I don’t believe that a writer does something wonderful spontaneously. I believe it’s the result of years of living, of study, reading, his very personality and temperament. At one particular moment all these things come together and the artist ‘expresses’ himself. –Richard Rodgers
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Of all the songs Richard Rodgers wrote, first with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein II, few are more obscure than one of Rodgers & Hart’s earliest, Wasn’t It Great? Yet, as I surveyed the list of their far better known titles: Manhattan, My Heart Stood Still, Thou Swell, Blue Moon (their only one published as a popular song, not for a Broadway show or movie score) and hundreds more, no title seemed more fitting to remember his 113th birthday (June 28, 1902) than Wasn’t It Great?.
Richard Rodgers wasn’t just another songwriter coming of age in that dynamic era of social, cultural and artistic change known as the “Roaring Twenties.” When composer Rodgers and lyricist Hart first teamed up in 1919, American popular music was mostly “a thing of trite phrase and cliché, of cloying Victorian sentiment, a tired and hackneyed commodity” (to quote biographer Frederick Nolan). “Moreover,” as Hart said in a 1928 interview, “the old love song….of the then popular waltz was usually a quiet exemplification of innocent amatory music; but today the barbaric quality of jazz dance music demands expressions of love that are much more dynamic and physical.”
Over the evolving years, Rodgers composed songs for 42 Broadway musicals, of which 19 film versions were made. Even a partial list of shows is beyond impressive: THE GARRICK GAIETIES, SPRING IS HERE, LOVE ME TONIGHT, BABES IN ARMS, PAL JOEY, OKLAHOMA!, SOUTH PACIFIC, CAROUSEL, THE KING AND I, STATE FAIR (which included the 1946 Oscar-winning song It Might As Well Be Spring). As much as any composer from the 1920s to 1960s, Richard Rodgers WAS the Sound of Music.
It is especially worth noting that Rodgers accomplished all this despite the completely different styles and personalities of his two principal collaborators. Of Lorenz Hart (who died in 1943), Rodgers said, “Larry was much gayer and lighter than Oscar. He was inclined to be cynical, where Oscar never was. Oscar was more sentimental and so the music had to be more sentimental. It wouldn’t have been natural for Larry to write ‘Oklahoma!’ any more than it would have been natural for Oscar to write ‘Pal Joey’.”
And so I close with a Richard Rodgers song written with each collaborator (the first with lyrics by Hart):