Musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) formed one of the most successful and creative teams in American musical theater history. Rodgers wrote the music, and Hammerstein wrote the lyrics.
Before Rodgers and Hammerstein began collaborating, Rodgers wrote songs with Lorenz Hart. Rodgers met Hart when he was sixteen and Hart was twenty-three. They spent an afternoon talking about the theater and found they agreed about many things. Rodgers and Hart remained musical partners for over twenty years and wrote a number of successful musicals—even though Rodgers was a workaholic and Hart was an alcoholic.
In 1940, the Theater Guild of New York City asked Rodgers to compose a new musical. Rodgers met with Hart first, but Hart’s was unable to work. Rodgers contacted Oscar Hammerstein, and that was a turning point. Hart died in 1943.
Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical collaboration, opened in 1943. It is based on a play called Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Oklahoma! is very different from most musicals written up to that time. Musicals were mainly songs and comedy, with little plot. The songs usually had little to do with the story. Oklahoma! has a plot. The songs either help move the plot along or help the audience understand the characters. The story is partly fun, but it has a serious side too. That is because Rodgers’s background was mostly in the old-style, "fun" musicals, while Hammerstein’s background was in opera and operetta—more "serious" types of music. When Rodgers worked with Hart, he wrote the music first, and then Hart wrote the lyrics. But in this new team, Hammerstein wrote the words first and Rodgers created the music to fit.
The story of Oklahoma! is about a young woman, Laurey, living in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 1900s. She is in love with a cowboy named Curly. He loves her too, but so does the "bad guy," a hired hand named Jud. Comic characters—Laurey’s friend Ado Annie and her boyfriend, Will Parker—lighten things up a bit. There is tension between Curly and Jud until, in the final scene on Laurey and Curly’s wedding day, Jud starts a fight, falls on his own knife, and is killed. Laurey and Curly get married, and everyone sings the song "Oklahoma," about Oklahoma’s becoming a state.
Audiences loved Oklahoma!. It played on Broadway for 2,248 performances, breaking every record for shows up until that time. The show also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1944.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s next big hit was Carousel, in 1945. It had an even more dramatic plot than Oklahoma!. Instead of the usual overture before the show begins, the show opens with the whole cast performing a ballet as the orchestra plays. The best-known song from Carousel is "You’ll Never Walk Alone."
South Pacific, written in 1949, and based on stories by novelist James A. Michener, is set during World War II. It has the most serious plot of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show because it confronts both war and racism. South Pacific also won the Pulitzer Prize.
The King and I is about conflicts between cultures. It is based on a true story about Anna Leonowens, an Englishwoman who went to Siam (now called Thailand) to teach the king’s children. Anna finds life in Siam very different from what she is accustomed to, but she and the king come to like each other despite their differences. Two well-known songs from The King and I are "Getting to Know You" and "I Whistle a Happy Tune."
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration was The Sound of Music, in 1959. It is also based on a true story, about a young novice nun who becomes the governess for seven children of a widower, Captain Von Trapp. This musical also has a serious side—it is set in the days of Nazi Germany, and the Von Trapp family’s freedom is at stake. The beautiful song "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music was the last song Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together. Hammerstein died of cancer on August 23, 1960.
Most of the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein were made into movies and are available on video or DVD. A new production of Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in New York City in March of 2002, just in time to celebrate Richard Rodgers’s one hundredth birthday.
Facts About Rodgers and Hammerstein
• Rodgers’s father was an obstetrician. He delivered Hammerstein’s two children.
• Rodgers’s daughter, Mary, wrote a musical called Once Upon a Mattress, based on the fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea." It is performed often and was made into a TV movie starring Carol Burnett.
• In 1953, the song "Oklahoma" from the show Oklahoma! became the official song of the state of Oklahoma.
• Hammerstein studied law before he went into musical theater.
• Hammerstein’s most famous musical besides those he wrote with Rodgers was Showboat, written with composer Jerome Kern in 1927.