Sunday, November 18, 2001

By Meryle Secrest
Knopf, $30, 457 pages, illus.

Next June 28 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most celebrated, and surely the most performed, composers of the musical theater, Richard Rodgers. In two distinct collaborations, first with the ascerbic and sophisticated lyricist Lorenz Hart, followed by an even more successful partnership with sunnier, but no less innovative, Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers penned over 900 songs for more than 60 stage shows. Also on his resume are a few original film scores for Hollywood, a town and an industry that the native New Yorker could neither figure out nor abide.
Rodgers’ musicals are perpetually revived, in an estimated 4,000 or so productions every year. His tunes are a staple of cabarets, pops concerts and elevators, but their ubiquity is bound to increase next year in recognition of his centenary. The range of his work will be evident on his beloved Broadway, where Great Britain’s Royal National Theatre will present an acclaimed new production of “Oklahoma!” and a staunchly American revival of”The Boys From Syracuse” will be mounted by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
“Flower Drum Song,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lighthearted look at the Asian-American community, has been dusted off, given a more politically correct script by playwright David Henry Hwang, and was recently unveiled on the West Coast with the hope of wider viewing. In addition, a new streamlined version of Rodgers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific,” a romance set against a World War II Polynesian backdrop, is out on tour, benefiting from the rise in patriotism throughout the nation.
Yet if Rodgers music has seemingly always been with us from his first Broadway show “The Garrick Gaieties” in 1925, through to his final collaboration with Hammerstein, 1959’s sentimental “The Sound of Music,” to 1962’s “No Strings,” the only show for which he wrote both music and lyrics his personal history has long been shrouded in secrecy. Certainly there is little of this endlessly melodic songwriter’s dark side in his 1975 autobiography, “Musical Stages,” as fictional by omission as the wince-inducing, hokey film biography of Rodgers and Hart, “Words and Music” (1948), starring Mickey Rooney and Tom Drake.
Some of the details of the black cloud that hovered over the man whose music bombastically declared “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Climb Every Mountain” and “Whistle a Happy Tune” has been known within the theatrical community. But Rodgers’ alcoholism, hypochondria, womanizing and bouts of depression have now been captured in print for general public consumption in Meryle Secrest’s meticulously researched and sensitively written biography, “Somewhere For Me.”
Written with the cooperation of Rodgers’ two surviving daughters, who apparently now feel at ease lifting the curtain on an image of their father that was as rosy and fanciful as some of his musicals, the book is unblinking in its portrait, yet it never stoops to the tabloid sensationalism that the ironic revelations might have well lent themselves.
Hart’s chronic drinking, of course, had long been documented, and the author roams over this familiar ground with a touching delicacy. Indifferent to the public’s view of him, or perhaps simply unable to keep his own demons at bay, Hart would go on rowdy benders, often followed by disappearances for days at a time. Finally, on a booze-fueled night, he remained outside in the cold, developing a fatal case of pneumonia and dying in 1943 at the age of 48.
Like Rodgers’ career, “Somewhere For Me” splits neatly in two halves, and his music changed with his songwriting partners. His upbeat, infectious way with a tune was the perfect counterpoint for Hart’s brilliantly wise-guy lyrics. If most of the shows they wrote together have disappeared from our consciousness, many of the songs they contained “Blue Moon,” “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “Manhattan,” to name a few are genuine perennial standards.
As Hart’s health failed, his work habits grew more erratic and he rejected the notion of writing a musical about the cowboys and farmers of the Oklahoma territory, Rodgers began melding his music to the more open-hearted, optimistic words of Hammerstein. In so doing, it sent his melodies soaring even higher. Together they dominated the commercial musical theater in the ‘40s and ‘50s, gaining previously unheard of popularity and wealth, but not at the expense of pushing the bounds of this peculiarly American art form, turning it in the direction of musical drama.
Their songs may be irrepressibly buoyant, but they tackled such subjects as domestic abuse (“Carousel”), ethnic prejudice (“South Pacific”), East-West geopolitics (“The King and I”) and the rise of the Third Reich (“The Sound of Music”). More than memorable songs, it is the entire theatrical package that survives Rodgers and Hammerstein.
As she previously had in biographies of composers Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the author does an exhaustive job of interviewing and reporting, shedding light into previously unexplored corners of Rodgers’ life. Her weakness then as now is in the musicology, in the more difficult task of analyzing his work, digging into his creative process and offering a technical explanation of what set him apart besides the sheer number of shows, songs and successes. And if her emphasis is on the dark side of Rodgers’ personality, to the exclusion of his positive qualities as daughter Mary Rodgers Guettel now charges that can be excused for it being the more unexpected, newsworthy dimension of the man.
There is a fascination in the contrast between the seemingly effortless artistry of Rodgers and the man who was emotionally cold, highly phobic, increasingly dependent on liquor and, at one point in the mid-1950s, so depressed that he had to be hospitalized.
None of this, however, negates the quality of the work he left behind when Rodgers succumbed to cancer in 1979 at the age of 77. “Somewhere For Me” the title comes from his own chipper lyric from “No Strings’” “The Sweetest Sounds” humanizes Richard Rodgers, gives us a window into his soul and becomes an entry to a year of his richly deserved celebration.

Hap Erstein writes about the theater and the performing arts in Florida.

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