Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (Courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization)
They stand at the apex of the great age of songwriting, the creators of the classic Broadway musicals Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, whose songs have never lost their popularity or emotional power.
Even before they joined forces, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had written dozens of Broadway shows, but together they pioneered a new art form: the serious musical play. Their songs and dance sequences served to advance the drama and reveal character, creating a sharp break from the past and the template on which all future musicals would be built.
Todd S. Purdum, culture and politics writer for The Atlantic, explores these two men, their creative process, and their groundbreaking artistic and commercial innovations.
Though different in personality and often emotionally distant from each other, Rodgers and Hammerstein presented a unified front to the world and forged much more than a songwriting team: Their partnership was also one of the most profitable and powerful entertainment businesses of their era. They were cultural powerhouses whose work came to define postwar America on stage, screen, television, and radio.
Purdum is the author of Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution. He spent more than 20 years at the New York Times, including serving as a Washington correspondent and Los Angeles bureau chief.
9:30–10:45 a.m. Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
Between them, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew virtually everything there was to know about the theater, and by the time they teamed up, they were determined to forge a new kind of artistic endeavor. Both had had decades of successful collaborations with other partners before joining forces. Hammerstein’s breakthrough was Show Boat, written with Jerome Kern in 1927, Broadway’s first attempt to tell a serious dramatic story in song and dance. Rodgers’s shows with Lorenz Hart produced dozens of captivating Jazz Age songs that endure to this day, and charted new territory in their use of ballet and realistic character development.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Away We Go!
With Oklahoma!, their first collaboration, Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the musical theater in ways comparable to Hamilton’s impact today. They followed up this spectacular success with two comparably innovative productions: Carousel, whose lyric story of ill-fated love verges on grand opera, and Allegro, an examination of the price that success can take on personal integrity and creative energy. The comparative failure of Allegro made the collaborators wary of future experimentation, even as their empire grew.
12:15-1:15 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:15 p.m. Catastrophic Success
Beginning with South Pacific, a monster hit in 1949, the team would own and produce all their shows, with continued artistic and commercial successes, including The King and I and The Sound of Music. But they were so busy being Rodgers and Hammerstein that they also paid a price: They often lacked the time and mental and emotional focus to do their best creative work. It is perhaps no accident that their biggest flops came in the mid-1950s, when they were at the very height of their economic power, dominating Eisenhower-era popular culture from Broadway to Hollywood to television in ways that few, if any creative artists, have ever equaled.
2:30–4 p.m. Beyond Broadway
With the film of Oklahoma! in 1955, Rodgers and Hammerstein began to vastly expand their audience and their bank account—especially with the overwhelming global success of the film version of The Sound of Music. Because the big-screen transfers of many of their shows lacked the subtlety and artistic integrity of the stage originals, R&H developed a reputation as safe, stodgy purveyors of middlebrow entertainment, while a raft of sometimes-second-rate touring and amateur productions helped drain their musicals of their original impact. Not until the 1990s, when a new generation of theater artists began exploring their shows in fresh and exciting ways, would Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rightful, revolutionary critical reputations be restored.
Something Wonderful (Henry Holt & Co.) is available for sale and signing.
The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein continue to captivate contemporary audiences, and offer directors and actors ways of approaching the works with both a reverence for the original stagings and from new perspectives. Director Trevor Nunn’s 1998 Oklahoma! at London’s Royal National Theatre was hailed for infusing new energy into a traditional mounting of the classic musical. The just-opened Broadway transfer of an acclaimed and decidedly nontraditional take on Oklahoma! from director Daniel Fish darkens some of the show’s thematic elements in an immersive, highly naturalistic production. Performances of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” by Hugh Jackman and Damon Daunno exemplify the contrasting Curleys.