Printer Friendly

Richard Rodgers.

Richard Rodgers. By Geoffrey Block. (Yale Broadway Masters.) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. [xii, 215 p. ISBN 0-300-09747-6. $32.50.] Music examples, illustrations, indexes.

Geoffrey Block's Richard Rodgers inaugurates the Yale Broadway Masters series, slated at this point also to include studies of Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, and Sigmund Romberg. According to Block's preface, the series is for the general reader and students, "serious scholarly books that wear their scholarship lightly" (p. [ix]). The volumes will vary in contents, but each will include a biographical survey, at least one chapter on a single show, an assessment of the composer's legacy, a worklist, and bibliography.

This description is important to help one understand Block's intentions. Richard Rodgers is the subject of recent, full-length biographies by William G. Hyland (Richard Rodgers [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998]) and Meryle Secrest (Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001]), and there are several other related studies, especially on Rodgers's collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II. Block complements these sources in a compact book, forcing difficult choices concerning coverage. He compiled The Richard Rodgers Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) and has an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject that shines through in this study. Anyone interested in Rodgers and his musicals must read Block, but some will find his coverage idiosyncratic. This is, after all, a book with scant mention of Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, or The Sound of Music. These shows have been covered elsewhere--Block himself wrote about Pal Joey (in tandem with On Your Toes) and Carousel in his outstanding Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from "Show Boat" to Sondheim (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)--but a volume on Rodgers without significant mention of these shows is unusual.

So what does Block cover? In his "Introduction: Rodgers, the Workaholic," he notes that the composer loved his work so much that he wrote until the end. He mentions the problematic shows that Rodgers created after Hammerstein's death in 1960 and returns to these in his last chapter. The first chapter is a biographical sketch entitled "From Apprentice to Musical Dramatist." Block briefly covers Rodgers's childhood and his amateur shows with Lorenz Hart, then approaches the composer's musical education and analyzes mostly early songs to illustrate Rodgers's style. In the chapter's last segment, Block considers his subject's development as a musical dramatist. Like most of the musical analysis in the book, it is not too technical. Block barely mentions Rodgers's later career in this chapter.

Chapter 2, "A Tale of Two Connecticut Yankees," is a telling comparison between the 1927 version of Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and the 1943 revival. Block makes numerous useful observations about this show, one of the few from its decade that was revived in the 1940s. He demonstrates the difficulty in getting to know a Broadway show from that period, but brings us closer to the stars, the score, and what the audience saw. He documents differences in the later version, concluding that neither could be revived effectively. This is the bulk of what Block offers concerning Rodgers's career in the 1920s.

At the outset of chapter 3, Block notes that Rodgers and Hart returned from Hollywood in 1935. He briefly reviews their film work, but mostly considers the remainder of their Broadway collaboration, which included ten new shows between 1935 and 1943. Given the fairly stable group of co-creators with whom they worked, Block compiles a list of the "Rodgers and Hart Repertory Company, 1935-1943" (pp. 81-82), including talented librettists, directors, choreographers, and other figures. The chapter then becomes a source guide, with brief commentary, on each show's innovations, commonly cited anecdotes, and critical reception, followed by brief comments on sources. (A table of these sources appears at chapter's end.) The section continues with an essay on The Boys of Syracuse (1938) describing how director/book author George Abbott adapted it from Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, how closely the show follows Shakespeare, and the property's treatment in revivals. Block says a bit about the music and concludes that it is a strong and unjustly ignored show. He makes many insightful comments here, but he could have treated Rodgers and Hart more systematically.

In chapter 4, Block moves on to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, skipping entirely Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Allegro. This means that Block ignores the composer's biggest hit (Oklahoma!) and what Rodgers called his favorite score (Carousel), and he mentions almost nothing about Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway work in the 1950s. Fortunately, the coverage of South Pacific is superb, opening with a consideration of its fame and critical reception. Block then approaches James Michener's novel on which the show is based and discusses the show's somewhat controversial genesis from the perspectives of Rodgers and director Joshua Logan, who assisted Hammerstein with the script but received no author credit. He also delves into the manuscript evidence and describes the show's development. Fascinating consideration of the 1958 movie and the 2001 television version follows. The limited musical analysis at the end of the chapter primarily involves stylistic similarities in Rodgers's melodies.

There follows an essay on the three television versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1957), never intended as a Broadway musical. Julie Andrews starred in the original version, a production watched by 107 million Americans at a time when the total population was 180 million. Block consults primary sources to trace the show's development and offers a "leisurely synopsis" (p. 184) of the first version, for which the video is unavailable commercially. For the 1965 and 1997 productions, Block traces changes in the scripts and notes the addition of other music by Rodgers in each. He concludes that Cinderella "ranks securely along with The King and I and The Sound of Music as one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's great stage legacies of the 1950s" (p. 201).

The final chapter is an outstanding consideration of the five shows that Rodgers wrote after Hammerstein's death. No Strings, the only musical for which Rodgers also wrote the lyrics, ran for a satisfying 580 performances; but Do I Hear a Waltz?, Two By Two, Rex, and I Remember Mama were less successful, the last two commercial flops. Block probes each show in some detail, offering penetrating commentary, finding something to admire in each, and demonstrating that Rodgers's talent as a musical dramatist continued to the end of his life. Block also speculates on why some of the shows failed.

The chapter concludes with Block's estimation of Rodgers's legacy, a fascinating subject to which he devotes only four pages. We learn nothing new. He notes that there have been few successful, elderly creators in the history of Broadway, that it is difficult to explain why great songs work, and, once again, that Rodgers enjoyed his profession. Block merely notes that Rodgers's work has survived, concluding with cliched references to songs: "Every day is Rodgers's day, and he walks alone" (p. 249). New thinking about such a fundamental figure is difficult, but one might have hoped for more from an author who understands Rodgers so well. The book ends with a worklist, citations of major sources, and extensive notes.

Richard Rodgers by Geoffrey Block is uneven, filled with useful commentary and pithy insights that hit their mark for the student and general reader, but the project is flawed by limited coverage. Block took the description of the series that he edits to heart, but his book must be used along with more complete biographies and descriptions of shows that are not covered here. That was probably Block's intention, but the title of this study should be perhaps Essays on the Life and Work of Richard Rodgers.


University of Kansas
COPYRIGHT 2004 Music Library Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Popular Composers
Author:Laird, Paul R.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Previous Article:George Gershwin: A New Biography.
Next Article:Luca Marenzio: the career of a musician between the renaissance and the counter-reformation.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters