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Richard Rodgers was the most successful composer of popular music for the theater in the 20th century. Over the course of a 60-year career, he wrote the song scores for 42 musicals staged on Broadway or in the West End, as well as 11 movie musicals and two television musicals (not counting numerous film and TV adaptations of his stage productions), along with a few instrumental works. Although many of his songs became popular hits in sheet music and on records, he never wrote music independent from some dramatic context. In addition to composing, he also occasionally collaborated on librettos for his shows and served as a producer for them. His work won him Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award. For most of his career, he worked exclusively with one of two lyricists, Lorenz Hart (from 1919 to 1943) or Oscar Hammerstein II (from 1943 to 1960). His 38 professional shows and films with Hart are remembered primarily for the individual songs that came out of them, including "Manhattan," "Blue Moon," "It's Easy to Remember," "Soon," and "There's a Small Hotel," all of which were recorded for major hits. For the 11 productions with Hammerstein (nine stage musicals, one movie musical, and one television musical), it's the works themselves that remain memorable, particularly Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, each of which produced an original-cast and/or soundtrack album that topped the charts. Rodgers adapted his writing style to each partner. With Hart, who usually wrote the lyrics after Rodgers had composed the tune, he wrote catchy songs that matched his partner's wit and wordplay, resulting in compositions that attracted jazz musicians as well as pop singers. With Hammerstein, who usually wrote the words first, he created sweeping, long-lined melodies that sometimes recalled operetta. (He once said that he often met people who thought that the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hart was a different person from the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and he wasn't entirely sure they were wrong.) After Hammerstein's death, Rodgers continued to work for another 19 years -- right up to his own death, in fact -- sometimes collaborating with new lyricists, but frequently writing both words and music by himself, and some of his more successful works late in life were the ones he did alone.
Rodgers was born into an upper-middle-class family in New York; his father, William Abraham Rodgers, was a physician. Dr. Rodgers and his wife, Mamie (Levy) Rodgers, frequently attended Broadway musicals and would buy the scores of the shows to sing and play at home. Rodgers early on showed an interest in music, picking out melodies on the piano. By the age of nine, he was writing them himself. The first complete song he recalled writing was "Campfire Days," a tribute the summer camp he attended in 1916. His older brother Mortimer attended nearby Columbia University, and on March 28, 1917, still 14 years old, Rodgers attended the Columbia Varsity Show, Home, James, after which his brother introduced him to Oscar Hammerstein II, then a Columbia law student, who had written the book and lyrics for the show and appeared in it. (Lorenz Hart, also a Columbia student and also a participant in the show, did not meet Rodgers on this occasion.)
Rodgers' brother also provided him the opportunity to write the music for his first show. Mortimer Rodgers belonged to the Akron Club, an athletic organization, which decided to raise money to buy cigarettes for American troops fighting in World War I and to that end put on a musical revue. None of the members were musically inclined, however, so Rodgers was recruited to write the tunes, and the show, One Minute Please, gave one performance at the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel on December 29, 1917. A little over a year later, in the late winter of 1919, while working on a second benefit show, Up Stage and Down (also mounted for one performance, at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on March 8, 1919), Rodgers finally was introduced to Lorenz Hart, who was then adapting German plays into English for the Schubert theatrical organization; the two agreed to form a songwriting partnership. Hart directed a revised version of Up Stage and Down called Twinkling Eyes that played for one performance in a Broadway theater on May 18, 1919, although he did not write any of the songs, many of which had lyrics by Rodgers, along with three contributed by Hammerstein (who was already launched on a professional career).
Rodgers & Hart scored an early success when they persuaded veteran comic actor and producer Lew Fields to interpolate one of their songs, "Any Old Place With You," into his show A Lonely Romeo in the late summer of 1919, Rodgers' first composition to be heard in a regular Broadway show. Meanwhile, the budding composer was still only 17 years old, and in the fall of 1919 he began taking extension courses at Columbia, making him a freshman and eligible to write the varsity show, which he admitted was his only reason for going to the college. The songs he wrote for the show, Fly With Me (which had four performances starting on March 24, 1920), convinced Fields to let Rodgers & Hart write the songs for his next Broadway musical, Poor Little Ritz Girl. Fields later hedged his bet and replaced half of the songs with ones by Sigmund Romberg and Alex Gerber, but Rodgers & Hart still could claim they had had their first show on Broadway when the production opened for a 93-performance run on July 28, 1920.
Up to this point, the career of the 18-year-old Rodgers seemed to be moving very fast; it then slowed down considerably. He again wrote the Columbia Varsity Show, You'll Never Know, directed by Hammerstein and others, which played four performances starting on April 20, 1921. But after that he left Columbia and enrolled at the Institute of Musical Art (later renamed Juilliard) to concentrate on music, staying until June 1923. During this period, he and Hart wrote songs for a number of amateur shows, but their next professional effort came when they, along with Lew Fields' son Herbert, wrote a play, The Melody Man, under the pseudonym Herbert Richard Lorenz, along with a couple of songs for it, and Lew Fields produced it starting on May 13, 1924, for 56 performances. At this point, finished with his education and having reached the age of 23, Rodgers considered giving up music as a career. He had been offered a job as a salesman and was about to accept it when the Theatre Guild asked him and Hart to write the songs for another benefit show, a musical revue called The Garrick Gaieties. The show played its scheduled two performances on May 17, 1925, but proved so popular that it was given a regular commercial run, eventually amounting to 161 performances, Rodgers & Hart's first hit show. Their score produced two song hits, as well. "Manhattan" was given popular instrumental recordings by the Knickerbockers and Paul Whiteman's orchestra. The Knickerbockers also recorded "Sentimental Me," as did the Regent Club Orchestra led by pianists Victor Arden and Phil Ohman. (Rodgers would have been more interested in the success of these songs in sheet music sales, however. Like such peers as Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, he much preferred to have his songs performed exactly as they had been written for the stage, not as they were rearranged by dance bands or reinterpreted by pop singers on records, even though those recordings helped popularize his work.)
The success of The Garrick Gaieties launched Rodgers & Hart. Over the next six years, they mounted a remarkable 16 additional shows in New York and London, all but three of which ran at least 100 performances each, a benchmark of profitability in the period. With the exception of 1927's A Connecticut Yankee, none proved memorable as shows, but they provided a steady stream of songs that produced hit recordings and went on to become standards: from Dearest Enemy (1925), "Here in My Arms," recorded instrumentally by the orchestras of Leo Reisman and Jack Shilkret; from The Girl Friend (1926), the title song, recorded by George Olsen & His Orchestra, and "The Blue Room," recorded vocally by the Revelers and instrumentally by Sam Lanin & His Orchestra and the Melody Sheiks, and revived for a chart entry in 1949 by Perry Como, who sang it in the Rodgers & Hart film biography Words and Music; from the second edition of The Garrick Gaieties (1926), "Mountain Greenery," recorded instrumentally by the orchestra of Roger Wolfe Kahn; from Peggy-Ann (1926), "Where's That Rainbow?," recorded by Olsen, and "A Tree in the Park," recorded by Helen Morgan and by Frank Black's orchestra; from A Connecticut Yankee (1927), "Thou Swell," recorded by the Broadway Nitelites, and "My Heart Stood Still" (originally heard in the London revue One Dam Thing After Another), recorded by Olsen, the Broadway Nitelites, and Paul Whiteman; from Present Arms (1928), "You Took Advantage of Me," recorded by Whiteman, and "Do I Hear You Saying 'I Love You'?," recorded by the team of Vaughn DeLeath and Frank Harris; from Spring Is Here (1929), "With a Song in My Heart," recorded by Reisman and by James Melton; from Simple Simon (1930), "Ten Cents a Dance," recorded by Ruth Etting, who introduced it on-stage; from Ever Green (1930), "Dancing on the Ceiling," recorded by Jack Hylton & His Orchestra; and from America's Sweetheart (1931), "I've Got Five Dollars," recorded by the orchestras of Emil Coleman and Ben Pollack.
The introduction of sound in movies in 1927 led to an interest in film musicals, and several of Rodgers & Hart's shows were adapted as motion pictures, often much altered. Spring Is Here, Leathernecking (based on Present Arms), and Heads Up all opened as movies in 1930. Not surprisingly, the film studios became interested in hiring songwriters to write musicals directly for the screen. At the same time, the onset of the Depression in late 1929 made it more difficult to mount shows on Broadway. Starting in 1930, Rodgers & Hart began working regularly in Hollywood, and they did not have a new musical on Broadway for nearly five years between 1931 and 1935. (Meanwhile, Rodgers married Dorothy Feiner on March 5, 1930. Their first daughter, Mary, went on to become a musical theater composer, as did her son, Adam Guettel.) Rodgers & Hart signed a contract with Warner Bros., but eventually worked for several of the movie studios. Their first major film was The Hot Heiress, released in March 1931, but their first real success in the movies came with Love Me Tonight, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, which opened in August 1932 and featured the song hits "Love Me Tonight" (recorded by Bing Crosby and by George Olsen), "Lover" (recorded by Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, and Greta Keller, and revived for a Top Ten hit by Peggy Lee in 1952), "Isn't It Romantic?" (recorded by Harold Stern & His Orchestra), and "Mimi" (recorded by Chevalier and by Frank Crumit with the Paul Biese Trio). Al Jolson, who starred in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (February 1933), made a recording of the Rodgers & Hart title song. Their last significant success in Hollywood came the film Mississippi, starring Crosby and released in April 1935. "Soon," which Crosby recorded, was number one on the first broadcast of the radio series Your Hit Parade on April 20, 1935, and "It's Easy to Remember," also recorded by Crosby, was on the list as well.
One other major Rodgers & Hart song dates from their Hollywood period. They wrote a song called "Prayer" for the film Hollywood Revue, but it was cut before release. With a new set of lyrics, it became "The Bad in Every Man," sung by Shirley Ross in Manhattan Melodrama in 1934. Hart then wrote yet another lyric, and it was published independently as "Blue Moon," earning successful recordings by Glen Gray & the Casa Loma Orchestra, Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, and Al Bowlly. After Mel Tormé sang it in Words and Music, he recorded it for a chart entry in 1949, as did Billy Eckstine. Elvis Presley had a chart entry with it in 1956, and in 1961 the Marcels took a doo wop treatment to number one, followed by charting covers by Herb Lance and the Ventures.
Rodgers became disenchanted with the lax work ethic and the lowly status of songwriters in Hollywood, and he and Hart returned to New York, where they re-established themselves with their score for the stage extravaganza Jumbo. Opening November 16, 1935, it ran 233 performances, and such songs as "Little Girl Blue," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," and "My Romance" might have become hits at the time if the producer had not placed a ban on radio performances of them in a misguided attempt to boost the box office. (That producer had his name over the title when Billy Rose's Jumbo was released as a film starring Doris Day in 1962, accompanied by a soundtrack album that reached number 33 in the charts.) Over the next seven years, Rodgers & Hart put nine new musicals on Broadway, of which eight ran for at least 235 performances each, enough to ensure a profit. These shows from the team's second phase of theatrical work tend to be somewhat better known for themselves, especially because many were adapted as popular motion pictures. Increasingly, too, the songwriters also served as librettists or producers of the shows. On Your Toes (1936), with a book by Rodgers, Hart, and George Abbott, included "There's a Small Hotel," which was recorded by Hal Kemp & His Orchestra and had ten weeks in the hit parade, as well as "Glad to Be Unhappy," revived for a Top 40 hit by the Mamas & the Papas in 1967. It also featured a ballet, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," and when this was recreated in Words and Music in 1948, it became popular, with chart recordings by Lennie Hayton & the M-G-M Studio Orchestra (excerpted from the soundtrack) in 1949, Ray Anthony in 1952, and the Ventures in 1964. Babes in Arms (1937), with a book by Rodgers & Hart, was full of songs that became standards, among them "I Wish I Were in Love Again," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and "My Funny Valentine," as well as "Where or When," which Dion & the Belmonts revived for a Top Ten hit in 1960 and the Lettermen charted with in 1963. The title song from I Married an Angel (May 1938), another show with a Rodgers & Hart libretto, was recorded by Larry Clinton & His Orchestra and spent seven weeks in the hit parade. The Boys From Syracuse (November 1938) included "This Can't Be Love," recorded by Benny Goodman, and spent ten weeks in the hit parade. Too Many Girls (1939) included "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," recorded by Goodman, with seven weeks in the hit parade. A dispute between the songwriters' licensing agency ASCAP and the radio networks probably prevented any of the songs from Pal Joey (1940) from being hits at the time. But "Bewitched" belatedly scored in 1950 with no less than nine chart recordings, five of which reached the Top Ten, the most successful being the one by Bill Snyder & His Orchestra. Columbia Records' 1950 studio-cast recording of the score helped lead to a Broadway revival that was even more successful than the original production. Frank Sinatra starred in a movie version in 1957, resulting in a number two soundtrack album.
By the late '30s, Rodgers was finding Hart more and more difficult to work with. An alcoholic, the lyricist became increasingly unreliable to the point that Rodgers sometimes had to finish the words to songs himself, and he was only able to get Hart to work on the team's 1942 musical By Jupiter by taking a room in the hospital where Hart was recovering from alcohol-related illness. Rodgers had been approached by the Theatre Guild with an offer to adapt the play Green Grow the Lilacs, about life in the Indian Territory at the turn of the century, into a musical. Hart was not interested in such homespun subject matter, and the two agreed to work with outside collaborators for the first time since in 20 years. Hart took up projects with other composers, none of which came to fruition. Rodgers called Hammerstein, who agreed to write the book and lyrics for the show that became Oklahoma!
Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943, was a milestone in several respects. First, it was wildly successful, running for more than five years, a total of 2,212 performances, which made it the most popular stage musical in Broadway history up to that time. One result of that success was that it changed expectations about musicals, many of which had been loosely plotted combinations of songs and dances up to that time. Oklahoma! was not the first "integrated" musical in which the songs are written in character and serve to advance the plot, but its success made such musicals the dominant style for Broadway thereafter. Oklahoma! also revolutionized the record business when Rodgers & Hammerstein agreed to let Decca Records record the original cast on an album of the show's songs. In its initial release as a set of 78s, that album sold half a million copies; it was thought to have sold another two million by 1960. Alfred Drake, who starred in the show, reached the charts with his recording of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," excerpted from the cast album. Pop singers were quick to cover other songs: "People Will Say We're in Love" was given three chart recordings, two of which reached the Top Ten, a duet by Bing Crosby and Trudy Erwin, and a solo version by Frank Sinatra; Crosby and Erwin also bested Sinatra on "Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin'," getting to number five as he peaked at 15; and "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" was a Top Ten hit for Hildegarde with Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians.
The success of Oklahoma! did not immediately spell the end of Rodgers & Hart and the establishment of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Rather, Rodgers went back to working with Hart on a revised version of A Connecticut Yankee, while Hammerstein wrote an English-language, musical-theater adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. But five days after A Connecticut Yankee's opening on November 17, 1943, Hart died of pneumonia. After the successful opening of Hammerstein's Carmen Jones, with Oklahoma! still doing sellout business, Rodgers proposed making their partnership permanent. Their next musical was Carousel, based on Liliom, a Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnár that had been translated by Hart. Opening on April 19, 1945, it ran 890 performances, with a cast album that spent six weeks at number one on Billboard magazine's newly created album chart. "If I Loved You" was given four Top Ten recordings, the most successful by Perry Como (with a Top 40 chart revival by Chad & Jeremy in 1965), while Frank Sinatra recorded "You'll Never Walk Alone" for a Top Ten hit. (There were four chart revivals in the 1960s, the most successful of which was Patti LaBelle & Her Bluebelles' Top 40 hit in 1964.) Rodgers & Hammerstein then accepted an offer to write songs for a musical remake of the film State Fair. Released in August 1945, the movie boasted six songs, among them the Academy Award-winning "It Might as Well Be Spring," of which there were three Top Ten recordings, the most successful by bandleader Sammy Kaye. There were also three chart recordings of "That's for Me," two in the Top Ten, with Jo Stafford having the most popular one. Dick Haymes, who appeared in the film, charted with both songs and also recorded his own State Fair solo album, which hit number one. (Much later, the film was adapted into a stage musical that reached Broadway in 1996.) Returning to Broadway, Rodgers & Hammerstein next launched Allegro (October 10, 1947), their first commercial disappointment, although it had a run of 315 performances and "So Far" brought three chart recordings, with one, Frank Sinatra's, making the Top Ten. In December 1948, Words and Music opened in movie theaters. Its biography of Rodgers & Hart was largely fictionalized, but it was full of the songwriters' classic songs, and the soundtrack album featuring Mickey Rooney (who played Hart), Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and others, topped the charts for six weeks.
Rodgers & Hammerstein bounced back from Allegro with South Pacific (April 7, 1949), based on two stories in James Michener's bestseller Tales of the South Pacific and starring Broadway veteran Mary Martin and opera star Ezio Pinza. Winning the Tony Award for best musical, the show ran 1,925 performances, second at the time only to Oklahoma!, and the cast album spent a record 69 weeks at number one, reportedly selling nearly three million copies by 1963. It also produced several pop hits: "Bali Ha'i" (five chart recordings, two in the Top Ten, with Perry Como in the lead), "Some Enchanted Evening" (seven chart recordings, six in the Top Ten, with Como hitting number one, plus a Top 40 revival by Jay & the Americans in 1965 and a chart entry by Jane Olivor in 1977), and "A Wonderful Guy" (four chart recordings, led by Margaret Whiting). The King and I (March 29, 1951), Rodgers & Hammerstein's fifth show, was their third to have more than a thousand performances, 1,246 to be exact, and their second Tony Award winner for best musical. Although the cast album stopped at number two in the charts, the score included "We Kiss in a Shadow," taken into the charts by Sinatra as "We Kissed in a Shadow," along with such future standards as "Hello, Young Lovers," which Paul Anka revived for a Top 40 hit in 1960; the instrumental "March of the Siamese Children," a chart entry for Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen in 1962; and "I Have Dreamed," a chart record for Chad & Jeremy in 1965.
Rodgers had taken occasional assignments to write purely instrumental music over the years, but his most ambitious was the score for the documentary television series Victory at Sea, telling the story of the naval battles of World War II, broadcast weekly over NBC in 26 half-hour installments from December 26, 1952, to April 6, 1953. After it was edited and released as a feature film, a soundtrack album became a Top Ten hit in 1954, followed by equally successful successors in 1958 and 1961.
Rodgers & Hammerstein worked regularly through the rest of the 1950s, generally without matching the success of their previous shows on-stage, although films of those shows were massively popular. Their next musical, Me and Juliet (May 28, 1953) had a disappointing 358-performance run, but the cast album reached number two and "No Other Love" became a number one hit for Perry Como. The first of several big-budget film versions of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, Oklahoma! was released in October 1955, accompanied by a soundtrack album that spent four weeks at number one and sold two million copies. In contrast, the next of the team's stage shows, Pipe Dream (November 13, 1955), was their least successful, with a run of only 246 performances, although Como hit number 11 with "All at Once You Love Her" and Eddie Fisher reached number 20 with "Everybody's Got a Home but Me," beating out a competing chart version by Roy Hamilton. Carousel reached the screen in February 1956, along with its soundtrack LP, which hit number two and sold a million copies, and The King and I followed in July, its soundtrack hitting number one and going gold, with sales eventually passing the one-million mark. Ella Fitzgerald hit the charts with her double LP Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book in March 1957, reaching number 11. Rodgers & Hammerstein turned to television, writing their own version of Cinderella, which was broadcast live on CBS March 31, 1957, starring Julie Andrews, followed by a charting album and charting cover of "Do I Love You (Because You're Beautiful)" by Vic Damone. (There were subsequent versions in 1965 and 1997.) Then came the South Pacific movie in March 1958, accompanied by a soundtrack that spent 31 weeks at number one. Both the film and LP were the year's most successful, and the album reportedly sold eight million copies worldwide. Rodgers made a rare appearance as a recording artist himself in 1958, accompanying Mary Martin at the piano for the LP Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays.
Rodgers & Hammerstein's eighth stage musical, Flower Drum Song (December 1, 1958) was their biggest success in seven years, running 601 performances, with a number one, gold-selling cast album that eventually sold over a million copies worldwide. (The movie version that followed two years later produced a soundtrack that hit number 15.) But the duo scored their last great success with The Sound of Music (November 16, 1959), again starring Mary Martin. It tied for the Tony Award for best musical and ran 1,443 performances, with a Grammy-winning cast album that spent 16 weeks at number one (with a reported sale of over two million copies). The score included such favorites as "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" (which produced chart recordings for Tony Bennett in 1960 and the Hesitations in 1968), "The Sound of Music" (a chart entry for Patti Page), "Do-Re-Mi" (a chart entry for choral leader Mitch Miller who employed the children from the cast on the recording), and "My Favorite Things" (a Christmastime chart entry for Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass in an instrumental recording that helped establish it as a holiday classic). But on August 23, 1960, the Rodgers & Hammerstein team ended when Hammerstein died of cancer. 1
Rodgers, then 58 years old, initially went on alone while seeking another collaborator. His music was heard in the documentary television series Winston Churchill - The Valiant Years, running from November 27, 1960, to May 21, 1961. Then he turned his attention to Broadway, writing both words and music for No Strings (March 15, 1962). The show ran a profitable 580 performances and produced a Top Ten cast album that won a Grammy Award, while "The Sweetest Sounds" was nominated for the Grammy for Song of the Year. He also wrote new songs for a 1962 remake of State Fair starring Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Bobby Darin. The soundtrack album reached number 12. Also in 1962, Rodgers was appointed president and producing director of the Music Theater of Lincoln Center, an organization devoted to mounting limited-run summer revivals of great musicals in the New York State Theater at the recently constructed Lincoln Center for the Arts complex in New York. From 1964 to 1969, he put on a series of shows including revivals of his own works and such classics as Annie Get Your Gun and Show Boat.
Rodgers' last great triumph came in March 1965 with the opening of the film version of The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews. He wrote two new songs ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good") for the film, which went on to best Gone with the Wind as the highest grossing motion picture in history up to that time, with a soundtrack that hit number one and went gold, reportedly selling seven million copies worldwide. The same month brought a new Rodgers musical, Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which he enlisted Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Gypsy) as lyricist. But the show was a disappointment, running only 220 performances, with a cast album that barely reached the Top 100. Another generation became aware of Rodgers' early work with The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, which entered the charts in June 1967 and rose to number 20. Rodgers returned to writing by himself for a television musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Androcles and the Lion starring Noël Coward that aired in November 1967. His last profitable musical was Two by Two, which paired him with lyricist Martin Charnin (later known for Annie) and starred Danny Kaye; it ran 343 performances after opening November 10, 1970. Rex (1976), written with Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) was a flop, but Rodgers, by now in his 70s, continued to work. I Remember Mama, his final musical, with lyrics by Charnin, opened May 31, 1979, and ran 108 performances, until September 2, 1979. Four months later, Rodgers died of heart failure at age 77.
Well into the 21st century, interest in Rodgers' music showed no signs of dying out, however. On the contrary, his songs with Hart continued to form a basic vocabulary (along with his peers, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter) for jazz musicians and traditional pop singers, while his musicals with Hammerstein were revived frequently on stages from Broadway to grade schools. (Even some of the Rodgers & Hart musicals enjoyed revivals, albeit with drastically revised librettos and numerous song interpolations.) As his centenary passed in 2002, Rodgers' reputation as the pre-eminent composer for the American musical theater seemed secure.
Robert Russell Bennett (June 15, 1894 – August 18, 1981)
was an American composer and arranger, best known for his orchestration of many well-known Broadway and Hollywood musicals by other composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. In 1957 and 2008, Bennett received Tony Awards recognizing his orchestrations for Broadway shows. Early in his career he was often billed as Russell Bennett."Robert Russell Bennett" – Internet Broadway Database (Retrieved on May 1, 2008) "Robert Russell Bennett" – Internet Movie Database (Retrieved on March 24, 2009)
ContentsLife and career1.1 Early life1.2 Early career1.3 Broadway arranger1.4 Other commissions1.5 Musical profile1.6 Later years and legacy
Life and career
Robert Russell Bennett was born in 1894 to a musical family in Kansas City, Missouri. His father, George Bennett, played violin in the Kansas City Symphony and trumpet at the Grand Opera House, while his mother, May, worked as a pianist and teacher. She taught Bennett piano, while his father taught him violin and trumpet.
The Bennett family moved to a farm in Freeman, Missouri, when Bennett was four, to speed his recovery from polio. By that time, he had demonstrated his aptitude for music and his remarkable ear by picking out the finale of Beethoven’s "Moonlight" Sonata on the white keys of the piano. By his early adolescence, his father often called upon him to play any given instrument as a utility member or substitute player within Bennett’s Band in Freeman. In his autobiography, Bennett recalled finding a ragtime tune on the piano at age ten and being informed by his mother that such music was trash—this lesson taught him to be, as he called it, a “life-long musical snob.” His mother also taught his academic lessons until he was twelve due to health concerns; his health remained an obstacle when Bennett later decided to join the Army.
After completing his secondary education, Bennett moved to Kansas City to be a freelance musician, performing throughout the city as well as with the symphony. He also began his first musical training outside of a home environment with Danish composer-conductor Dr. Carl Busch. Busch taught him counterpoint and harmony until 1916, when Bennett took his savings and moved to New York City. He eventually found a job as a copyist with G. Schirmer while continuing to freelance and to build a network of contacts, particularly with the New York Flute Club.
In 1917 he volunteered for the Army. Although he yearned for an active role, his youthful health woes caused the draft board to mark him for limited service. However, he successfully appealed this classification and became the director of the 70th Infantry Band at Camp Funston, Kansas. He valiantly attempted to improve the “disgraceful” musical standards of the unit, but found his efforts thwarted when the Spanish flu swept through the post in 1918. Upon his discharge several months later, he returned to New York. His relationship with Winifred Edgerton Merrill, a society matron who had been the first woman to receive a doctorate from Columbia University, led to rewards both financial and emotional—she had been one of his first employers in the city, and she introduced him to her daughter Louise, whom he married on December 26, 1919. Their daughter, Jean, was born a year later. Bennett later studied composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger 1926-1929.
His career as an arranger began to blossom in 1919 while he was employed by T.B. Harms, a prominent publishing firm for Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. Dependable yet creative within the confines of formulaic arranging, Bennett soon branched out as an orchestrator and arranger for Broadway productions, collaborating particularly with Jerome Kern.
Although Bennett would work with several of the top names on Broadway and in film including George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Kurt Weill, his collaborations with Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers stand out both for sheer volume and for highlighting different facets of an arranger’s relationship with a composer. Bennett described his own philosophy: "The perfect arrangement is one that manages to be most ‘becoming’ to the melody at all points." Through this, he kept his commercial arrangements simple and straightforward, with a careful ear for balance and color.With Jerome Kern
Kern's working relationship with Bennett serves as a clear illustration of this point. For example, when orchestrating Show Boat, Bennett would work from sketches laid out quite specifically by Kern, which included melodies, rough parts, and harmonies. The original sketches appear remarkably close to Bennett’s completed scores; as one scholar puts it, "Bennett didn't have much to make up."With Richard Rodgers
In contrast, Rodgers allowed Bennett a greater degree of autonomy. The pair had first collaborated in 1927, but the majority of their partnership occurred in the 1940s and 1950s. While scoring Oklahoma! in 1943, Bennett proved himself invaluable by reworking an elaborate and possibly out-of-place selection into the title song. His most legendary contribution to the partnership, however, occurred during the scoring of the television series Victory at Sea (1952–3). Richard Rodgers contributed twelve basic themes for the series, with three earmarked for the first episode, but those who worked on the series attribute its eleven-and-a-half hours worth of music principally to Bennett. Rodgers himself wrote, “I give him [the credit] without undue modesty, for making my music sound better than it was.”With George Gershwin
With Gershwin and his Broadway musical scores, Bennett would work from annotated short scores (dual folios for piano with general suggestions for which instruments would play what.) He worked very closely as Gershwin's assistant during the period in which Gershwin composed his score for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, Shall We Dance, often spending late nights with Gershwin rushing to complete orchestrations for deadlines. The next year Gershwin died. Later Bennett would be turned to yet again as a definitive orchestrator of Gershwin's other works, both on Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture and the orchestral medley Gershwin in Hollywood.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was engaged in writing a 2-piano reduction of his Piano Concerto No. 4, containing his final revisions, when death overtook him. Robert Russell Bennett completed the reduction at the request of Rachmaninoff's widow.
Schooled by his mother to disdain popular music, Robert Russell Bennett found the dichotomy between his serious compositions and his arranging work to be a lifelong struggle. In spite of his prolific output, which included the opera Maria Malibran, more than seven symphonies, a large variety of chamber works, and at least five concertos, his reputation today as a classical composer rests primarily on two oft-recorded pieces, the Suite of Old American Dances and Symphonic Songs for Band. This may be attributed both to the modesty so characteristic of Bennett and to the Eastman Wind Ensemble recordings which popularized them. In his composing, Bennett brought to bear his considerable talent for orchestration as well as a gift for conceiving melodies and harmonic structure in his head; longtime Bennett copyist Adele Combattente (of Chappell Music) confirmed his ability to write parts in score order, as opposed to filling in leftover parts and doublings as he completed primary melodic lines. He nearly always scored directly in ink, rather than pencil.
Many of Bennett’s original works came about through direct commission; the 1939 World’s Fair, CBS radio ("Hollywood" for orchestra), and the League of Composers ("Mademoiselle" for the Goldman Band) provide prominent examples. A significant number of commissions were initiated by Robert Austin Boudreau, a former member of the Goldman Band, and his American Wind Symphony. The AWS traveled via American rivers and waterways, inspiring several works with nautical themes, including the Ohio River Suite and West Virginia Epic. Boudreau would provide a basic concept to Bennett, who would complete the new work rapidly and who would always attend the premiere. Boudreau recalls, “We never offered him a lot of money for those commissions…He was an elegant person. He was always more interested in music than in dollars.”
Many works were written for his musical acquaintances, including Hexapoda and a concerto for violinist Louis Kaufman, Tema Sporca con Variazoni for duo-pianists Appleton and Field, Suite for Flute and B flat Clarinet for Frances Blaisdell and Alex Williams, and the Rondo Capriccioso for Georges Barrére (Bennett's friendship with flutists William Kincaid and John Wummer prompted other chamber works).
Later years and legacy
In later years, Bennett again developed major health problems. “He never talked about it, but always showed joy,” Boudreau states. “It wasn’t just a business relationship we had, it was more than just music. We were pals, and he would treat me as a son.” Bennett did not slow his output, creating original works for the nation’s bicentennial celebrations and accepting commissions from a variety of sources, including a Presbyterian church in Florida, for which he accepted only a modest fee.
Bennett died of liver cancer in 1981. His memory rests largely on the popular arrangements which so conflicted the composer, but those who knew him also remember him as a close friend and gracious mentor. Robert Shaw wrote, “And it is just as certainly because of his kindness, honesty, humor, and wisdom that our hearts are warmed to see Robert Russell Bennett without peer in his field.” Robert Russell Bennett is also known to have mentored Broadway and concert arranger William David Brohn; they first worked together on the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Show Boat.
ContentsList of Works (incomplete)1.1 Books1.2 Original compositions (selected)1.2.1 Orchestra1.2.2 Stage Works1.2.3 Incidental Music1.2.4 Concert Band or Wind Orchestra1.2.5 Chamber Music1.2.6 Keyboard Works1.3 Broadway arrangements and orchestrations (a selection)1.4 Concert Arrangements
List of Works (incomplete)
Bennett's book Instrumentally Speaking was published in 1975 by Belwin-Mills, but is now out of print. His autobiography, Nor Is Not Moved—A Music Arranger's Story, was nearly complete at the time of his death in New York City, and was edited and published later (1999) in the book The Broadway Sound ISBN 1-58046-022-4. George Ferencz, the world expert on Bennett and professor of music at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who edited The Broadway Sound, has also written a thoroughly researched bio-bibliography about the composer.
Original compositions (selected)
OrchestraAbraham Lincoln: A Likeness in Symphony Form [“Abraham Lincoln” Symphony] (1929)Adagio Eroico (To The Memory of a Soldier) (c. 1932)An Adventure in High Fidelity (1954; commissioned by RCA Victor for a demonstration LP)Antique Suite for Clarinet and Orchestra (1941; dedicated to Benny Goodman)Charleston Rhapsody [small orchestra] (1926, rev. 1933)Classic Serenade for Strings [Portraits of Three Friends] (1941)A Commemoration Symphony: Stephen Collins Foster [SATB Chorus, vocal soloists, and orchestra] (1959)Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1971 or 1972)Concerto for Viola, Harp and Orchestra (1940 or 1941; revised c. 1960 for cello, harp and orchestra)Concerto for Violin in A Major (1941)Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra (1958 or 1959)Concerto Grosso for Dance Band and Orchestra [Sketches from an American Theatre] (1932)Concert Variations on a Crooner’s Theme [violin and orchestra] (1949)A Dry Weather Legend [flute and orchestra] (1946)An Early American Ballade on Melodies of Stephen Foster [small orchestra] (1932)Eight Etudes For Symphony Orchestra (1938)“The Four Freedoms”—A Symphony after Four Paintings by Norman Rockwell (1943)Hollywood [Introduction and Scherzo] (1936)Kansas City Album [Seven Songs for Orchestra] (1949)March for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1930)Nocturne and Appassionata [piano and orchestra] (1941)Orchestral Fragments from the American Opera “Maria Malibran” (1934)Overture To An Imaginary Drama [dedicated to Fritz Mahler] (1946)Overture to the Mississippi (1950)Paysage [Landscape] (1927 or 1928)Piano Concerto in B Minor (1947)Sights and Sounds [an Orchestral Entertainment] (1929)Six Variations in Fox-Trot Time on a Theme by Jerome Kern [chamber orchestra] (1933)Suite of Old American Dances (1950 orchestration of his 1949 original for concert band)Symphony [#1] (1926)Symphony [dedicated to Fritz Reiner] (1962)Symphony in D for the Dodgers (1941; a WOR radio commission, with narrator “Red” Barber in the final movement)
Stage WorksColumbine [pantomime ballet w/theater orchestra] (1916)Crystal [opera] (1972)The Enchanted Kiss [opera] (1944 or 1945)Endimion [operetta-ballet] (1926 or 1927)Hold Your Horses [musical comedy; words and music by Russell Bennett, Robert A. Simon and Owen Murphy] (1933)An Hour of Delusion [one-act opera] (1928)Maria Malibran [opera; libretto by Robert A. Simon] (1934)Princess Charming [musical play; music and lyrics mostly by Albert Sirmay and Harry Ruby, with add’l songs by Russell Bennett and Jack Waller] (1926)
Incidental MusicThe Firebrand [play by Edwin Justus Mayer; music by Bennett and Maurice Nitke] (1924)Hamlet [starring John Barrymore] (1922)Macbeth [starring Lionel Barrymore] (1921)Romeo and Juliet [starring Ethel Barrymore] (1922)
Concert Band or Wind OrchestraAutobiography [Part One, Part Two] (1976 or 1977)Christmas Overture (1980 or 1981)Concerto Grosso for Wind Quintet and Wind Orchestra (1957)Fanfare for the American Wind Symphony (1981)Fountain Lake Fanfare [March] (1939; for the New York World’s Fair)Four Preludes for Band (1974)Mademoiselle (1952)Ohio River Suite (1959)Overture to The Pickle Suite (1969)Overture to Ty, Tris and Willie (1961)Rose Variations [cornet/trumpet and band] (1955)Suite of Old American Dances (1949)Symphonic Songs for Band (1957)The Pickle (poem by Sara Henderson Hay) (1969)Three Humoresques (c. 1961)A TNT Cocktail (1939; for the New York World’s Fair)Tone Poems for Band (1939; for the New York World’s Fair)Track Meet (1960)West Virginia Epic (1960)Zimmer’s American Greeting [narrator and wind orchestra] (1974)
Chamber MusicAllemande (violin and piano, 1947 or 1948)Arabesque (brass quintet, 1978)Clarinet Quartet (late 1920s?)Dance (flute and piano, 1928)Dance Scherzo (wind quintet, 1937)Five Improvisations on Exotic Scales (flute, cello, piano, 1947)Five Tune Cartoons (violin and piano, 1948)Four Dances for Piano Trio (1953 or 1954)Hexapoda [“five studies in Jitteroptera”] (violin and piano, 1940)Nocturne (flute and piano, 1928)Rondo Capriccioso (four flutes, 1916)Six Souvenirs (two flutes and piano, 1948)Sonata (violin and piano, 1927)Sonatine (soprano and harp, 1947)A Song Sonata (violin and piano, 1947)String Quartet (1956)Suite for Flute and B flat Clarinet (c. 1958; published 1973)Tema Sporca (two pianos, four hands, 1946)Toy Symphony (wind quintet, 1928)Trio (flute, cello, piano, 1950 or 1951)Trio (harp, cello, flute, c. 1960)Water Music (string quartet, 1937)
Keyboard WorksFour Nocturnes (accordion, 1959)Seven Fox Trots in Concert Form (piano, 1928)Sonata in G (organ, 1929)Sonatina (piano, c. 1941)Second Sonatina (piano, c. 1944)VU (“Seen in Paris”) [20 etudes in miniature, from the 20 arrondissements of Paris] (1929)
Broadway arrangements and orchestrations (a selection)Friml, Hammerstein and Harbach: Rose-Marie (1924)Gershwin: Oh, Kay! (1926)Kern and Hammerstein: Show Boat (1927) (new orchestrations 1946 and 1966)Gershwin: Girl Crazy (1930)Gershwin: Of Thee I Sing (1931)Kern and Harbach: The Cat and the Fiddle (1931)Kern and Hammerstein: Music in the Air (1932)Porter: Anything Goes (1934) (with Hans Spialek)Porter: Jubilee (1935)Rodgers and Hammerstein: Oklahoma! (1943)Bizet, Hammerstein: Carmen Jones (1943) (shared with Georges Bizet, composer of the 1875 opera Carmen)Irving Berlin: Annie Get Your Gun (1946)Harburg and Lane: Finian's Rainbow (1947) (shared with Don Walker)Rodgers and Hammerstein: Allegro (1947)Porter: Kiss Me, Kate (1948)Rodgers and Hammerstein: South Pacific (1949)Rodgers and Hammerstein: The King and I (1951)Lerner and Loewe: My Fair Lady (1956) (shared with Philip J. Lang)Styne, Comden, and Green: Bells Are Ringing (1956)Rodgers and Hammerstein: Flower Drum Song (1958)Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Music (1959)Lerner and Loewe: Camelot (1960) (shared with Philip J. Lang)Lerner and Lane: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965)
Bennett also did the orchestrations for the 1936 film version of Show Boat, and for the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! Some of his stage orchestrations were used in the 1958 film version of South Pacific, and the 1956 film version of The King and I.
He conducted Rodgers' "Victory at Sea" which was the soundtrack for the early 1950s TV miniseries of the same name; it was one of the first of its kind and billed as one most ambitious. RCA Victor released 5 volumes of music from the Rodgers "Victory at Sea" score, all conducted by Robert Russell Bennett with cover art by Victor Kalin. (Vol. 1 - LM-2335; Vol. 2 - LM-2226; Vol.3 - ANL 1-1432; Three Suites; Video Disk)
He also orchestrated the score for the original television broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in 1957.
In 1942, Bennett arranged Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture under the supervision of conductor Fritz Reiner, using melodies from George Gershwin's now-celebrated opera. Bennett's arrangements were largely based on Gershwin's original orchestrations for the opera.
Bennett was also responsible for The Many Moods of Christmas, a 1963 48-minute medley of Christmas carols, arranged especially for the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra. They recorded it that year, and in 1983, Robert Shaw re-recorded it with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Among his published orchestra medleys for Broadway shows (including some for which others had done the original pit orchestrations) are those for Oklahoma!, Carousel, Allegro, Finian’s Rainbow, Brigadoon, Lady in the Dark, Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific, Roberta, The King and I, Me and Juliet, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Funny Girl, as well as extended “symphonic picture” settings of The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady.
His concert band medleys include those of Porgy and Bess, The King and I, Carousel Waltzes, Me and Juliet, Silk Stockings, My Fair Lady, Gigi, The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, and Do I Hear a Waltz?
The 40-minute Porgy and Bess: Concert Version for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra was prepared in 1956. It is based very closely on Gershwin's original instrumental and vocal scoring, the principal recasting being the use of standard concert-orchestra instrumentation, and eliminating the clarinet-saxophone doubling specified in Gershwin's 1935 orchestration."Orchestrator on His Own" – Time Magazine (Monday, Dec. 12, 1932) (Retrieved on May 1, 2008)
Awards and honors
The Tony Award for orchestrations has only existed since 1997; Bennett was given a Special Tony Award in 1957 and again in 2008 "in recognition of his historic contribution to American musical theatre in the field of orchestrations, as represented on Broadway this season by Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific." Other honors have included his Oscar for the film Oklahoma!, a 1962 Emmy award, television's Christopher Award in 1960, the City of New York's Handel Medallion in 1967, Los Angeles's honorary Scroll in 1979, and an honorary doctorate from Franklin and Marshall College in 1965.
Bennett was the first president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC).Announcement of Tony Award nominations, 2008 "About". ASMAC. Retrieved 11 August 2014.