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Rodgers And Hammerstein: Changin Musical Theater History

There are many well-known lyricists and composers, but only a few leave such a mark as Rodgers and Hammerstein. This duo produced nine musical plays during their partnership and caused a profound change in musical comedy. They set the standards that are followed to this day in musical history. They created the modern musical that we all know and love.

Before they became Rodgers and Hammerstein, they were simply Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, both of New York City. Hammerstein, born in 1895, was brought up in a theatrical family. His father was an ?operatic impresario?, otherwise known as an opera director or manager. He built the Harlem Opera House(1888) and the Manhattan Opera House(1906) and also introduced many new singers to the US. From a very young age Hammerstein II committed to the theater even though his family discouraged him. As soon as he was old enough to have a job in his father’s theatrical business, he devoted himself to his duties and learned as much as he could about play production and the labors of the theater artist. Oscar eventually teamed up with author Otto Harbach and composer Vincent Youmans to produce Wildflower. With help from Harbach, Hammerstein began to create professional material for Broadway. Through Otto Harbach, Hammerstein was led into collaboration with Jerome Kern for Sunday. He also worked with Herbert Stothart and George Gershwin on Song of the Flame, a very unsuccessful show. But despite the shows failure, it did lead Hammerstein to concentrate on creating operetta in order to integrate musical comedy with opera. With this in mind, he was able to achieve new standards for success in his career with his lyrics for The Wild Rose and The Desert Song.

By 1927, after a few more productions, Hammerstein had achieved the technical skill that allowed him to provide a composer with a functional book and lyrics. This was best shown in Showboat, the first modern American musical. Showboat was the first show that indicated Hammerstein’s great talent. Hammerstein was able to create a believable plot, situation,and characterization. At the forefront of this show was Hammerstein’s concern for the southern blacks. This show contributed commentary on racial prejudice which Hammerstein would continually do. This was a big step for the 1920s and a huge victory when the show was so widely appreciated.
Despite the promise indicated by Showboat, Hammerstein did not produce works of comparable success between 1928 and 1940. Some of his forgotten shows from that time are Free for All, Three Sisters, May Wine and several others. By 1941 it was apparent that except for Showboat, Hammerstein had not succeeded in creating a celebrated body of work outside the operetta form.

Richard Rodgers , born in 1902, unlike Hammerstein, was not born into the theater, but his parents made sure he was cultured in the world of musical theater at a very early age. One of his earliest childhood memories was of his parents singing the full vocal scores from the latest musicals1. By age six, Rodgers had taught himself to play piano and was then given piano lessons by his proud parents. They also encouraged him to make a career in music. Like Hammerstein, Rodgers’ devotion to the theater began early on in his life. Rodgers was especially influenced by Jerome Kern’s shows and considered him a hero.

When Rodgers was nine, he began to compose melodies of his own and eventually learned how to write them too. At fourteen he produced his first two complete songs, ?Campfire Days? and ?The Auto Show Girl?. While still in high school, he wrote scores for two amateur shows, One Minute Please and Up State and Down, after which he was encouraged to find a lyricist and begin a professional song-producing arrangement. Rodgers found Lorenz Hart.

They met in 1918 and immediately hit it off. Both were very pleased with each others abilities and a creative union was made, as well as a close friendship. Their first show together was Fly with Me, which was performed for Columbia University. Broadway man Lew Fields saw the show and informed the duo that he intended to use some of their songs in his next Broadway