Rodgers & Hammerstein: Biography & Musicals

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Perhaps the greatest musical partnership of the 20th century, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote 11 musicals from 1943-1959. This lesson will explore the musical duo responsible for a significant chunk of the American musical canon.

Rodgers and Hammerstein

At any given time a piece of musical theatre by Rodgers and Hammerstein is probably being performed. How important is their work? Well, think of it this way: six of their eleven musicals were huge successes! We might consider a pop musician that has more than one hit single on an album a huge success. Here's the thing, though: with Rodgers and Hammerstein, you're looking at a group that wrote some of the most well known pieces of musical theatre in American history, won 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, 2 Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. Let's start by checking out the life and music of this dynamic duo.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, with Berlin and Tamiris
Rodgers and Hammerstein

A Brief Biography

First, a quick look at the life of Richard Rodgers. Rodgers was born June 28, 1902 in Queens, NYC, and he died on December 30, 1979. He studied music at the Institute of Musical Arts (what is now Julliard). He married Dorothy Feiner and they had three children, though tragically one of whom died at birth. His eldest daughter Mary composed the musical 'Once Upon a Mattress' and Mary's son Adam Guettel won a Tony award for his compositions for 'The Light in the Plazza.' His youngest daughter, Linda, had a son, Peter Melnick, who is the composer for the musical 'Adrift In Macao'. Talk about the family trade!

The other half of the duo, Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II also came from a theatrical family. However, Oscar's father would not allow his son to follow in his footsteps. Instead he pursued a law degree at Columbia University and Columbia Law School. He took part in his first play at 19 after his father died, and subsequently dropped out of law school to pursue the theatre. He married twice and had three children. His eldest son, William, was a talented stage manager and director. Hammerstein died of stomach cancer on August 23, 1960.

Their Awards

Before we jump into the music, let's take a quick look at their hardware. Rodgers was the first person to win what became known as the EGOT: he won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony. He's one of only two people to have also won a Pulitzer Prize! He was the principle composer for more than 900 songs and 43 musicals. As librettist, producer, and director, Hammerstein won two Oscars, eight Tony awards, a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

The Anthology of Rodgers and Hammerstein

Wait until you see the list of musicals Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote:

• Oklahoma!

• Carousel

• State Fair

• Allegro

• South Pacific

• The King and I

• Me and Juliet

• Pipe Dream

• Cinderella

• Flower Drum Song

• The Sound of Music

Granted, they're not all hits ('Me and Juliet' and 'Pipe Dream' were largely panned, and 'Flower Drum Song' did well, but didn't live up to their first six musicals), but the hits they had were huge. Almost just as important was how they revolutionized the musical theatre genre: using the song and dance numbers to enhance the story, rather than as diversion, bringing musical theatre closer to the classical opera.

Their first collaboration, 'Oklahoma!' ran for an astonishing five years, with an initial run from 1943-1948. It includes such standards as 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,' 'People Say We're in Love,' and the titular 'Oklahoma!'. Over the life of its run, 'Oklahoma!' has won a number of awards, including Tony, Olivier, Drama Desk, and Theatre World awards amongst others. The stage musical was later adapted for film in 1955, which won an Academy Award, while the soundtrack reached #1 on the charts.

'Carousel' was unique in that it was one of the first musicals to feature an antihero. It ran for two years, and included the standards 'If I Loved You' and 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' 'State Fair' was the duo's only musical written expressly for film. It was well received, though the stage revival did not fair as well. They won their only Oscar for 'It Might as Well Be Spring'. Their follow up, 'Allegro' was too dark and heavy (moralistic even), and it was a comparative failure. Fortunately, that failure propelled the duo on to their next musical…

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