Richard Rodgers' best known creations were the ones he wrote in collaboration with Lorenz Hart (to 1943) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1943-1959). However, he continued to write after the death of Hammerstein. Plagued by the lack of a regular collaborator, changing public tastes, and, at least later on, ill-health, Rodgers' later plays are not in the same class as Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music. However, they all feature scores that showed that Rodgers had not lost his talent for making music. This page is an appreciation of some of Richard Rodgers' less-known work. The five plays that Rodgers wrote after Hammerstein's death are:
(1962) Music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers
Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965) Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Two By Two (1970) Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Rex (1976) Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
I Remember Mama (1979) Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Martin Charnin; Additional lyrics by Raymond Jessel
I have never actually seen any of these plays, but I know the songs from all of them.
No Strings was Rodgers' first play after the immensely popular The Sound of Music, and the first after the death of Oscar Hammerstein II. It is the only play for which Rodgers wrote lyrics in addition to music, and thus represents a rare opportunity to see this other talent of his. (He also wrote two new songs -- music and lyrics -- for the movie version of The Sound of Music.) This controversial Tony-award-winning play was a modest box-office success: it ran for 580 performances, a little less than the run of Flower Drum Song , which was the shortest running of Rodgers and Hammerstein's more successful plays. The play, in the tradition of South Pacific, dealt with issues of racism: it was about a romantic affair between a white man (Richard Kiley) and a black woman (Diahann Carroll). Interestingly, the play (written by Samuel Taylor) never made explicit mention of the interracial nature of the relation; but in America of the early 1960s, the mere depiction of such a relationship was enough to make a statement, and make the play controversial.
The most famous song from No Strings is The Sweetest Sounds, which was the theme music that opened and closed the play. The Sweetest Sounds ("The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head./ The kindest words I'll ever know are waiting to be said"), which ranks with Rodgers' best work, leads a score with a lot of good songs. Much of the music in No Strings is very upbeat. The lyrics sound more like Hart than Hammerstein, with a healthy dose of humor: How Sad ("How sad to be a woman/ Women are stuck with men"); Be My Host ("Anyone with money should be smart enough to see/ There are people who need it like me"); Love Makes the World Go ("Place where a thought never pays/ Wonderful world of chiches./.../Love makes the world go square."); Eager Beaver "Eager beavers always give a dam(n)").
No Strings would probably not have the same effect on stage today: the societal attitudes that it was protesting against no longer exist. But the Richard Rodgers songs as sung on the original cast album by Richard Kiley and Diahann Carroll remain a pleasure to listen to. It is one of my favorite Richard Rodgers scores.
Do I Hear A Waltz? paired composer Rodgers with a young Stephen Sondheim. The pairing was supposed to work well: Sondheim had been Hammerstein's protege. However, Rodgers and Sondheim proved unable to work together. Sondheim, although he had written lyrics to other people's music (Leonard Bernstein's in West Side Story and Jule Styne's in Gypsy), preferred to write both music and lyrics. Rodgers, who had worked so well with Hammerstein, found he had artistic differences with Sondheim, and with playwrite Arthur Laurents. The play clearly suffered as a result. The biting cynicism which is so typical of Sondheim's lyrics is absent from Do I Hear a Waltz?; in some cases at least because Rodgers overruled Sondheim. A famous example of this is the song We're Gonna Be All Right, a song about a troubled marriage. Sondheim's original lyric began: "If we can just hang on/ We'll have compatibility/ You mustn't worry,/ We're gonna be all right./ One day the ache is gone/ There's nothing like senility...". The rewritten version which was used in the play lacks the Sondheim bite: "It may not all be bliss,/ But every wound is treatable;/ We won't go under/ We're gonna be all right./ Don't see how we can miss/ Our team is undefeatable..." The relatively short run of the play is undoubtedly due to the personal clashes behind the scenes, which effected the quality of the final product.
Despite these problems, the score has many high points. The best known song, Do I Hear a Waltz?, is a Richard Rodgers waltz. The opening song, Someone Woke Up, expresses the wonder of the main character, Leona Samish, for Venice -- the music expresses this sense of wonder beautifully. Here We Are Again is a wonderful expression, in words and music, of what it is like to be alone. Thinking is reminiscent of the Double Soliloquy from South Pacific .
Do I Hear a Waltz? also has its share of humorous songs, particularly the very Sondheimish What Do We Do? We Fly!, but also Bargaining and others. Despite its problems, the Do I Hear a Waltz? score is worth listening to.
Noah and his ark came to the Broadway stage in Two By Two, in which Rodgers wrote songs with lyrics by Martin Charnin. The play, with a book by Peter Stone, put a humorous spin on the Biblical story of the Flood, and also addresses contemporary concerns ("From now on, it will be in man's hands to make or destroy the world"). It was a good play with well-written songs which would have lasted longer if it weren't for the shenanigans of its star, Danny Kaye, who turned the play into a vaudeville act after he tore ligaments in a leg. It is a shame that the songs are not better known.
Among the musical highlights of Two By Two are several very humorous pieces: Put Him Away, in which Noah's children question his sanity; There Has Got to Be a Rudder on the Ark; Ninety Again, When It Dries ("Think of all the fun we'll have/ Inventing brand-new sin!"). Rodgers' music bounces in these songs. There are also more serious songs, with music and lyrics full of feeling: Something Isn't There, Noah's wife's lament; An Old Man, another song sung by Noah's wife; the love song I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You, with a simple tune that matches the lyrics perfectly; Noah's love song to his wife You; Hey Girlie, Noah's song pleading with his wife not to die. Other musical highlights include the title song Two by Two, the opening song Why Me?, and the song of the pagan seductress The Golden Ram.
Despite its troubled history, Two By Two is a good play with good songs. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatre Library states that Two by Two is the post-Hammerstein Rodgers play most frequently licensed for performance.
Rodgers' play Rex was a flop by anyone's standards. With lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book by Sherman Yellen, Rex was an attempt to turn King Henry VIII into a sympathetic character. This attempt was generally agreed to be a failure, and the play closed after 49 performances. Rex is the only Richard Rodgers play since the 1940s not listed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatre Library.
Flop though it may have been, Rex had some good Richard Rodgers music. One of the characteristics of Rodgers' work is the variety of musical genres, each appropriate to the setting of the play. Rodgers' music in Rex has a decidedly Elizabethan sound. This is particularly noticeable in songs like Why? (in which Henry ponders why he doesn't have a male heir) and Christmas at Hampton Court. Other good songs are No Song More Pleasing and From Afar. The songs of the wives on the verge of beheading, Catherine's As Once I Loved You and Anne Boleyn's So Much You Loved Me, and the lullabye Elizabeth are also in the best of the Richard Rodgers tradition. My favorite is the the beautiful love song Away From You, which has been recorded separately.
Rex is probably Rodgers' most obscure play, but hidden in this forgotten play is some good music.
Richard Rodgers' final play was a musical adaptation of the play I Remember Mama, which he and Hammerstein had originally produced on Broadway. The original play, itself based on the book Mama's Bank Account in which Kathryn Forbes recalled her childhood, and particularly her Norwegian immigrant mother, also became a movie and a television series. When it was suggested to Rodgers that he write the score for a musical adaptation, he agreed. The lyrics were written mostly by Martin Charnin (Rodgers' collaborator on Two by Two), with some contributed by Raymond Jessel. The play did not do well at the box office, and closed after a short run. Critics suggested that the staging of the play lacked the warmth and intimacy required for the story, and that some of the casting (such as Liv Ullmann as Mama) was misconceived. Indubitably, a contributing factor to the play's poor showing was the general drop-off of interest in Broadway musicals. This last factor probably also was involved in the lack of an original cast album, the first Rodgers play since Oklahoma! not to have an original cast recording. Thankfully, a studio cast recording was eventually made, in which the two male leads (George Hearn as Papa and George S. Irving as Uncle Chris) reprised their roles but the rest of the roles were recast.
Whatever was wrong with I Remember Mama, it wasn't Richard Rodgers' score. At the end of his life (he died a few months after the play closed), he was still able to write great music. The title song I Remember Mama has a wistful memory-like quality to it. A Little Bit More and Ev'ry Day (Comes Something Beautiful) belong in the Richard Rodgers canon alongside such songs as Climb Ev'ry Mountain (Sound of Music) and A Hundred Million Miracles (Flower Drum Song). It is Not the End of the World has a restrained tune that fits the situation beatifully. And the love song, You Could Not Please Me More, has a simple tune which expresses the feelings of a long-married couple for each other. When and Time express the loneliness of an old woman who, in the first case, has seen her husband leave for Norway for an indefinite period of time, and in the later case is noticing how time has flown. A Writer Writes at Night deserves mention as well.
Richard Rodgers' last play may have been less than a success at the box office, but the songs he wrote for it are an appropriate close to a very prolific music-writing carrer.[Back to main Richard Rodgers page]