With lyricists Lorenz Hart and later Oscar Hammerstein II, composer Richard Rodgers wrote dozens of the best-known songs in American popular music and created what stand as perhaps the three most popular American musicals — Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music (to say nothing of Carousel and The King and I). Born at his parents' vacation home on Long Island in 1902, Rodgers was infatuated with musical theater from an early age. He was just 16 when a family friend introduced him to Lorenz Hart, and the two began a collaboration that lasted almost 25 years.
Rodgers and Hart premiered their debut complete show The Garrick Gaieties, and mounted The Girl Friend, Peggy-Ann, and A Connecticut Yankee. Though the productions were mostly failures, several songs became independently popular, including "Mountain Greenery," "Thou Swell," "You Took Advantage of Me," and "With a Song in My Heart."
The duo began working in Hollywood during the 1930s, and though they composed "Isn't It Romantic," "Love Me Tonight," and "It's Easy to Remember," Rodgers and Hart were soon back on Broadway, where 1937's Babes in Arms produced by itself "Where or When," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and "My Funny Valentine." The hits kept rolling with their late '30s and early '40s shows ("Spring Is Here," "Falling in Love With Love," "It Never Entered My Mind," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," and "Careless Rhapsody"). After 1942's By Jupiter however, the two separated due to Hart's desire to stop writing and an increasingly debilitating alcohol and mental illness. The team briefly reunited to write new songs for a revival of A Connecticut Yankee and look at the adaptation of a folk play named Green Grow the Lilacs, but Hart appeared to have lost all interest in composing. (Tragically, he died of double pneumonia just one year later.)
Though crushed by the breakup of a very successful songwriting team, Richard Rodgers soon found an even more capable replacement in an old friend, Oscar Hammerstein II. He had known Hammerstein since 1915, when a 13-year-old Rodgers had attended a performance including the 20-year-old Hammerstein, and the two had talked after the show. The pair met frequently over the next 25 years, and while Hammerstein had also worked with Jerome Kern and George Gershwin, he and Rodgers wrote several songs together as well.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's first project was the continuing adaptation of Green Grow the Lilacs, later re-titled Away We Go in production. The show was by no means conventional, with little in the way of humor, no star potential and few actual production numbers. Minor changes were made after a preview performance bombed in Connecticut, and the show was again re-titled when it premiered in March 1943. Over 2200 Broadway performances later, Oklahoma! had changed American musicals forever. Many of the songs remained in the popular canon for the rest of the century, including "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "The Surrey with a Fringe on Top," and "People Will Say We're in Love." Including several world-wide touring productions over the next five years, Oklahoma! grossed over $40 million, spawned one of the classic musical film adaptations of all time, and was recorded to become a double-platinum, number one LP.
The pair's next project, State Fair, brought them to Hollywood to create one of the first direct-to-film musicals. Back on Broadway by 1945 with Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein grew more expansive (witness the seven-minute "Soliloquy," with eight separate sections). Despite tampering with the formula with which they had rewritten musicals, Carousel was another success, led by "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Though their follow-up Allegro was a bit too abstract for contemporary theater-goers, Rodgers and Hammerstein returned to the fore with 1949's South Pacific. Just slightly less definitive or popular than Oklahoma!, the production was still one of the best ever staged, with gorgeous songs ("Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger than Springtime," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair") and another successful film adaptation, whose soundtrack spent 31 weeks at number one. The King and I followed in 1951 with similar success.
During the early '50s, Richard Rodgers began to expand his composing by indulging in symphonic pieces, two of which were used on television (the TV series Victory at Sea and the Sir Winston Churchill documentary The Valiant Years, for which he won an Emmy). Rodgers and Hammerstein spent most of the middle part of the decade in Hollywood, adapting Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and Carousel into films — though they did collaborate on a made-for-television musical version of Cinderella in 1957. They returned to Broadway with 1958's The Flower Drum Song, which included "I Enjoy Being a Girl." Though Rodgers and Hammerstein's 15-year career was drawing to a close, the pair ended on a triumphal note which again rewrote the rules of the American musical. Premiered on Broadway in 1959, The Sound of Music became perhaps the most well-known musical in their (or any) repertoire, with a song list including the title track, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?," "Sixteen, Going on Seventeen," "My Favorite Things," "Do Re Mi," "Edelweiss," and "Climb Every Mountain." The 1965 film version garnered one of the largest worldwide box office draws in history; combined sales of the original cast and film soundtrack album topped 15 million copies and "Do Re Mi" itself became the most popular piece of sheet music in Rodgers and Hammerstein's large body of work. Oscar Hammerstein II lived to see little of the success, though, dying at his Pennsylvania home in August 1960.
Again Richard Rodgers was without a partner, and the blow, doubly hard since it had happened for the second time, hurt even more considering the team's incredible success and personal chemistry. The muse ordered him back to work, however, and when he returned in 1962 with No Strings, Rodgers worked double-duty as lyric- and music-writer. He also preferred to work alone while composing new songs for a 1962 remake of State Fair, and for the 1965 film version of The Sound of Music. During 1965, he collaborated with Alan Jay Lerner (estranged from his usual partner Frederick Loewe during the 1960s) on the production that eventually became On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but arguments broke out over the text, and Burton Lane was called in as Rodgers' replacement. For his next finished score, 1965's Do I Hear a Waltz?, Rodgers worked with Stephen Sondheim — a worthy selection, considering Sondheim had lived several miles away from Hammerstein while growing up in Pennsylvania, been given advice and instruction by the great lyric-writer, and even worked for Rodgers and Hammerstein typing scripts and doing odd-jobs during production rehearsals.
Rodgers was slowed by a 1969 heart attack, but he struggled on, composing music to Martin Charnin's lyrics in the 1970 production Two by Two. A laryngectomy five years later again threatened his health, but he continued writing; the results, Rex and I Remember Mama, were failures, but Rodgers' entry into the Entertainment Hall of Fame in the mid-'70s was obviously assured. He died in December 1979.