- - Wednesday, May 9, 2018


By Todd S. Purdum

Henry Holt, $32, 386 pages

Here is a book for this season. Rich in facts and civility, it reveals a pair of American icons whose disciplined talent, creative purpose and literal harmonies still variously inspire, comfort and entertain us. “Something Wonderful” may help you keep your head when all about you are going berserk in today’s maelstrom of ostentatious ignorance, partisan hostility and noise.

Todd S. Purdum, longtime newspaperman and then Vanity Fair and Politico sojourner, has written an informing double tribute to composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Celebrating their grand partnership, he examines its interior workings, glitzy ambience and enduring influence.

Proving his subjects’ output is the easy part. Rodgers composed the music for 40 plays, and the lasting popularity of his 900 songs makes him “the most played composer of any kind of music ever.” Mr. Purdum credits Hammerstein with writing 1,589 lyrics, many of them immortal. As for the pair’s perennial appeal, he notes that on one recent evening “In the United States alone there were 11 productions of ‘Carousel,’ 17 of ‘The King and I,’ 26 of ‘South Pacific,’ 63 of ‘Oklahoma!’ and 106 of ‘The Sound of Music.’”

Popularity aside, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s success was hugely financial too, thanks to their cut-throat business ethic and a brilliant lawyer/manager who nested their interests in drolly named companies, e.g., Surrey Enterprises (for “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”). Without getting deep into the corporate weeds, suffice it that they owned all their works entirely and in perpetuity, and split everything 50-50. Living, they earned more than sports icons today; posthumously their oeuvre still nets many millions, a legacy few jocks can boast.

Displaying copious research and broad expertise, Mr. Purdum explains the dynamics of lyrics and the anatomy of music. I hadn’t seen the art of word-smithing parsed as deftly since an academic’s lecture on John Keats’ serial rewrites of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

In “Oklahoma!” Mr. Purdum notes that Hammerstein adapted “a form of folk ballad, with verses in which the first two lines are each sung twice — in the manner of the turn-of-the-century ‘field hollers’ of farm workers that gave rise to the blues.”

In “The King and I,” Rodgers’ “technical trick was a liberal use of intervals of open fifths and their inverse, open fourths, for songs sung by the Asian characters an incomplete, unresolved, exotic sound while reserving more traditional diatonic melodies” for Caucasian roles.

In some ways the men were peas in a pod. Both grew up in Harlem, attended Columbia and married women named Dorothy. In other ways they were Mutt and Jeff. “Dick loved money more than anybody I’ve ever seen, except Oscar who was really stingy,” a colleague said. “Yet Oscar was the most lovable person I almost ever knew, and Dick really was not.” Rodgers was patrician and aloof; Hammerstein supported liberal causes and got harried by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for his pains.

Equally avaricious, they worked equally hard. “Rodgers was prolific and lightning fast — Noel Coward once said he could pee melody — while Hammerstein might labor for days or weeks over a single lyric before sending it off for Rodgers to write the tune.” Yes, they partnered in the reverse order of most songwriting teams: Words came before music.

Mr. Purdum calls them pioneers on several fronts. In terms of theater per se, a picture caption summarizes their inventiveness: “‘Oklahoma!’ (1943) was the first musical to fully integrate song, story and dance in the service of a realistic narrative and character development, revolutionizing the Broadway theater forever.” They broke barriers with multi-ethnic adventures in “The King and I,” and “Flower Drum Song,” even in the characterization of a conflicted hooker in their single flop, “Pipe Dreams.”

They flirted with sentimentality, and got away with it because their work was emotionally honest. But their lives were not idyllic. While both had lifelong marriages, they strayed from their Dorothys. Hammerstein dallied with a chorus girl engagingly named Temple Texas, and Rodgers was a known lothario. Having picked an ingnue less than half his age for a starring role, the 52-year-old “invited her into his office, closed the door, and made ‘a cold-blooded pass,’” as she later recalled. So Shirley Jones unmanned him, saying “she would always think of him as her father or, worse her grandfather.” No waiting around for #MeToo in those days.

Surprisingly, despite decades of collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein each said he did not know the other very well. Indeed, many of their relationships seem strained. Superstar Mary Martin’s contentious husband declared, “You know what’s wrong with you guys. All you care about is the show!” But while reading “Something Wonderful” — even with talking heads chattering in the background — I could not stop hearing and humming their happy tunes.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, Inc. in Bethesda Md., writes about history and American culture.

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