The Austin Chronicle

Richard Rodgers: These Are a Few of Our Favorite Things

By Robert Faires, November 30, 2001, Arts

With Richard Rodgers having had a career that spanned more than 60 years and a body of work that covered 40 musicals and 900 songs, there's no way an article such as this can come close to defining all the qualities that makes him a great composer and his music enduring. But there is room for a few people who know the composer's work intimately to share some of their personal observations about Richard Rodgers and his musical legacy. Here are three of the artists working on Austin Musical Theatre's production of The Sound of Music with their favorite things about Richard Rodgers.

Mark Jacoby, acclaimed musical theatre actor who has appeared on Broadway in Ragtime (as Father), Show Boat (as Gaylord Ravenal), The Phantom of the Opera (as the Phantom), and Grand Hotel (as Baron von Gaigorn) and who is playing Captain von Trapp in Austin Musical Theatre's production of The Sound of Music:

When I think about Richard Rodgers, besides the given that he's one of the great melodists of them all -- just timeless melodies -- it's the way the music fits into the shows. Not only did he write good songs, but he knew exactly what song should come when in the show. He knew how long the book scene that preceded it should be, what the song should say, what the quality of the song should be, how long it should last, how long it should be till the next song.

I also think about two of the shows that he wrote -- The King and I and Oklahoma! -- that seem distinctly regional. The music has just the right suggestion of time and place without being authentic. It's not really Eastern music in The King and I, and Oklahoma! has a nod toward country & western, but it's not really. Yet from an audience point of view, those scores seem perfectly suited to their subject matter. It's interesting the way he openly and candidly wrote music that was not authentic and didn't pretend to be authentic and yet that draws on our notions of what those places are, to make them two of the most successful shows of all time. How he did that I don't know but it's noteworthy I think.

The music has an inevitability about it now. It's hard now to imagine any other score to The King and I, for example. What else could it have been?

Scott Thompson, co-founder and artistic director of Austin Musical Theatre, director of AMT's production of The Sound of Music:

What I love about Richard Rodgers is his amazing adaptability. He really made you believe you were on an Oklahoma prairie or in the heart of Siam. He really served his story with the music in a way that few composers ever do. I would defy most Western composers to write a score like The King and I that would be so universally accepted and so American and yet take you so many different places.

One of my favorite musicals of all time is Pal Joey. It's funny, with Hammerstein, Rodgers became famous for being so inspirational: "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." They were very lofty. But with Lorenz Hart, he wrote this musical that was very cynical, that featured this hero who was a total heel that you never like and who is never redeemed. And the music is so stylish, so fabulous: "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered," "I Could Write a Book." There's a lot of Tin Pan Alley, a lot of jazz in there. He was the melody man of all time.

Rodgers will be interpreted, which is the final measure of his stature, I think. I can envision people years from now viewing Oklahoma! the way we view La Bohème. There's an emotional core to his work that will keep it being done in 100 years, and how many people can you say that about?

Fred Barton, accomplished arranger, composer, and musical director, and conductor and musical director for AMT's production of The Sound of Music:

When people talk about Richard Rodgers, everyone thinks about his work with Oscar Hammerstein II, but they forget that he had been a household word long before that, with a largely different musical persona. He had been writing musicals with Lorenz Hart for more than 20 years, since the early Twenties.

In the musical theatre at that time, there were two camps: the more jazz-inflected camp, the people who grew up on Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin being one; and the other camp, the operetta world, with that European flavor, Jerome Kern being a perfect example of that and Sigmund Romberg had been a decade before him. The amazing thing about Richard Rodgers is that he was the exact meeting of those two worlds. He walks exactly on the dotted line between those camps in a way that none of the other composers of the day did.

Rodgers doesn't really do jazz well. "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," which was his attempt to prove he could write that sort of jazz score ... I think it's very stiff, a very European idea of what jazz sounds like. But jazz elements turn up in his operetta-like music and make them very haunting. He writes this beautiful melody, the simple melody, and then he has the wrong note coming in there, and the effect of that is very haunting. Some of his most beautiful songs -- "The Sweetest Sound" from No Strings is one of my favorites -- consist of that strange minor sound that somehow comes out in a major key. You hear it a lot in The Sound of Music. People think of the songs as having these beautiful melodies, but under the hood his slightly European-style romantic harmonies are at work off-setting the melodies. It adds a note of melancholy and uncertainty to the songs, and that's what makes them memorable even more than the melodies.

It's interesting how consistent his musical language was. His ability to last 60 years was rooted in his ability to apply his shtick to changing musical times. He didn't have a huge bag of tricks, but he knew how to apply them and he made the absolute most of them.

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