Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Twenty-seven years after his death, Richard Rodgers is something of an enigma. During his life he was a beloved and respected figure, but occasionally the public got hints that he had a dark side. In the years since his death, we've heard a lot more about that dark side.
What was Rodgers really like? The Richard Rodgers Reader can't give you the answer, but it may give you some insight into the man. This fine collection, edited by Geoffrey Block, was originally published in 2002 and recently reissued in paper. (Block is also the author of an interesting book titled simply Richard Rodgers, as well as Enchanted Evenings .)
Although Block has included some remembrances of Rodgers that paint him in a unflattering light (including excerpts from memoirs by Diahann Carroll and Josh Logan, as well as the chapter on Do I Hear a Waltz? from Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co.), the picture of Rodgers that emerges is nicely balanced. The book is divided into four sections, with a wide variety of writers represented in the first three. The first focuses on Rodgers and Hart, the second on Rodgers and Hammerstein, the third on Rodgers after Hammerstein, and the last features Rodgers discussing himself and his work, both in articles he wrote and in transcripts of interviews with him.
What comes through most clearly is that Rodgers was a man of the theatre. Theatre is what he loved, specifically musical theatre, a love that started when he was young. By his own account (in a tribute to Jerome Kern written for The New York Times), during his teenage years he saw Very Good Eddie at least a dozen times and he spent most of his allowance one winter to watch Kern's Love o' Mike repeatedly from the balcony. (Of course, at the time this would have been the only way for him to hear the scores again and again.)
Reading this book really brings home the idea that from the beginning Rodgers was concerned with writing musicals that would be more coherent than was the norm, which was one reason why he and Hart were a match.
Apart from his love of the theatre, what was Rodgers like? In the selections here that try to give us a glimpse of Rodgers the man, we mostly see the gracious, modest, and public-spirited persona that he played expertly.
Some of the articles included seem almost like puff pieces, but even those have their points of interest as a reflection of contemporary attitudes toward Rodgers, which were generally laudatory if not worshipful. For example, in a 1961 profile of Rodgers for The New Yorker, the magazine's music critic, Winthrop Sargent, sometimes goes overboard discussing Rodgers's accomplishments to a point that might strike some as downright silly.
Although a 1959 Cleveland Amory Holiday magazine piece on Rodgers and Hammerstein is titled "The Nicest Guys in Show Business," it contains a hint that some awareness of Rodgers's dark side had started to seep out to the public. Rodgers insists to Amory that despite his reputation as the businessman and Hammerstein's as the poet, Hammerstein is really the practical one. Did Rodgers believe this? From all that I've read, it seems that no one else did.
Still, in his own writings Rodgers makes a good impression. I found the last section, titled "The Composer Speaks," the book's most rewarding. Among other things, it turns out that the composer, even granting that he probably had some editorial help, was a pretty good writer of prose.
The Rodgers that emerges here seems a generous and courageous man, which is not to say that those who knew him well viewed him that way. Knowledgeable readers may note that while Rodgers seems to have been careful to credit Robert Russell Bennett's contributions to his scores, he was not as good about mentioning Hans Spialek and Trude Rittman.
He especially compels admiration in a 1957 article on his surgery for cancer, written when most celebrities did not share such things with the public. At a time when cancer was even scarier to most people than it is now, his article encouraged readers to have any worrying symptoms immediately looked into, urging them to remember that cancer is not necessarily incurable and that early treatment can make all the difference.
Of course, most of this book focuses on Rodgers and musical theatre. It's intriguing to read Rodgers in 1961 dealing with the question of what differentiates operas from musicals, a question that still occupies many, even if most of his thoughts are fairly conventional. And on another subject that still occupies people, here's Rodgers (in 1954) commenting on the many revivals that were being produced on Broadway at the time:
"A number of interested people say, disparagingly, that the weakness of the American theatre can be gauged by the number of revivals. I should like to oppose this view. It's true that any type of creative field may find itself occasionally in a comparatively unproductive mood. Any field is entitled to a hiatus. Is it not wonderful, then, that we have a theatrical past so vital and attractive that the public can be drawn to see works that pleased them before? The fact that new productions of old pieces occur so frequently might even encourage a beginner to stay in the theatre. He might see the possibility of a continuing livelihood. The whole field might die otherwise."
And, even with so much that has changed since 1964, it's fascinating to read Rodgers at that time voicing concerns that writers of musicals still wrestle with today:
"[T]hose of us who work in this field have only one responsibility - to ourselves. I feel that one of the truly imperishable rules of the musical theatre is to never have a rule. The only way that a writer can produce anything of lasting value is to do exactly what he feels is right, without worrying whether or not the public will approve. If it is good, the public will flock to see it. In fact, if there is any danger lurking in our musical theater today, it is the feeling in some quarters that there is a magic formula that can be turned on to insure both critical approbation and lengthy queues at the box office."
While Rodgers's assurance that "If it is good, the public will flock to see it" is probably not something all writers share, his comments on Pipe Dream and Do I Hear a Waltz? suggest that when a show failed to find an audience, Rodgers took responsibility on himself. (Personally, I like both shows, as compositions, more than Rodgers did.) His comments on those shows appear in the longest selection in the book: excerpts from a series of interviews for the Columbia University Oral History Collection, conducted in the 1960s by someone named Kenneth Leish (about whom I know nothing, and it is frustrating that there is no information here about him). If anything, I wish that even more from those interviews had been included.
In any collection such as this, some selections will be familiar to readers who are already knowledgeable on the book's subject. Block has included excerpts from some well-known books, including Ethan Mordden's book on Rodgers and Hammerstein and his Beautiful Mornin', Ken Mandelbaum's Not Since Carrie, Lehman Engel's The American Musical Theater, and Alec Wilder's American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950.
Also included are pieces that you may have read about but never read, such as the "The Boys From Columbia," the 1938 Time cover story on Rodgers and Hart. Among the selections I found most interesting were several pages on Hart from Dorothy Rodgers's memoir A Personal Book. I'd read bits and pieces from the latter in various books, but this longer excerpt is fascinating both for its view of Hart and for what it seems to say about Dorothy Rodgers herself. If she was homophobic, as has been suggested by some, she could do a good job of hiding it. Of course, skill at hiding her dark side may have been a characteristic she shared with her husband.
Inevitably, not all of the selections will be to everybody's liking. For example, I found the excerpt from Gerald Mast's Can't Help Singin' a mystifying mix of the insightful and the half-baked, in addition to containing some notable inaccuracies. Still, as suggested, even this selection is well worth a read.
There are some minor issues with presentation. Block sometimes supplies editor's notes correcting factual errors that appear in the selections, but most of the time he either chose not to point them out or didn't pick up on them. In his introductions to selections, he occasionally makes errors of his own. Also, the book is not free of typographical errors. These are not serious problems. What is important is what we learn about Rodgers here.
In the end, of course, this volume can't tell us who Rodgers was. It may perhaps suggest that by creating so much beauty and by conducting himself, publicly at least, with grace, Rodgers did do something good in his life.
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