An introduction to Richard Rodgers
May 24 2021, by Toby Wright
Richard Charles Rodgers was born in New York City on June 28th 1902, and died on December 30th 1979. He was a prolific composer and is one of only 14 people to have received the four major entertainment honours – Emmy, Oscar, Tony and Grammy awards. His works range from The Sound of Music to Oklahoma and helped to make Broadway musicals more memorable and hummable.
As a toddler, he learned to play the piano, and members of his household were fans of musical theatre. His parents saw Broadway shows and his grandparents appreciated opera. His mother played, on the piano, tunes she had seen in the shows, and Rodgers inherited this skill which he turned into an innate knowledge of music and harmony.
In his youth, Rodgers composed songs for an amateur boys’ club and in 1918, he entered the Columbia University. He worked with librettist, Lorenz Hart, on Columbia’s varsity show, Fly With Me. He left after a year and a half and intended on working full time for musical theatre. He studied composition for two years at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City, and produced several amateur shows with Hart.
One of his most famous and successful musicals is Oklahoma. It is based on Green Grow the Lilacs, a stage play by Lynn Riggs, and was brought together by Rodgers and librettist, Oscar Hammerstein. The duo went on to write nine musicals together. However, none proved to be as successful or widely known as Oklahoma. The creation is a blend of story, song and dance, even including a dream ballet, in which the main characters’ hidden fears and desires are revealed.
Set in the countryside, Oklahoma tells the tale of a farm girl, Laurey Williams, and the rivalry between her two potential suitors: cowboy, Curly McLain, and the evil farmhand, Jud Fry. There is an additional romance between cowboy, Will Parker, and his fiancée, Ado Annie.
One of the most famous numbers in the musical is ‘O, What a Beautiful Morning’. It the first song of the musical and is a solo sung by Curly after the orchestral overture. Curly is a high baritone/tenor and initially begins by singing the song off-stage.
The dynamics of this piece are mostly loud with acapella sections, in which the singer decides his own tempo, making the piece unique and fresh. This helps to shape the character of Curly in the minds of the audience as a positive and energetic man.
Another one of Rodgers’ most successful musicals is The Sound of Music. This iconic musical and film is one which has been watched and admired extensively. The plot centres around Maria, who is an aspiring nun. She is sent to a grand house on the banks of a river in Austria, near Salzburg, to be a governess for some motherless children: the von Trapps. Her loving and jovial nature charms the children and they soon become very fond of her.
Named after a white mountain flower, ‘Edelweiss’ is a memorable solo sung in The Sound of Music by Captain von Trapp and was the last song that Rodgers ever composed. The actress of Captain von Trapp’s leading lady, Julie Andrews, loved the song and said that ‘It’s such a beautiful melody and so exquisitely composed. I’ve sung it many times in concert, and that’s the one that has stayed with me all of these years.’
Another great song from The Sound of Music is ‘My Favourite Things’. In the lyrics, Maria describes all the things that make her feel better when she is sad, such as ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens’. However, despite its happy message, it is written in a minor key and only undergoes a happy major turn when Maria sings ‘I think of a few of my favourite things, and then I don’t feel so bad’.
Famously, this song appears in a scene in the film where the von Trapp children run to her room during a thunderstorm, full of fear, with Maria singing this to comfort them. This change to the original Broadway positioning of the song has remained in most stage productions.
In 2018, popstar and soprano, Ariane Grande, famous for her high and light voice and impressive high-pitched belting, used the melody on her now very popular track ‘7 Rings’. She sings of how diamonds are among her favourite things and that money is capable of buying you happiness.
To conclude, Rodgers was a highly accomplished and gifted composer and wrote many well-loved musicals. His music still provides inspiration for both artists and audiences today and shall be forever remembered.
Toby Wright, L6
- How Rodgers and Hammerstein created modern musical theatre (New York Times)
- The life of Richard Rodgers (Performing Songwriter)
- Rodgers and Hart’s dysfunctional partnership (The Atlantic)