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Richard Rodgers:  A Defining Voice for the American Musical

June 28 marked the 100th birth anniversary of one of America's most popular and enduring theatrical composers of the 20th century. But all year long, the country has "been alive with the sound" of the music of Richard Rodgers on stage, in concert halls, museums and books. In this report, Robin Rupli has more about the man and the music that became the defining standard of America's indigenous art form: the Broadway musical.

In the middle part of the 20th century, when theatrical music was America's popular music, the music of Richard Rodgers became its defining voice. Rodgers wrote over 900 songs dozens of which are still today, recognizable standards, and 39 musicals an estimated 4,000 revivals of Rodgers musicals are produced around the world every year.

"Richard Rodgers astonishes people by virtue of the fact that he was two composers," said Bert Fink, Vice President of Public Relations for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in New York City. He said Rodgers' first songwriting collaboration with lyricist Lorenz Hart, in the 1920's and '30's, and then later with Oscar Hammerstein, II, up until Hammerstein's death in 1960, contributed to the composer's distinctive styles of creative output.

"So the fact that Richard Rodgers could work with two geniuses of the 20th century Hart, who was known as a dazzling wordsmith and word poet and lyricist, and Hammerstein, who really is the father of the modern musical, with his landmark productions of Showboat and Oklahoma, the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership that began with Oklahoma and included Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I and The Sound of Music, really redefined the American musical and redefined American popular culture after World War II," Mr. Fink said.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals were the first to be defined as musical plays, unlike earlier musical comedies, their shows told stories that made logical sense and transported audiences to such exotic locals as 19th century Siam, the islands of the South Pacific, Chinatown in San Francisco and Nazi-occupied Austria. But according to Meryle Secrest, whose book, Somewhere For Me, A Biography of Richard Rodgers was published earlier this year, Rodgers' universal appeal really comes down to the fact that he had an "astonishing gift for the unforgettable melody."

"The kind of melodies that he did write were so charming and so ingratiating and spoke to the dreams in all of us that one would have a happy life, and that dreams would come true and you'll see a stranger across a crowded room and fall in love instantly all these 'fairy tales for grown-ups' I call them," Ms. Secrest said.

"He was the spokesperson of the two men. We called him 'the mouth,'" Shirley Jones said. Actress and singer, Shirley Jones was discovered by Rodgers and Hammerstein when she was 18 years old and went on to star in two of their movies.

"He was a conductor, himself and of course played beautifully. And his music was very special to him and all of his shows, even if he had three shows running on Broadway at the same time, or even a road tour, he would show up, once a week, get everybody around the piano to make sure we were singing in tune and were singing the right time. He didn't like you playing with his music he didn't like the stylized version of his music, you had to sing it the way it was written," Ms. Jones said.

"You know, the best definition of art there is, is the expression of an emotion by means of a technique," Richard Rodgers said. He recorded several interviews in the 1950s. He talked about what his success had come to mean to him.

"I know that always I have not been able to take the success of the next show for granted. If you get up at bat enough you're going to strike out. It's very easy to fail. And I've always known that. Oklahoma didn't make me think for one second that we weren't vulnerable. My point is this: If you're reasonably rational and have any objectivity, you know that after you've had Oklahoma, State Fair, and Carousel in a row, this is a very good time to be cautious. This is why I say it would be foolhardy to sit back and say, 'Well, I wrote 'Some Enchanted Evening.' Therefore I must have another big hit in the next score. I mustn't anything of the kind," Mr. Rodgers said.

Richard Rodgers wrote many more unforgettable songs following that interview and continued to write up until his death from cancer in 1979. His last collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein, The Sound of Music became the most popular film musical of all time. Rodgers also wrote concert works, including Victory at Sea for the 1952 World War II documentary and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, a ballet that is performed in repertory in ballet companies throughout the world.

The Richard Rodgers centennial events taking place this year are far flung, says Rodgers and Hammerstein representative, Bert Fink. In addition to concerts and shows throughout the United States, there are celebrations taking place in countries that include Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Japan, Taiwan and Australia.

"The other thing that's been exciting for us is not only is Rodgers being celebrated across the map geographically, but he's being celebrated across the map artistically. Rodgers' songs have been embraced this year and re-discovered this year in the dance world, in the jazz world, in the rock and country world, television, museums, and of course, theater and Broadway. It's been remarkable," Mr. Fink said.

And on June 28, at the Gershwin Theater in New York City, where the new hit revival of Oklahoma! is now being presented, the stage was filled with a cavalcade of Broadway stars performing all day long in an event free and open to the public, singing the songs of Richard Rodgers in a loving tribute.