. It was hard for him to remain true to the source of his original inspiration when that source, the innovative Broadway show, was, due to a scarcity of good libretti, closed to him. Yet it was impossible to make intricate music when he had little interest in doing so away from Broadway. After 1951 he continued to write lovely songs but, at best, they only intermittently achieved the heights of earlier days and even then they usually expressed ideas and emotions that he had already explored. For example, there is the very underrated score for Do I Hear a Waltz? which, besides the excellent title song, has a lot of Rodgers' old magic. There is "Someone Like You" (a ballad in which he seems to be paying homage to Kern), "What Do We Do? We Fly!" (an excellent comedy number), "Moon in My Window" (with its wonderful bridge), "We're Gonna Be All Right" (with its youthful Rodgers and Hart feel) and the equally catchy "Here We Are Again." But listening to this score back to back with Pal Joey or Oklahoma! is like playing Paul McCartney's Band on the Run after listening to Rubber Soul. Past their primes, the two men occasionally reached the heights they had attained in their youth, but the fullness of youthful creation eluded them (youth here being a relative term; McCartney was 23 at the time of Rubber Soul while Rodgers was 41 at the premiere of Oklahoma!).
Rodgers had opened 1962's No Strings with "The Sweetest Sounds," for which he wrote not only the music but these words:
"The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head."
It was the voice of a defiant man who, having had nearly four decades of success, did not see why he could not have four more. When I Remember Mama opened at The Majestic Theatre on May 31, 1979, just seven months before his death, Rodgers was still valiantly trying to keep that pledge.