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By Geoffrey Block
Yale University PressCopyright © 2003 Yale University
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Chapter OneFrom Apprentice to Musical Dramatist
Richard Rodgers shared a geographical and cultural background with his illustrious song- and show-writing contemporaries, most notably Jerome Kern (1885-1945), Irving Berlin (1888-1989), and George Gershwin (1898-1937). Like Kern and Gershwin, Rodgers grew up in New York City (Irving Berlin arrived in New York at age five from the Russian town of Temun). All four were the sons of Jewish immigrants from Central or Eastern Europe or Russia. Rodgers could trace his descent from the Levys on his mother's side and the Rogozinskys on his father's; both were Russian Jewish families who had immigrated to the United States in 1860. William Rodgers and Mamie Levy married in 1896, two years before the birth of their first son, Mortimer. After settling in New York City, the Kern, Gershwin, Berlin, and Rodgers families worked diligently to, as Bianca's suitors would say in Cole Porter's "Tom, Dick or Harry," "attain the upper brackets," or at least the middle class. In the process, these assimilated sons of Jewish immigrants would retain social and cultural rather than religious ties to Judaism. However, at the urging of Grandpa Jacob Levy, who lived with his daughter and son-in-law until his death in1928, Mortimer and perhaps also Richard Rodgers were bar mitzvahed. Only Porter, a Protestant from Peru, Indiana, and heir to a timber, coal, and oil fortune, broke ranks from this ethnic, geographic, and economic profile. Perhaps for this reason he made a conscious effort to incorporate into his compositions what he felt were Jewish musical characteristics. Among Rodgers's earliest, most vivid, and relatively few recollections were hearing his mother at the family piano playing and singing and his physician father joining her in the songs of Victor Herbert's Mlle. Modiste (1905), Franz Lehár's Merry Widow (American debut in 1907), and Oscar Straus's Chocolate Soldier (1909), musical shows that his parents had attended when Richard was between the ages of three and seven. Late in life Rodgers recalled learning "Chopsticks," picking out melodies by ear at an early age, performing at home and at school assemblies, and associating his musical aptitude with approbation and love. A neighborhood production of The Pied Piper with De Wolf Hopper was the first stage performance that he could recall seeing. Rodgers learned every Herbert note and Henry B. Smith lyric of Little Nemo (1908), another score resting on the family piano and performed informally by his parents. Rodgers's memories of a Saturday matinee performance of Nemo, his first professional musical show, were so powerful that for the rest of his life he could recall his precise seat and two songs from Herbert's "exciting and tender score." Despite his powerful and lifelong connections to classical music, including opera (Carmen), ballet (Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky in Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes), and music for piano and orchestra (a stirring performance by Josef Hofmann of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1), Rodgers decided at an early age to devote his energies and passions-indeed, nearly his entire being-to popular musical theater.
Within a few years of his exposure to professional musicals, Rodgers, at the age of fourteen, composed his first song: "Camp-Fire Days," written at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine. Rodgers's handwritten manuscript for this song is preserved in a scrapbook and reproduced in Musical Stages. The facsimile reveals that Rodgers had not yet mastered several basic elements of musical notation, including the proper placement of note stems. So rudimentary was his technique that Rodgers was even unable to consistently notate four beats (rather than more or less) in each bar of a 4/4 time signature. In common with many composers who quickly progress from uninspired juvenilia to early mastery ("Manhattan" would arrive only six years later), "Camp-Fire Days" suggests that "born" melodists might actually need time to develop their potential. Even Mozart did not hit his stride until he was nearly twenty.
Two days after his fifteenth birthday (June 30, 1917) Rodgers copyrighted a song for the first time. It was "Auto Show Girl." The song, with a lyric by an acquaintance, David Dyrenforth, described by Rodgers in Musical Stages as a "young would-be lyricist," resurfaced in One Minute Please before the end of the year (see example 1.1a). This was the first of Rodgers's fourteen amateur shows before The Garrick Gaieties rescued Rodgers and Hart from oblivion nearly eight years later. While the song does not necessarily suggest a brilliant future for the songwriter, "Auto Show Girl," reprinted in David Ewen's early biography, is a notable step up from "Camp-Fire Days" and demonstrates a high degree of competence and skill for a teenager.
The year before One Minute Please was staged Rodgers saw a production of Very Good Eddie (lyrics by Guy Bolton, music by Kern), the second in a group of shows that embodied a new intimate style of sophisticated American musicals. The productions came to be known as the Princess Theater shows, after the small theater in which several debuted. Very Good Eddie changed Rodgers's life. Kern immediately became Rodgers's first and lifelong model and inspiration. Although the Bolton-Kern collaboration, which Rodgers saw "at least a half dozen times," possessed neither ragtime nor the "Middle European inflections of Victor Herbert," from Rodgers's perspective it represented the "first truly American theatre music." This was the show that "pointed the way" Rodgers "wanted to be led." Like other Princess shows, Very Good Eddie was "intimate and uncluttered and tried to deal in a humorous way with modern, everyday characters," in refreshing contrast to "overblown operettas, mostly imported, that dominated the Broadway scene in the wake of The Merry Widow and The Chocolate Soldier," the European imports that formed Rodgers's happy childhood memories. In later years Rodgers attributed monumental significance to this early exposure to Kern, Bolton, and, soon, P. G. Wodehouse: "Actually, I was watching and listening to the beginning of a new form of musical theatre in this country. Somehow I knew it and wanted desperately to be a part of it."
Armed with a musical theater ideal, Rodgers was primed for the most crucial event of his adolescence-indeed, of the next twenty-five years. On a historic afternoon, probably in the spring of 1919, Philip Leavitt, a Columbia classmate of Mortimer Rodgers, introduced the aspiring composer to his unusual and brilliant friend Lorenz Hart, a gifted lyricist who shared Rodgers's vision of a new American musical theater. Rodgers was captivated by Hart's artistic theories; by his disdain for most of contemporary musical theater, with its absence of adult subject matter in its stories; and by the contrasting literacy, technical virtuosity, and daring in Hart's then unpublished lyrics. As Rodgers first wrote in his "self interview" of 1939 and repeated in Musical Stages, he "left Hart's house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation." At sixteen he had found a collaborator who shared his "conviction that the musical theatre, as demonstrated by the pioneering efforts of Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse and Kern, was capable of achieving a far greater degree of artistic merit in every area than was apparent at the time."
Over the next six years Rodgers and Hart gained experience but suffered increasing frustration in a series of one- to three-night stands in social clubs and various school shows. The first show, the Akron Club's One Minute Please (1917), had provided the opportunity to stage "Auto Show Girl." The second amateur effort, Up Stage and Down (1919), a show put on at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel Grand Ballroom for the Infants Relief Society, carries an intriguing historical footnote: it marked an early appearance of Oscar Hammerstein 2nd in Rodgers's life, twenty-four years before Oklahoma! At the time, Hammerstein, seven years Rodgers's senior, was a Big Man on Campus, a Columbia University thespian and a friend of Richard's brother, Mortimer, who condescended to introduce his little brother to Hammerstein. Hammerstein recalled meeting the twelve-year-old Richard after an earlier Varsity Show matinee of a show that featured both Hammerstein and Hart, the latter playing Mary Pickford "like an electrified gnome." In a touching New York Times tribute that appeared shortly before Hammerstein's death, Rodgers also recalled this first meeting, but he disputed Hammerstein's claim that he was wearing short pants.
Those who think of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration as beginning in the early 1940s will be surprised to learn that Hammerstein played a prominent role during Rodgers's early years. In fact, two of the four songs from this period known to have lyrics by Hammerstein were used on repeated occasions (with unaltered lyrics): "Weaknesses" (Up Stage and Down, Fly with Me, and Say It with Jazz) and "There's Always Room for One More" (Up Stage and Down, Fly with Me, and Jazz à la Carte). Another early Rodgers and Hammerstein song, "Can It," provided a third Hammerstein lyric in Up Stage and Down, and "That Boy of Mine" appeared in the second Akron Club show, You'd Be Surprised. In addition to supplying at least one song for six of Rodgers's amateur shows between 1919 and 1922, Hammerstein also served on the committee that selected Rodgers and Hart for the Varsity Show of 1920, Fly with Me, and he directed the Columbia University Varsity Show of 1921, You'll Never Know. In 1922, Hammerstein became the show doctor and de facto book writer for Rodgers and Hart's unproduced Winkle Town. The following year Hammerstein, in collaboration with Vincent Youmans on Wildflower, would inaugurate his long reign as one of the dominant lyricists and librettists on Broadway, scoring huge successes in shows like Rose-Marie (1924) with music by Rudolf Friml, Sunny (1925) and Show Boat (1927) with Kern, and The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928) with Sigmund Romberg.
The list of Rodgers's amateur productions (see table 1.1) prompts a number of observations. It is perhaps most important to note that no theatrical venue was too lowly for Rodgers-nothing stood in the way of his desire to see his works performed on a stage. The Columbia Varsity Shows carried a certain amount of prestige, but in fact Rodgers was willing to stage his songs anywhere opportunity knocked. He gave fundraising performances at the Akron Club, the Infants Relief Society, the Evelyn Goldsmith Home for Crippled Children, the Park Avenue Synagogue, the Institute of Musical Art, where Rodgers was enrolled intermittently between 1920-24, and the Benjamin School for Girls, where Dorothy Fields, the sister of Herbert and Joseph and daughter of Lew Fields, was enrolled from 1922-24. Late in life Rodgers said in an interview that "if I were starting out and the Astor Hotel was still in existence, I would be satisfied to have my stuff shown in its men's room. Any place."
The list of family, friends, and budding lyricists associated with these amateur shows reminds us that Rodgers and Hart were not creatively inseparable before their Garrick Gaieties breakthrough. Although Rodgers and Hart would work almost exclusively with each other between 1925 and 1942, the "amateur" years from 1919-25 were a period of transition during which Rodgers would set the music of a number of other lyricists-Engelsman, Bender, and Dyrenforth on One Minute Please (before meeting Hart); his brother Mortimer and Benjamin Kaye, a theatrical lawyer and family friend, on Up Stage and Down (March 1919, either shortly before or after he met Hart); and Hammerstein. Hart contributed no lyrics to Up Stage and Down (1919), Jazz à la Carte (1922), or The Prisoner of Zenda (1924). With the exception of a song here and there, Rodgers composed nearly all the music to the thirteen amateur shows and one play (sharing some composing duties in the Institute of Musical Art shows with Gerald Warburg and Sigmund Krumgold in Jazz à la Carte and Krumgold in A Danish Yankee in King Tut's Court). Rodgers also served in a variety of other creative roles: librettist for Temple Belles; co-librettist for A Danish Yankee in King Tut's Court; principal lyricist for Up Stage and Down; co-lyricist for One Minute Please and A Danish Yankee; and co-director (with Herbert Fields) for Jazz à la Carte.
Herbert Fields (1897-1958), the son of the prominent producer Lew Fields (1867-1941), would become Rodgers and Hart's principal librettist between 1925 and 1928 (Dearest Enemy, The Girl Friend, Peggy-Ann, A Connecticut Yankee, Present Arms, and Chee-Chee, all but Dearest Enemy produced by his dad). He also played an early and prominent role during the amateur years, directing or (in the case of Jazz à la Carte) co-directing at least five Rodgers and Hart shows between 1921 and 1924, supplying the lyrics to The Prisoner of Zenda and choreography to several shows, including The Garrick Gaieties. In the title role of Zenda (and wearing a beard) was Herbert's sister Dorothy Fields (1905-74), the future lyricist of Kern's Swing Time and co-librettist of Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein). Surprisingly, Herbert Fields's sole contribution to book writing in these amateur shows was a minor role in the creation of A Danish Yankee in King Tut's Court, a burlesque of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. According to Ewen, Fields abandoned his acting aspirations for libretto writing at the suggestion of Rodgers, who was motivated in part by the hope that this switch would lead to opportunities writing shows produced by the old man.
Within a few months of meeting Hart, Rodgers met Lew Fields, someone who would be almost as influential over the next decade as his new lyricist-and, for the next seven years, another source of irritation. Lew Fields began his long career at the age of ten as the taller if not senior partner of the "Dutch" (that is, German-Jewish) dialect act with Joe Weber, also ten. Modern audiences can catch a glimpse of Lew Fields playing himself (without Weber) in the penultimate Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). The influence of Weber and Fields can be seen in the routines of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Carney and Gleason (tall and thin versus short and fat), the Three Stooges, and Henny Youngman ("Take my wife ... please!") (a variation on Weber and Fields's "Dat vas no lady, dat vas my wife"). Before their temporary rift in 1903, Weber and Fields had been, for more than a generation, one of the most popular acts on Broadway. Producers vied to be satirized in their burlesques of current plays, a practice popularized a half-century later on television's Carol Burnett Show and, since the early 1980s, Broadway's hysterical parodies of shows and stars, Forbidden Broadway. Although Weber and Fields would reunite in several comebacks over the years, including one during a vacuum between plays in the early 1920s, by the time Rodgers and Hart met him, Fields had for more than a decade been mainly producing and frequently acting in plays without his former partner. In the late 1920s Rodgers, Hart, and Herbert Fields (and Fields and Youmans in Hit the Deck) would play major parts in Lew Fields's remarkable comeback as the producer of The Girl Friend, Peggy-Ann, and A Connecticut Yankee.
Excerpted from Richard Rodgers by Geoffrey Block Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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