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Yale University Press
Richard Rodgers

Richard Rodgers

by William G. HylandWilliam G. Hyland


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Richard Rodgers, a musical genius whose Broadway career spanned six successful decades, composed more than a thousand songs for the American stage. Although he reaped wealth, success, and recognition that included two shared Pulitzer Prizes, Rodgers found happiness elusive. In this first comprehensive biography of Rodgers, William G. Hyland tells the full story of the complex man and his incomparable music.

Hyland’s portrait of Rodgers (1902-79) begins with his childhood in an affluent Jewish family living in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. During college years at Columbia University and early work on the amateur circuit and Broadway, Rodgers entered into a historic collaboration with the lyricist Lorenz Hart. The team produced a dozen popular shows and such enduring songs as "The Lady Is a Tramp." Rodgers’ next partnership, with Oscar Hammerstein II, led to the creation of the musical play, a new and distinctively American art form. Beginning with Oklahoma! in 1943, this pair dominated Broadway for almost twenty years with a string of hits that remain beloved favorites: Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. When Hammerstein died in 1960, Rodgers began a new phase in his career, writing the lyrics to his own music, then joining lyricists Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick, and Martin Charnin. Despite periods of depression, excessive drinking, hypochondria, and devastating illness at different points in his life, Rodgers’ outpouring of music seemed little affected, and he continued to compose until his death at age seventy-seven. An icon of the musical theater, Rodgers left a legacy of timeless songs that audiences return to hear over and again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300071153
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/20/1998
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

William G. Hyland is former editor of the quarterly journal Foreign Affairs and author of The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    One Sunday in winter 1918-19 two young men from Columbia University took a jaunt along the Upper West Side of Manhattan to one of the stately brownstones on West 119th Street. They were greeted by a short, unshaven young man dressed in carpet slippers, tuxedo pants, a rumpled dress shirt, and a shabby robe. He invited the pair in, and shortly thereafter the younger of the two visitors, Richard Rodgers, sat down at an upright piano in the sitting room, where a Victrola had been blaring Jerome Kern's "Babes in the Wood." He ran through a few melodies that he had written while his host, Lorenz Hart, offered comments, including a spirited critique of the failings of the American musical theater. By the time Rodgers and his friend, Phillip Leavitt, bade farewell an hour later, the team of Rodgers and Hart had been born. For the next twenty-five years they would write some of the greatest melodies and lyrics of the American musical theater.

    Richard Charles Rodgers was the second son of Dr. William A. Rodgers and Mamie Levy Rodgers. Both the Rodgerses and the Levys were Russian Jews who had immigrated to America in 1860, well before the great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. The family of Dr. Rodgers' mother was French and had emigrated by way of Alsace. It was unusual for Jews to move freely within or to emigrate from Alsace, especially before 1871, when the area passed into the control of the Prussian Kingdom.

    Once in the United States, the Rogazinsky family (later to become Rodgers) settled briefly in Holden, Missouri, a rural area near Kansas City. Although this is the official family version of those early years, repeated by Rodgers and his biographers, no one seems to know why this unusual site was chosen. William, the father of Richard Rodgers, was born in Missouri in 1871, the oldest of eight children. A Jewish immigrant family in remote Holden must have been uncommon, because even in Kansas City there lived only a handful of Jewish families. (One of them, the Guettel family, reappeared in the life of the Rodgerses decades later when Henry Guettel married Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers' older daughter.)

    Some time after the birth of William Rodgers the family moved to New York. There, William's father, Abraham Rogazinsky, worked as a barber at the fashionable Delmonico's. Although his father died when William was young, William nevertheless managed to graduate from City College. By then the family name had been anglicized to Rodgers. William served as a customs officer to work his way through Bellevue Medical School. He graduated in 1895.

    The following year the new doctor met and married Mamie Levy, the daughter of Rachel Lewine and Jacob Levy, a well-to-do Jewish merchant. Like William's parents, Rachel's and Jacob's families had left their native Russia in 1860. (Jacob was sponsored by his brother Mayer Levy.) Before his marriage Jacob had boarded with the Lewine family on the Lower East Side. A job with Klingenstein Brothers, a garment supplier and manufacturer on Greene Street, eventually turned into a lucrative partnership for Levy. The Lewine family was also in business, and by the standard of the times, Rachel was well educated. Jacob and Rachel Levy had three children; Mamie, born in 1873, was the first of two daughters. Like her mother, Mamie was privileged to receive a good education, including private piano lessons.

    Mamie and William were married in November 1896. Following a brief honeymoon in Europe they returned to live with her parents at 816 Lexington Avenue, on the East Side of Manhattan, but far from the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side. In 1898 Mamie bore her first son, Mortimer, and four years later, on June 28, 1902, a second son, Richard Charles. Richard Rodgers' birthplace was a large house on Brandreth Avenue, Hammels Station, near Arverne, Long Island, where the family was enjoying a summer home rented by Jacob Levy. At that time prosperous Jewish families often summered in Long Island to escape the city heat.

    Rodgers and his family later moved to 3 West 120th Street, next to Mount Morris Park--oddly enough, near the homes of Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, his two future collaborators. The family of the future songwriter Frank Loesser also lived in this area. This elegant new neighborhood was still semirural and, unlike the tenements of the Lower East Side, offered residents separate five-story apartments. Eastern European Jews who were moving out of the ghetto made up a large percentage of the new arrivals. Then, as now, the area was known by its Dutch name, Harlem, and by 1900 it was the second largest Jewish settlement in New York.

    The Rodgers family did not make up a happy household. William and Mamie had made a mistake by moving in with her parents, an error that Mamie acknowledged years later. But she had been reluctant to cut the cord to her domineering mother, and the economics of being newlyweds probably recommended the decision. The couple's life was marred by constant conflict between Rodgers and his mother-in-law. Rachel Lewine Levy was apparently liberated, well read, highly opinionated, and free and strident in her commentaries, which embraced most known subjects. She disdained her husband's failure to overcome his native Russian accent, and she mocked his Orthodox Judaism. Her grandson referred to her as a know-it-all: if one wanted to learn some fact, one had only to ask grandma, Richard Rodgers commented in his later years.

    Sixty-five years later Rodgers recalled in his memoirs the atmosphere of conflict and tension in his family. What he described as sheer hell at dinner was obviously burned into his memory. Bickering, yelling, or unnatural silences were the norm. The situation left him with a "deep feeling of tension and insecurity," he wrote. Such references provide a fertile source for speculation about his psyche and whether his upbringing had any effect on his musical creativity. Rodgers often mused about whether his musical talents were the result of heredity or environment. Modern clinical research suggests that genes are probably the source of musical abilities. On the other hand, music was Rodgers' means of escape when he was young.

    Richard's relationships with each family member were relatively amicable. He was devoted to his father, a loving and attentive parent who played a "greater part" in his life than anyone else. In turn, his father doted on his successful son, carefully assembling scrapbooks of his achievements. He made no attempt to draw him into the medical profession, perhaps because the elder son, Mortimer, had decided to follow in his father's footsteps. William did offer Richard sound financial advice from time to time, but Richard's career choices were his own.

    Rodgers would fondly remember receiving an occasional pat on the cheek from his impeccably dressed grandfather, who loudly complained whenever young Richard asked to borrow his evening paper but nevertheless treated him well. His grandmother's brother, the feather merchant Samuel Lewine, split his residence between this house and his men's club. According to Rodgers, Uncle Sam, who died in 1913, added a touch of glamour to the quarrelsome household.

    Mamie Rodgers was small, shy, and constantly worried about her health--she passed on her hypochondriacal tendency to Rodgers. Although she would on rare occasions comfort her son by taking his hands in hers, displays of affection did not come easily to her--nor would they to her son when he became a father. Richard and Mortimer experienced the usual love-hate sibling rivalry. As the younger of the two, Richard was protected within the family, which left his older brother frustrated and belligerent. On the other hand, Richard was always being shooed away by Morty and his friends.

    Like many songwriters of his era, Richard Rodgers' first musical influence was his own home. His father was fond of singing the latest songs from the Broadway productions that he attended with his wife. He would bring home the vocal selections, and Mamie would accompany her husband on the piano, playing songs from Oscar Strauss' The Chocolate Soldier or Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. Richard Rodgers must have treasured these moments, for he kept the musical collections until the 1960s, when he donated them to the Juilliard School of Music. When Rodgers imitated his mother's playing he found that he could pick out the melodies and even supply some rudimentary harmony. His talent made him the darling of the household. The piano also was a source of pleasure at a time when he desperately needed it.

    Some claim that Richard could finger his way through a melody by the time he was three years old. Rodgers himself said only that he learned to play as a toddler. He was given some formal instruction by his aunt Tily Rodgers but did not enjoy such lessons; he claimed that they were a "dismal failure" because his natural ear for music led him to reproduce what he heard and to ignore the dreary printed exercises for young pianists. By the time he was nine he was spending much of his spare time at the piano; in his memoirs he wrote of the trauma of having to interrupt his playing for several months after undergoing surgery on an infected finger. He never reached George Gershwin's heights as a pianist, but he played as well as most of the songwriters of his era. Later, after he had achieved fame on Broadway, he took piano lessons and improved his playing significantly.

    His grandparents were fond of opera. His grandmother had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera, and his grandfather took him to various productions. Rodgers attended Carmen, saw a Diaghilev ballet, and heard Josef Hoffman play Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. It is possible that he was in the same audiences as the Gershwin brothers. His grandfather introduced him to musical shows as well. Richard remembered that his entire family attended Victor Herbert's Little Nemo--an operetta about a child's fantasy produced at the New Amsterdam Theater--the family having been treated to seats in an upper left-hand box. His grandfather also took him to see the well-known singer and comedian Ina Claire. Rodgers saw her at the beginning of her career in The Quaker Girl (which opened in October 1911), a popular British transplant with music by Lionel Monckton. By then the young man was concocting his own tunes.

    Rodgers remembered Harlem of the early 1900s as a pleasant area. Morris Park, with its imposing bell tower, was a "wonderful place." Families congregated on the stoops of the apartment buildings, as they had done in the evening on the Lower East Side, and children played in the streets. In early evening passersby could hear the refrains of "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage" being played on an upright piano, which was part of most households. Nearby was the Harlem Opera House, owned by Oscar Hammerstein I, where the entertainment might be Fanny Brice or Sophie Tucker. A block to the west, on Seventh Avenue, were neighborhood theaters that featured local versions of shows produced in the major theaters downtown.

    Rodgers began school at P.S. 10, at 117th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. He also took religious instruction at the imposing Temple Israel, which had moved from Fifth Avenue to Harlem as the Jewish population shifted. The Rodgers household was divided over religion: Jacob Levy was a religious man, but Rachel Levy was an avowed atheist and highly critical of her husband's devotion. Mortimer Rodgers was bar mitzvahed, but not Richard. One of Richard Rodgers' most vivid early memories was the death of his great-grandmother Rodgers, who lived several blocks away. He remembered her being carried out in a plain pine coffin for a hurried funeral. Her death marked the end of the observance of Orthodox Jewish customs in the Rodgers household. From then on, Richard, Mortimer, and their parents were Jewish for socioeconomic reasons rather than out of conviction.

    That Richard Rodgers would recall, at the very beginning of his memoirs, his great-grandmother's death and its religious significance for his family suggests his need to justify his own religious alienation. Richard became an atheist, and as a parent he resisted religious instruction for his children. According to his wife, Dorothy, he felt that religion was based on "fear" and contributed to "feelings of guilt."

    In spite of family feuds and religious conflicts, Rodgers seems to have had a normal, though not necessarily happy, childhood. He lived in a well-ordered household: the menu for each evening was prescribed by the day of the week, with no variations allowed: for example, pot roast was served only on Mondays. For Richard the bright spot was Sunday, when the family was treated to cold cuts from Pomerantz's delicatessen. During their summers on Long Island the family became acquainted with the family of Benjamin Feiner, a New York lawyer. Benjamin Feiner, Jr., was a patient of Dr. Rodgers, and Richard became his occasional playmate. The summer that Richard was seven he gazed on the Feiners' newest addition, a baby girl named Dorothy, his future wife.

    In 1914 his entire family moved to 161 West 86th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. This neighborhood was the site of the grand apartment complexes that originated with the construction of the famous Dakota. Among the well-known residents of the area were Florenz Ziegfeld and Arturo Toscanini, both of whom lived in the elegant new Ansonia, at Broadway and 73rd Street. Rodgers graduated from P.S. 166, on West 89th Street, in January 1916. The graduation program included a "Medley of Operas" performed as a piano solo by Richard Rodgers.

    Rodgers recalled the inspiration that he received from his elementary school music teacher, Elsa Katz, an attractive young woman who encouraged him to play at school functions. A would-be biographer who sought her out reported back to Rodgers that Elsa Katz did not remember him, though she would have been proud to take credit for his career. Rodgers took this news with good humor and still insisted on the importance of her encouragement.

    Richard enrolled at the prestigious Townsend Harris Hall, a high school reserved for talented young boys (Ira Gershwin and E. Y. "Yip" Harburg had attended a few years earlier, and Frank Loesser was to attend a few years later). Academic pursuits did not attract Rodgers, however, and he transferred to the more pedestrian De Witt Clinton High School, where Lorenz Hart had been a student.

    Summer camp was an important part of the lives of Jewish boys whose families could afford it, and campers formed friendships that would last well into their adult years. While still in elementary school Rodgers went to a summer camp sponsored by the Weingart Institute, a private grammar school. Alumni included Oscar Hammerstein II and his brother, Reggie, as well as Lorenz Hart, who edited the camp newspaper, Review. The camp catered mainly to well-to-do German-Jewish families. A camper who remembered the place from his youth noted that it was run along "strictly disciplinarian lines": the daily routine included bugle calls for reveille, personal as well as room inspection, and two hours of instruction every morning.

    Later Rodgers went to Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine, and then to Camp Paradox, on Lake Paradox in the Adirondacks. Lorenz Hart and his brother had spent two summers at Camp Wigwam several years before Rodgers. Other campers included the Selznick brothers, David and Myron; Herbert Sondheim, the future father of Stephen Sondheim; and the son of Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount studios. Although Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, and Loesser could have encountered one another at school, at camp, or in the neighborhood, their paths did not cross until they were adults.

    On Sunday evenings the campers put on variety shows. Hart (who arrived at camp with a footlocker full of books) once read from Hamlet, to the catcalls and Bronx cheers of his fellow campers. By the time Rodgers attended Wigwam he was so intrigued with music that he spent hours playing the piano rather than swimming and hiking. In 1916, Rodgers composed a song called "Campfire Days," which, despite the meandering melody, was not a bad effort for a fourteen-year-old.

    One of the camp's musical instructors was Arthur Loesser, a professional concert pianist and the half-brother of Frank Loesser. Arthur went on to write Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History. But Rodgers' musical mentor at camp was Robert K. Lippmann, a counselor who was only four years older than Rodgers and had some professional ability. Rodgers later acknowledged Lippmann's influence, though it is impossible to determine how he shaped Rodgers' development. During this time Lippmann wrote the music for a camp song, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and during his college days he collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein II on shows at Columbia University.

    By the time America entered into World War I, Rodgers' musical interests were solidifying, and he was attending Broadway musicals. After or even during successful runs, Broadway shows moved uptown, on the so-called subway circuit, to the theaters on the West Side. It was there, at the Standard Theater, that Rodgers first heard the music of Jerome Kern, an experience that changed his life.

    The performances of Kern's work that Rodgers eventually heard originated at the tiny Princess Theater, on West 39th Street. It was there that Kern, Guy Bolton, and P. G. Wodehouse inaugurated a series of intimate musicals. The first show, Nobody Home (1915), elicited no special critical reaction, but a later production, Very Good Eddie, was a comedy that Rodgers saw a number of times. It was a song from this show, "Babes in the Wood," that Hart was playing on his Victrola when he and Rodgers met. Commenting on Kern's Oh, Lady, Lady! Dorothy Parker wrote: "Bolton, and Wodehouse and Kern are my favorite indoor sport, anyway. I like the way they go about a musical comedy. I like the way that action slides casually into songs. I like the deft rhyming of the song that is always sung in the last act by two comedians and a comedienne. And oh, how I do like Jerome Kern's music." Kern later scoffed at some of the extravagant claims for the Princess series. Nevertheless, theater historians have concluded that these were the first truly cohesive musicals--they depended on plot and character rather than gags and slapstick, and they integrated the music and lyrics into the librettos. Kern's style during this period was simple and natural but had a touch of sophistication that set it apart from the routine output of other composers. Rodgers eventually saw all the Kern shows. Kern's music also persuaded George Gershwin to become a Broadway songwriter.

    Rodgers' musical talents were refined enough for him to realize that Kern's work was something different, not only in the music but in the entire staging. He did not copy Kern, but he did absorb some of Kern's style. The difference between them was that Kern's musical roots dated to the era of operettas, and his compositions reflected European traditions, whereas Rodgers was more influenced by the Jazz Age. Rodgers was also impressed by the appealing flavor imparted by Frank Saddler's innovative style of orchestration. The smaller pit orchestras, dictated by the economics of the Princess productions, gave the score a bright coloration by skillful use of only a few instruments, including the newly popular saxophone.

    By age fifteen Rodgers had decided that the musical theater was to be his profession, and he never wavered from this. The Kern shows made him realize that he was witnessing a historic moment in the American theater: "Somehow I knew it and wanted desperately to be a part of it."

    He got the opportunity he wanted in Columbia University's famous Varsity Shows. Even before becoming a student Rodgers had savored these musical revues, which were produced by the Columbia University Players. His brother, Mortimer, a student at Columbia, took him to the March 1917 production of Home, James at the Hotel Astor. Robert Lippmann, Richard's friend, had written the music for the show, which must have impressed Rodgers. There was no particular plot, and the characters had such names as Benny Dictine, but the show was well received by the audience, and the critics appreciated its youthful vigor.

    After the show Mortimer took his brother backstage to meet the law student who had written most of the libretto and had performed as a singing and dancing French waiter. His name was Oscar Hammerstein II. This encounter was historic for American musicals, but the meeting itself produced no notable memories--in fact, neither of the future partners could even recall what was said. Hammerstein would later claim in jest that Rodgers was in short pants and awed by an upperclassman. Rodgers denied this, insisting that he had already graduated to "longies." Rodgers probably was right--he was just a few months short of fifteen. Whatever transpired, that afternoon Richard Rodgers decided to attend Columbia University and to write a Varsity Show. He succeeded in doing both.

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