The Harmonious Partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

by Alex Hsu

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

If Rodgers and Hammerstein have taught me anything, it’s that the beginning is indeed, a very good place to start. I vividly remember the beginning of my relationship with musical theater; at the ripe old age of six and a half years old I was exposed to the genre that would become a great love in my life. A genre that was reinvented by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who contributed more to musical theater than anyone before them had ever dreamed possible. But would these men have ever been able to make the impact they did without each other, working alone or with another partner?

At age six, when I saw my first show on Broadway, I was overcome with the power of a magical world where anything was possible; a world where the music was extraordinarily exciting because it all worked towards telling a story. Oscar Hammerstein II also fell in love with Broadway very early in his life. Stanley Green, lecturer, film publicist, and editor, captured four-year-old Oscar’s first theater experience in The Rodgers and Hammerstein Story: “the houselights dimmed…the orchestra struck up the music for the first act…and the curtain began to rise. Suddenly Oscar broke out in a cold sweat, his stomach fluttered, and his knees began to shake. He became so ill with excitement that he almost forgot where he was. This was a dream world and he was about to take his first look at heaven” (19). Hammerstein’s introduction to theater was so powerful that his future journey into the world of theater became almost inevitable.

Hammerstein wasn’t the only one exposed to musical theater at a young age; in fact, Richard Rodgers had his eyes opened to the world of show tunes by the time he was two, because his mother would play favorite show tunes on the piano while his father sang along (Taylor 21).  Despite being so young, Richard Rodgers remembered these times around the piano, asserting that “Anything that happens to you at the age of two, especially if it has emotional and intellectual impact, is bound to influence you” (qtd. Green 21).  This influence came quickly, as Rodgers began playing piano at age four, so it came as no surprise to anyone that Rodgers chose to pursue a career in musical theater.

They Meet—Not Really by Chance

Even with their musical exposure, both Rodgers and Hammerstein had to travel long weary roads to success. Although at first their journeys seemed to be completely opposite, quickly it became evident that their paths were destined to cross. Despite his family having a long history of working in theater, Hammerstein was strongly discouraged from entering the theatrical world and instead was encouraged by his father to become a lawyer (Green 24). This unenthusiastic attitude towards having a son working in the theater business couldn’t possibly be more different from the outlook of the Rodgers family. Richard Rodgers’ father, who was a physician with a passion for theater, encouraged young Rodgers to follow his heart and become a composer (Taylor 15).

Regardless of the differing views of their fathers, Rodgers and Hammerstein led curiously similar lives. Both were, coincidentally, born to fathers named William: Hammerstein in 1895 (Hischak xxix) and Rodgers seven years later in 1902 (Swope). Due to the difference in their ages, they never knew each other while growing up, despite living in the same area of New York, attending the same schools, and being sent to the same summer camps (Nolan 122). Eventually, they even both married interior decorators named Dorothy (Taylor 48, 131), and both attended Columbia University (Green 24, 37). It was at Columbia where they both truly found their niche in theater. They shared a primary reason for attending Columbia: “the Varsity Show” (Taylor 10, 102), which was “an annual musical satire usually written by undergraduates” (Green 25) and gave both men the opportunity to begin their theatrical careers.

Their joint fascination with the Varsity Show was perhaps one of the many signs that Rodgers and Hammerstein were fated to work together. In fact, it was after one such Varsity Show that the two met for the first time. Mortimer, Richard Rodgers’ older brother, happened to be in the same fraternity as Hammerstein, and Mortimer knew how much Rodgers loved theater, so he brought him to see Hammerstein portraying the lead role in Home James (Nolan 37). Following the show, Mortimer introduced Richard and Oscar, and twelve-year-old Rodgers was in awe of the seemingly professional nineteen year old Hammerstein; both remember this first meeting, however Green suggests that there was some dispute: “years later, in recalling this meeting, Rodgers stoutly maintained that he was wearing long pants at the time. Hammerstein… insisted that he was wearing short pants. This difference of opinion was the only ‘argument’ that the partners ever had during the more than 18 years that they worked together” (26).

However, those years of working together were still far in the future, and both men had a lot of work to do before they became household names. After Columbia, Hammerstein’s uncle gave him a job where he worked back stage, read plays, and stage-managed (Green 29), experiences that contributed greatly to his understanding of theater and provided the foundation for his future accomplishments. As described by Ethan Mordden in Beautiful Mornin’, up to this point, the “musical comedy” genre was characterized by a very specific formula, where shows would “start with hot performers, add a hot score and hot choreography, and glue it all together with as much humor as possible. What this format didn’t have was a story, characters, realism, irony, point…the genre depended entirely on the available talent. If the songwriters and performers came through, one had success” (4). Though Hammerstein had spent his life devoted to musical comedies, he strongly believed that shows should tell the truth and convey a story. He had the opportunity to live out this dream when he joined the famous composer Jerome Kern to write Show Boat (Nolan 53). Show Boat was the beginning of the revolution, and Deems Taylor, composer, music critic, and biographer, describes the changes, emphasizing that, “compared with its predecessors…Show Boat is not a musical comedy at all…its people are real people, and their emotions are real. It is a romance, but it is not a fairy tale” (126). The show details the lives of people living and working on the showboat Cotton Blossom, examining relations between races as the boat travels along the Mississippi River. Although the play was first performed in 1927, it included the song “Ol’ Man River” (Hischak 244-5), which remains a prominent Broadway classic. Audiences loved Show Boat and the real issues that it expressed, but they had just had a glimpse of what was to come.

Meanwhile, Rodgers was growing up, progressing from the awestruck twelve-year-old to becoming a luminary of Broadway. Following in Hammerstein’s footsteps Rodgers was involved in the Varsity Show; becoming the first (and only) freshman ever chosen to compose one of the coveted performances (Taylor 13). However, Rodgers struggled; although he had an amazing ear for musical composition he couldn’t think of lyrics to accompany his songs (Green 30). Eventually, a mutual friend introduced Rodgers to Lorenz Hart, recognizing that “Hart’s trouble was Richard’s in reverse. He had words, but no music” (Taylor 7). Reflecting on that first meeting, Rodgers said, “I left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation” (qtd. Green 33). Quickly, the duo of Rodgers and Hart became almost unstoppable, starting with The Garrick Gaities (Taylor 17), and continuing with many hits, including Peggy-Ann, Babes in Arms, and Pal Joey (Hischak 109). ‘The Gaieties’ was a typical revue of the time, with disjointed fun musical numbers, and was even reorganized to please different audiences in each city (Kislan 80).

The other plays by Rodgers and Hart had more of a plot, yet most were still light-hearted, with the plot acting as background for the songs. However, Mordden describes Pal Joey as containing “the bite of a mean reality, an extraordinary lack of warmth, and bitterness for fun” (48), making it similar to Show Boat. Even so, the posters described the show simply as “An uninhibited musical comedy” (qtd. Mordden 48), emphasizing that it was indeed a musical comedy, containing numbers that could easily be rearranged and replaced. With these, and many more successes, Rodgers and Hart became the most sought after pair on Broadway, yet their partnership was stressful and thus couldn’t have the true lasting impact that Rodgers would find with Hammerstein.

You’re OK (L-A-H-O-M-A)

Eventually, destiny finally brought Rodgers and Hammerstein together. The Theater Guild, “America’s most durable, influential, and prestigious theater organization” (Hischak 285), was failing and they were looking for a miracle. The Guild decided the spark it needed was turning a decent play, Green Grow the Lilacs, into an inspiring musical and who better to do this than Broadway’s most famous pair: Rodgers and Hart? (Taylor 147)  However, Hart was skeptical, sick, and in need of a break, so he left Rodgers to find a new partner for the show (Taylor 148). Without even realizing the true impact of the choice, the Guild suggested Oscar Hammerstein, and thus the amazing partnership was born. Once Rodgers and Hammerstein began working together, the Guild got much more than the miracle they asked for—they started a phenomenon. Through the seemingly effortless modifications of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the simple story of farm life presented in the play Green Grow the Lilacs became Oklahoma!, a play that would revolutionize the genre of musical theater forever.

What made Rodgers and Hammerstein stand out were the risks they took together to write a play that they believed was truly meaningful. It was unheard of at the time to have an opening number without crazy costumes, delightful dancing, magnificent music, and most importantly chorus girls. Yet Oklahoma! opened with a lone baritone singer and a woman churning butter (and the chorus girls didn’t even enter until half way through the first act) (Nolan 18). Their willingness to risk altering time honored traditions represented their unerring cohesion and defined their extraordinary friendship. Rodgers recalled his relationship with Hammerstein right from this opening piece, saying:

The important thing is what we gave each other creatively. The very first lyric that Oscar finished was ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,’ and when he handed it to me and I read it for the first time I was a little sick with joy because it was so lovely and so right. When you’re given lines like ‘The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,’ you get something to say musically. (qtd. Green 107)

The thrill they felt working together, right from the start, developed into a passion evident in every subsequent song they created. Oklahoma! became an instant classic, running for 2,212 performances, unprecedented for that time period (Hischak 199).

What made Oklahoma! so different from other musicals of the time was the way Rodgers and Hammerstein worked together, with music and lyrics complementing each other and the story. Taylor describes the difference from musicals that were built around disjointed, stand-alone musical numbers and Oklahoma! where the songs “are woven in and out of the story, sometimes under dialogue, sometimes quoted briefly, at others repeated in various guises…this treatment of words and music allows them to function almost as leading motives, giving the story extraordinary unity and plausibility” (173). Although Show Boat used similar techniques, it was a one-time triumph, and this style of musical was what Rodgers and Hammerstein excelled at. This technique really emphasized the strengths of Rodgers and Hammerstein, as they let the audience focus on the story and relate to characters, as opposed to just seeing a jumbled plot chopped up by gaudy musical numbers.

Years after the opening of Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein maintained that the show should have failed. Hammerstein was still shocked that “two professionals could make so many mistakes” (qtd. Green 105), explaining that even with the risks he took with Rodgers, they “wasted” one of the best songs, “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” at the beginning of the show, and the second act had only one show stopping number, “Oklahoma!” (qtd. Green 105). Rodgers was just as incredulous as Hammerstein about Oklahoma!’s success, but points to a different factor saying: “the main thing that made people sure Oklahoma! would fail was that Oscar and I were working together for the first time. Everyone was certain of it because I was writing with a new partner after so many successful years with Larry” (qtd. Green 105). However Green points out that the reason people overlooked the apparent blunders of the famous pair was because Rodgers and Hammerstein “believed firmly in what they were doing. They did not say ‘Look how different and clever we are’ or ‘Aren’t we brave to do things no one ever tried before?’ What they did say was ‘This has never been done before, but it works and we like it. Why shouldn’t we do it?’” (106) By sharing such similar views the pair was suddenly able to take risks that weren’t possible before. With mutual support, they had an instant connection, were excited to share new ideas thus bringing forth a friendship which created its own energy and originality, delighting audiences everywhere.

Rodgers’ eloquent recognition of their instantaneous connection is quoted in author Frederick Nolan’s book The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein:

What happened between Oscar and me was almost chemical. Put the right components together and an explosion takes place. Oscar and I hit it off from the day we started discussing the show. For one thing, I needed a little calm in my life after twenty-three hectic years. When Oscar would say I’ll meet you at two-thirty, he was there at two-thirty. That had never happened to me before (17)

Although Rodgers and Hart were extremely successful, Rodgers clearly alludes to the difficulties of his relationship with Hart. Rodgers was glad to have a less stressful partnership, and suggests that working with Hammerstein was a welcome change.

Yet Rodgers still felt loyalty to Hart, a characteristic which he later carried to his partnership with Hammerstein. After Oklahoma! was complete, Rodgers’ loyalty to Hart combined with Hammerstein’s desire to work on a personal project, Carmen, caused the two to part ways. Rodgers suggested to Hart that they revive A Connecticut Yankee, one of their most notable plays (Taylor 175). Surprisingly, Green reports that, “Hart stuck to the job with renewed interest, chiefly because he wanted to prove that he was still a master at writing lyrics” (111). Rodgers and Hart appeared to be rejuvenated, and they were putting forth every effort to create a masterpiece. However, on opening night Hart said that he didn’t want to sit in the audience, and instead stood in the back of the theater, leaving halfway through the first act, without telling anyone where he was going (Taylor 175). Two days later, a distressed Rodgers found Hart unconscious in his hotel room and, despite being rushed to the hospital, Hart passed away two days after that (Taylor 175).

Although Hart’s death was tragic, it opened the door for the spectacular union of Rodgers and Hammerstein to proceed. This new partnership would be a change for both Rodgers and Hammerstein, a change that would spark all of their true potential. In fact, Nolan explains why they meshed so well, saying: “Both men subscribed to the Puritan Work Ethic: you worked because you worked. Both had the same orderly, disciplined approach to what they did. Both had similar inclinations in their private lives, neither smoking nor drinking to excess, favouring early nights rather than late ones” (124). They didn’t need to force their relationship and habits, and thus were able to focus on writing fantastic shows. They worked together so incredibly well, both in their musical writing and other endeavors, that they “regarded their union as ‘a perfect marriage’” (Swope). This view allowed them to focus on what was truly important: recognizing what their audiences wanted to see and delivering it to them, a joy that greatly deepened their compatibility.

The World is full of Zanies and Fools—Who Don’t Believe in Sensible Rules

The public really enjoyed their collaboration, and an article in the New York Times explained that “Ever since they pooled their creative talents to create ‘Oklahoma!’ the names of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d have been linked…the extent and duration of the union…was not guessed until…Mr. Rodgers remarked: ‘We have no plans that don’t include each other’” (“What’s New”). Though the men were polar opposites in appearance—Rodgers was often described as a “prosperous Wall Street stockbroker,” and Hammerstein was frequently compared to a “construction foreman” (Swope)—together they were unstoppable, and the magic they shared was the fact that both of them wanted to write great music, not necessarily follow convention.

In fact, New York Times writer John Swope reported the similarities between the two men, but begins by describing differences in their stature and looks, describing that Rodgers has “an oval face, and brown eyes that can clearly register anything from mischief…to penetrating shrewdness…he has the air of a man long used to success.”  Hammerstein on the other hand has “a roundish craggy face…and keen, bright blue eyes that disclose a man capable of tolerance, sympathy and the ability to comfort friends in distress… [but] he never achieves the same immaculate look” that Rodgers conveys easily. Yet the entire article concludes by articulating how truly similar Rodgers and Hammerstein were in personality, explaining that they both regarded their partnership as perfect, and that the public agreed with them (Swope).

One important attribute of their collaboration, which allowed them to be a “perfect” pair, is how they worked together to write their music and lyrics. Taylor suggests that their technique “produced the happiest results” and points out that, “with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers followed the traditional Broadway practice of writing the music first and then handing the tune to the lyrist to find words to go with it…The two now reverse the process. Hammerstein writes a lyric and gives it to Rodgers to set to the music; an infinitely better system” (219-20). With this method, the lyricist can let the words really flow instead of being restricted to the music.

Rodgers and Hammerstein used their improved method of writing songs and stories to work towards their goal of changing the musical comedy genre. It was really important to Hammerstein that people have a faith in the play they are seeing and are able to relate to the plot and the characters. As Green explains, “It is not necessarily a religious faith, but a faith that people should have in themselves and in each other…No man is an island, people need people, without understanding there is no meaning to life” (119). Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to convey this by creating meaningful and powerful songs and stories built around the characters. They both tried to maintain this philosophy, which Green captures in their conversation: “As Rodgers once said, ‘I think it is disaster to try to do what the public wants, if you don’t feel that way yourself.’ To which Hammerstein added, ‘You can’t deliberately say, ‘I will please the public although I don’t like what I’m doing.’ I think that’s impossible’” (qtd 138). They managed to achieve this goal in every musical they wrote together, giving audiences something that they could connect with and enjoy.

Their desire to be true to their shared beliefs is truly exemplified in their classic South Pacific, which Andrea Most describes in her article in Theater Journal, as a show that “has been acclaimed for its sensitive and courageous treatment of the subject of racial prejudice” (307). While making choices about when to include chorus girls or where to place noteworthy musical numbers may have seemed quite risky, addressing prejudice during the volatile era leading up to the Civil Rights Movement could have been downright dangerous. While writing South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein were repeatedly advised to remove numbers such as “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” whose powerful lyrics suggests that, “people’s hatred toward other people is not born but must be learned” (Green 134). They were so united in their belief that the message of this song was imperative to share with audiences, that they refused to remove it, even when politicians in Georgia tried to pass legislation outlawing entertainment addressing these issues (Most 307).

The play was produced in 1949, a time when the US was trying to forget the tragic events of WWII. For the time period, author and scholar John Ditsky considered it “remarkable that Rodgers and Hammerstein would have risked including a number chiding Americans for racism when no such risk was called for or financially sound” (110). However, James Michener, author of the book on which the play was based, recalls Rodgers and Hammerstein emphatically insisting that “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” actually “represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in” (qtd. Most 307). This choice to keep the song really exemplified Hammerstein’s fight against prejudice, which he expressed in his lyrics as well as by actively participating in groups like the NAACP (Most 317). Fortunately, Rodgers shared Hammerstein’s beliefs because only partners with the utmost faith in each other’s unfailing support would risk their careers by making a political statement in a form of entertainment typically considered comedy. In fact, South Pacific has become regarded as the historical moment when musicals became legitimate theater (Most 308), and can be viewed as the time when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s friendship grew strong enough for them to take the huge risk of imparting ideas they valued to their audiences.

However, audiences weren’t the only group that Rodgers and Hammerstein felt compelled to share their ideals with; they also wanted to impart their beliefs to other playwrights. They even worked together to open a producing business, and produced such hits as Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, which was the first time in history that composers produced a musical written by a rival (“Our History”).Their relationship grew as a result of their producing business, and allowed them to be an unstoppable team, culminating with yet another first for the industry when they began writing and producing all of their own shows. Their growing success allowed them to challenge themselves, learning more and more about the entertainment industry. They ultimately purchased the rights to all of their plays, and even produced the movie versions of their works, starting with, of course, Oklahoma! Their business savvy increased their influence on the industry, although Hammerstein was all too happy to allow Rodgers to manage the business affairs, the one area where their passions diverged. Together “they strove constantly to maintain the joint iconic status their works had given them,” (“Our History”) appearing in joint interviews on the Ed Sullivan Show and as guest actors in I Love Lucy, as well as doing many other things together publicly. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s confidence in their relationship grew with each play that they produced and the strength of their bond became evident in every play that they wrote together.

Follow Every Rainbow— ’Till You Find Your Dream

What Rodgers and Hammerstein had was a deep understanding of each other and a strong commitment to sharing their passions with an audience. After South Pacific’s success, Rodgers and Hammerstein felt more comfortable touching on some of society’s ills in their gentle and supportive way, hoping audiences would take some of their values to heart. All together, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote nine Broadway shows, including The King and I and The Sound of Music, one movie musical and one television musical, and what ties them together is that “These shows are built around social issues with love stories at their core…[and] the obstacles the lovers must overcome in each lie mainly within themselves” (Stempel 335).

However, these changes that Rodgers and Hammerstein made would have been impossible without their becoming a pair. Both men were successful before, Rodgers with Hart and Hammerstein with various partners, but neither man reached his true potential until they started working together. In the preface to The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia theater professor and author Thomas Hischak explains it well:

We are so used to the phrase ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein’ that it seems like one word: Rodgersandhammerstein…I sometimes do think of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein as one unit, a single force, a one-man revolution, and a sole person…there was a lot to Hammerstein before Rodgers and there were many musicals by Rodgers before he worked with Hammerstein, yet their astounding collaboration together sometimes blocks that out. What so often emerges is this powerful, overwhelming whirlwind of talent that is simply Rodgersandhammerstein.

Their friendship and synergy lead to mutual support that enabled them to successfully defy traditions and create a new era of musical theater. There is no way that Rodgers or Hammerstein could have been as effective or lasting without his other half. It was evidenced by the fact that their prior work was never as influential, and although Rodgers kept writing after Hammerstein’s death, he never worked with another partner. With each other, Rodgers and Hammerstein could truly follow every rainbow until they found their dreams, achieving what had previously been impossible, writing music and lyrics that meant something and conveyed powerful stories that have endured through subsequent generations and are still being performed by amateur and professional theater companies all over the world.

Works Cited

Ditsky, John. ““Stupid Sons of Fishes”: Shared Values in John Steinbeck and the Musical Stage.” Steinbeck Studies 15.2 (2004): 107-16. Print.

Green, Stanley. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Story. New York: The John Day Company, 1963.

Hischak, Thomas S. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980.

Mordden, Ethan. Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999.

Most, Andrea. “”You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.” Theater Journal 52.3 (2000): 307-37. Web.

Nolan, Frederick. The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.

“Our History.” R&H Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <;.

Stempel, Larry. Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.

Swope, John. “The G. & S. of Broadway: Richard Rodgers—Oscar Hammerstein 2d Have Similar Tastes Rodgers Is Fast.” New York Times (1923-Current file) 5  Apr. 1956, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007), ProQuest. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.

Taylor, Deems. Some Enchanted Evenings: The Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.

“What’s New on the Rialto? Richard Rodgers Indicates He Plans Long-Range Partnership With Oscar Hammerstein 2d—Other Items.” New York Times (1923-Current file)  25  Jun 1944, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007), ProQuest. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.

Alex Hsu resides in Massachusetts and loves going to school in Cambridge (possibly because she can see Fenway from her window).  A member of the class of 2013, Alex is majoring in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering and is striving to combine that passion with her love for creativity and story telling.

Her great love of stories grew from reading countless books, and watching numerous plays (especially musicals), TV shows and movies.  This inspired her to write “The Harmonious Partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II,” a research paper examining the lives of (in her opinion) the greatest music/lyrics writing duo the world has ever seen.  At first the topic choice simply stemmed from knowing all the words Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs, but as Alex delved deeper into her research she discovered how truly revolutionary their work was.  Seeing what they accomplished by following their hearts and intuition has inspired Alex to want to reach out to people in a similar way by someday working in the entertainment industry.  Rodgers and Hammerstein were extraordinary and their desire and ability to share powerful messages with generations upon generations is a story that had to be told.


One Response to The Harmonious Partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

  1. ROBERTA says:

    Thanks for this, it gave me valuable info about artists whose work matters to me. You also provided useful sources for me to pursue. Good job!

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