From an incomparable partnership, musical theater rang out with ebullience, lyricism, and soaring melodies.
Composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) had worked with the lyricist Lorenz Hart before teaming up with Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) in 1942; Hammerstein already had decades of experience in theater, beginning in 1915 when he joined a university troupe as a writer and performer. As Politico senior writer Purdum (An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 2014) amply shows in his joyous, brisk, and gossipy dual biography, their partnership brought out the best in both men: from Hammerstein, lyrics of “shimmering loveliness.” His lyrics, Julie Andrews remarked with admiration, were “rich, brilliantly constructed and so very specific to the worlds they created together,” scored by Rodgers’ “melodically glorious” music. They worked independently but with uncanny synergy: Hammerstein wrote the words first, sending them to Rodgers, who composed with incredible speed. Once asked how long it took him to compose the entire score of Oklahoma!, he estimated “about five hours.” Purdum calls their creativity “alchemy,” which aptly describes the magic that resulted in some of the most iconic Broadway shows of the mid-20th century, including Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. The author traces the chronology of each show—even the lesser-known productions and the flops—from lighting upon an idea through developing a storyline, writing music, finding a director, hiring a cast (many young singers rose to stardom in the duo’s musicals), and assembling a team. Although they closely managed their productions, they depended on other talented participants, notably orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett; choreographers Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins; vocal arranger Trude Rittmann; and scenic designer Jo Mielziner. Aside from work, Rodgers and Hammerstein were not confidants, although they signed their correspondence “love.” Yet they revealed depths of emotion in music, as one friend put it, that “parses the grammar of the heart.”
An exuberant celebration of musical genius.