Rodgers & Hart or Rodgers & Hammerstein?


My brother once put the phone down on me because I said I loved Rodgers & Hart but that Rodgers & Hammerstein weren’t nearly as good.  That was ten years ago, but I’m not sure things have changed in my opinions – in fact if anything they’ve become more entrenched.  I am a bit perplexed by my adoration of Rodgers & Hart and my cool dislike of Rodgers & Hammerstein.    After all,  chilly and cardiganed, I did enjoy an evening of The Sound of Music at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre on Tuesday, with its sentimental displays of Austrian independence, stern nuns, Nazis and singing children, and it was exquisite, but I always know that if someone tried to play a Rodgers & Hammerstein song at my funeral I’d insist on coming back to haunt them.

Rodgers & Hammerstein is nothing like Rodgers & Hart.  The dramatic shift in the nature of the partnership means you could be forgiven for thinking that the Richard Rodgers in one partnership is not the same Richard Rodgers in the other.   The alchemic relationship between a composer and his lyricist is a delicate thing of such distilled components that I suppose they will always be destined to produce different results, just like the children a man has with his first wife will look nothing like the children he has with his second.  But if we compare “I Wish I Was In Love Again” with “Edelweiss”, you’d think these musical theatre children were off separate parentage completely.  This was a bit of a brain–fuddling conundrum for years, until I discovered that with Hart, Rodgers would write the melody first, presenting Hart with it only when the tune was absolutely complete. Hart would then write the words. With Hammerstein, it worked the other way around.  The lyrics came first.  The songs evolved in an utterly different way.

Rodgers and Hart is salty without being lewd, urbane, deeply romantic and underlined with a dash of hard-baked sexual cynicism.  I always thought that the relationship between Amanda and Elyot in Coward’s Private Lives could be prefectly underscored by the lyrics to “I Wish I Was In Love Again” : ( The broken dates / the endless waits / the lovely loving and the hateful hates / that conversation with the flying plates/ I wish I was in love again. …The furtive sigh / the blackened eye / the words “I’ll love you til the day I die”/ the self-deception that believes this lie…. ). There is so much experience and ripe knowingness in these lines that it’s astonishing. This was one of the fruits of Richard Rogers’s labour with Lorenz Hart.   Hammerstein’s “OOOkkkkllaahoma!”, with it’s wind-swept, dry plains and the far-away Eastern drama of “The King and I” were poles apart from the world that Rodgers had created in his songs with Hart, with its aim firmly on the city (“Manhattan”), worldweary resignation and heartfelt regret (“Little Girl Blue”) and the sublime exhilaration of early love”(Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”).   Rodgers and Hart were fired by a desire to raise musical theatre songs from the lazy or the tame, with its dreary rhyming of “June”‘s and “Moon”‘s, and soar into a higher vernacular.   There are so many shades of meaning in some of Hart’s lyrics, which rest ambivalently on top of the music.  What does “You Took Advantage of Me” mean?  Is someone willingly surrendering themselves to true love?  Or have they just realized their innocence has been exploited?  (Here am I with all my bridges burned / just a babe in arms where you’re concerned.  So, lock the doors and call me yours….).  Is this some kind of weird sadistic relationship, or a happy ending?  This is highly complicated, adult stuff.

In The Boys from Syracuse Rodgers & Hart put Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors to music.  This is a score that swings, mishmashing olde English with the new and manages many flirty half rhymes (rich in and kitchen, or do to and cute too), but this score also contains the song “Falling in Love with Love” which was covered by a range of popular singers in the second half of the twentieth century,  Their other compositions are ridiculous in their quality “A Ship Without A Sail” is a thrillingly beautiful ballad of mind-numbing loneliness, and there is also something of the pain of the terminally unrequited love with the desperate plea “My Funny Valentine”‘s lyric ‘stay, little Valentine, stay….’.  Does the valentine with his/her slightly weak mouth and tousled hair stay?  It’s all ambivalent, and although the composition is tight and delicious it is wound around with Rodgers & Harts usual melancholy. “There’s a Small Hotel” has all kinds of horizontal implications, whereas “It Never Entered My Mind” is a chilling reminder of the over-confident who play the game of love, and think that a certain someone will always be there to put up with them, only to wake up one morning and “order orange juice for one”, not to mention that, now alone they”have to scratch my back myself” – you can make of that what you will.

Could it have been something of a comedown for Richard Rodgers to go from  “Lost my heart / was dyspeptic.  Life was so hard to bear. Now my heart’s antiseptic….” to “Doe, a deer, a female deer” ? Whilst I am not a Hammerstein-basher, the problem with him as a lyricist is you can see the rhymes coming a mile off. Hammerstein rhymes “way” with “day” in the first scene of Oklahoma!.  The production of The Sound of Music that I saw this week reinstates a song from the original stage production which was omitted from the film, “How Can Love Survive?” .  Half of it is clever, the other half has rhymes that you can spot coming from a mile off.  Nevertheless, Hammerstein’s lyrics cleave to Rodgers melody beautifully.    Hart’s depression and alcoholism wore Rodgers down in the end.  About a year before Hart’s death from pneumonia in November 1943,  Rodgers teamed with Hammerstein.  Together they went on to create the most popular partnership in musical theatre history.  When Hart was asked to co-write a musical with Rodgers set in the American west in late 1942 called Green Grow the Lilacs, Hart replied “Cowboy hats and gingham is not for me.”  But Rodgers knew a man who could : if there was one thing Hammerstein could do standing on his well-born head, it was songs about cowboy hats and some of the American west’s fruitiest red gingham.  And he did it splendidly.  That kind of world suited Hammerstein’s lyrics perfectly.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership was characterised by space; great expansive swathes of it.  Whether it is the grand dustbowl sweep of America, the Austrian alps or distant, Eastern Siam, Rodgers and Hammerstein is very much about looking out.  Very few things on the planet are bigger than South Pacific.  It’s as far from the worldly metropolitan “Manhattan” as you can get without sliding off the globe all together.  The sightlines are in the middle distance and a huge amount of dramatic action takes place outdoors.  There is little place for introspection.  “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning!”  they chant in gleeful joy of a brand new, blue skied, bright American day.  In Rodgers & Hammerstein there are not cities in the way and the horizon beckons in gorgeous magnitude : “Everything’s going my way!”   In Rodgers & Hart the view is internalised; much like a telescope turned inwards, and it is the plain of the human heart that is ploughed for emotional material.  Often “very little is going my way!” is the overriding feeling.  The emotions are not stark, confident or clear.  In this way, perhaps the work of Rodgers & Hart is doomed to have its slightly knowing, melancholic tinge, so bent is it on telling the stories of failed romances, broken dreams, lost loves.  Rodgers & Hammerstein’s work is more outgoing and playful – and certain more sexually innocent.  It can lure the theatregoer into the refreshing charm of a different life, more often than not in a different country.   Although more folksy and less sophisticated, Rodgers and Hammerstein excelled at big drama as well as big vistas.  They were particularly good at death (see Carousel and Oklahoma!)  Rodgers and Hammerstein is a glass of cool lemonade to Rodgers & Hart’s short, acerbic gin and lime.

The main difference is. therefore, sex.  There is tons of it in Rodgers & Hart.  Bucket loads of the stuff. “Should We / Shouldn’t We?  or, “I’d Love To, But You Won’t Let Me”  or “I Could Have But I Didn’t And Now I Shall Die Alone” or “Blimey, I Never Knew About THAT”, or “You Had Me But You Behaved Like A Twat So I’ve Left You”  sort of thing.   Rodgers & Hammerstein is a child-friendly, sex-free sort of world (and I’m not just talking about the nuns).   I don’t know what Oscar Hammerstein’s sex life was like, but I’d bet a tenner it wasn’t half as exciting or tortured as Lorenz Hart’s.  The Hammerstein world is different, straight forward, more dynamic in its physical limitations but less dynamic in its psychological ones.  There are no abiding links that I can see, except the composer, who in his relationship with Hammerstein, unlike his relationship with Hart, was unable to set the tone of the song and take the lead.  Hart admitted he had talent, and once told Alan Jay Lerner he could have been a genius but he didn’t care enough to work hard.  He does not appear to have known how sublime a lyricist he was.  For all his failings, drunkenness and tardiness, Hart had an unfailing generosity towards Rodgers, after Rodgers had created his partnership with Hammerstein.  At the first night of Oklahoma! he told Rodgers, “This is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, and it’ll be playing twenty years from now!”  Hart was dead six months later, his last words being “What have I lived for?”

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to welcoming you again on August 29th! x

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2 responses to “Rodgers & Hart or Rodgers & Hammerstein?

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Rodgers & Hart were sublime with buckets of subtext, mordant wit and deep, dark pain. The earnestness of Rodgers & Hammerstein has its place of course, but for grownup tastes, Rodgers & Hart does it for me.

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