- The Washington Times - Friday, November 23, 2001

This coming June is the centennial of the birth of Richard Rodgers, which is something to be thankful for. Not that the man was born almost 100 years ago, but that he was born at all. During the 77 years the composer lived and died in New York City, he was what you might call instrumental in the creation of one of the great national treasures: the American popular songbook.

This wealth of musical delight, enough 14-carat standards and undiscovered gems to fill Fort Knox, represents the life work of a handful of Americans, all of whom were born around the turn of the 20th century, and composed their signature songs between about 1920 and 1950. Besides Rodgers, this pantheon includes Jerome Kern (1885-1945), Irving Berlin (1888-1989), George Gershwin (1898-1937), Cole Porter (1891-1964) and Harold Arlen (1905-1986).

Winsome cabaret singers and some jazz musicians may continue to draw from the wise and wonderful works of these men to connect with smallish, vogue-ish audiences, but their names today tinkle just the faintest bells with most people Kern, perhaps for "Ol' Man River;" Berlin, lately, goodness knows, for "God Bless America;" Gershwin, for "Rhapsody in Blue" (maybe "Porgy and Bess"); Porter, for a revival of "Kiss Me Kate" (at least until it closes); and Arlen, whether people know it or not, for the still-beloved music from "The Wizard of Oz."

As for the rest of the major composers (in no particular order) Arthur Schwartz (1900-1984), Harry Warren (1893-1981), Vernon Duke (1903-1969), Richard Whiting (1891-1938), Burton Lane (1912-1997) and Jimmy Van Heusen (1913-1990) among them forget it. No "classic pop" stations devoted to their oeuvre; no CD compilations of their complete works. Theirs was a fragile popular art all but obliterated by the cultural blitzkrieg of rock 'n' roll.

By dint of a time-proof (not to mention box-office-proof) popularity, Richard Rodgers endures at least by reputation through Broadway classics written with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Among these are "Oklahoma!" "The King and I," "The Sound of Music," and other shows mostly produced after the golden age of popular song. Besides presenting an occasion to revisit this work, Rodgers' 100th birthday offers a timely opportunity to showcase earlier, "forgotten" collaborations with Lorenz Hart, a lyricist of both inexhaustible wit and poignancy. Such tunes include swinging "Mountain Greenery," tender "Little Girl Blue," exuberant "Lover," wised-up "It Never Entered My Mind" and the exquisitely bittersweet "Where's That Rainbow?"

Sounds like a job for the "keepers of the Rodgers flame." That's what the New York Times Magazine has dubbed Rodgers' daughters Mary Rodgers Guettel, 70, a composer who recently served as chairman of the board of Juilliard, the pre-eminent music school, and Linda Rodgers Emory, 66, a former social worker. No doubt the sisters are staging a birthday bash for Rodgers & Hart, along with Rodgers & Hammerstein or are they?

Not exactly. According to the magazine, the Rodgers sisters "have decided to make their father's centennial far less ceremonial than such affairs usually are by going public with the uncensored story of his personal life." Uh-oh. These ladies may have some of the most marvelous pop songs ever written stored away in their attic, but it looks like they've decided to take their father's centennial shot at posterity by spilling out the old linen.

Having cooperated in the production of a PBS documentary and a new biography, the sisters have willingly "presided over candid accounts" of their father's life. This life, it seems, included alcoholism, depression and womanizing dark chapters Rodgers and his wife kept closed to their daughters, by the ladies' own reckoning, until after they were adults. Whatever their motives, it's hard not to wish the daughters had opted for the "usual ceremonial affair" to mark their father's centennial. Americans old enough to remember Rodgers' buttoned-down persona may be surprised by the dirty details, but the rest of us are more likely to greet the "news" of yet another sadly flawed life with a somewhat disappointed yawn. If our age of full disclosure has contributed anything to the state of the human psyche, it is perhaps a numbness to full disclosure.

But not, one hopes, a numbness to a body of music that contains not only a haunting beauty and inventiveness, but also a range of emotion unheard in modern music. The Rodgers family may have nixed the chance to introduce 21st century America to a priceless share of its lost musical heritage, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to follow suit. Celebrate Richard Rodgers' birthday by listening to his music. (A fine place to start is with "Bobby Short Celebrates Rodgers & Hart.") And give thanks.


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