From veteran biographer Secrest (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1992, etc.), a serviceable portrait of the composer who was half of two of the American musical’s greatest teams.
Richard Rodgers (1902–79) played the piano by ear before he was in grade school, and in a Manhattan household filled with tense silences, music was the bond that knit together his cultivated Jewish family. When he was not yet 17, he teamed up with Lorenz Hart, whose tough, witty lyrics matched Rodgers’s warm, sparkling music to energize musical comedy in the 1920s and ’30s (A Connecticut Yankee, The Boys from Syracuse). Rodgers enjoyed a cushy, glamorous existence managed capably by his wife Dorothy, who tolerated his casual infidelities as the price for running all other aspects of their life. In the early ’40s, Rodgers finally split with the alcoholic and self-destructive Hart and joined Oscar Hammerstein to reach even greater commercial success with more serious (and often more sentimental) and carefully integrated musical plays. Secrest finds nothing new to say (understandably) about the revolutionary impact of Oklahoma! in 1943, but her work on Leonard Bernstein (1994) and Stephen Sondheim (1998) shows as she places Rodgers and Hammerstein within the context of American theater history, though tending to quote better-credentialed critics rather than offering her own opinions of shows like Carousel, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Making use of interviews with and memoirs by Rodgers’s family, friends, and colleagues, she limns a paradoxical personality: witty, gregarious, charming with professional contacts; yet frequently cold and critical, if not downright hostile, with wife and daughters.
From the golden boy knocking out songs in 15 minutes to the dying old man who kept working because it was the core of his being, Secrest is vivid in conveying Rodgers’s presence and his effect on those around him. If the wellsprings that powered his greatest songs remain mysterious, he might have preferred it that way.