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RICHARD RODGERS.\o7 By William G. Hyland (Yale University Press: 362 pp., $30)\f7

November 15, 1998|STEVEN BACH | Steven Bach is the author of "Final Cut," "Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend" and a forthcoming biography of Moss Hart

Richard Rodgers may be the preeminent composer of the American musical theater. In his new biography, William G. Hyland calls him a "genius" and makes it seem pointless not to agree.

It's not that Rodgers' legacy surpasses those of his principal peers--George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin--but that he left two distinct bodies of work, maybe even three. His partnerships with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein II enabled him to segue from Jazz Age musical comedy, with its breezy, carefree songs, to the musical play, that form of integrated song and--often--serious drama that Rodgers played a principal role in defining. Then there was the long period following Hammerstein's death, in which Rodgers wrote alone or with others and became "an icon and a relic."

Rodgers' career arouses partisan passion; there will always be those who prefer his collaboration with the bright and witty Hart more than with the statelier Hammerstein. I admit that I cast my lot with the former. The sophisticated intimacy of Rodgers & Hart seems unsurpassed in the decades since "Manhattan," "This Can't Be Love" and "My Funny Valentine" were written and first performed. Whole generations have wallowed in the bittersweet pangs of unrequited love because of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "Spring Is Here" and "It Never Entered My Mind." Then there's the world-weary sophistication of "Bewitched," both cynical and hankering for more. The sweetest sounds they're not, which is both the point and a matter of personal taste.

Still, only a ninny would deny the stature Rodgers brought to musical theater with Hammerstein after Hart opted out of the partnership and out of what would become "Oklahoma!"in 1943. Staid and dependable Hammerstein replaced him and changed Rodgers' melodies to something Hyland terms "more sober or somber," as the new R&H embarked on the "musical that is more than a musical," as drama critic Eric Bentley labeled it.

"Oklahoma!" was the turningpoint, but the musical had been busy fusing song and story ever since "Show Boat," which Hammerstein had written with Kern. There had been integrated shows before "Oklahoma!," including Rodgers & Hart's "Pal Joey," but "Oklahoma!" defied the Broadway conventions of overtures and chorus girls and boys who thought a barre was a place around the corner. It was a musical that got bulletin and was "serious" and, because it was successful as well as innovative, influenced almost everything that followed.

After the stunning success of "Oklahoma!," Rodgers wondered what to do for an encore. Hyland tells us that Sam Goldwyn suggested, "Shoot yourself." Instead, however, Rodgers and Hammerstein embarked on a series of encores that redefined musical theater: "Carousel," "Allegro" (the first big "concept" show), "South Pacific," "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music."

Their impact was so great that we not only know the shows, but we also often intuitively understand the specific ways the songs carry their narratives and fulfill dramatic functions. We recall how "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" opens "Oklahoma!" without an overture; how "If I Loved You" simultaneously denies and declares romance in "Carousel." We know the tolerance message of "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" in "South Pacific"; how "Getting to Know You" advances the plot in "The King and I" and how "My Favorite Things" does the same in "The Sound of Music" (partly because it's the same plot, as Kenneth Tynan once pointed out).

This achievement is remarkable, even if you think you'll choke on all the nuns and children and faux cowboys that Kern found "condescending." It's the difference between writing for the theater and writing for the Broadway branch of Tin Pan Alley.

Rodgers' life was as unique as his music. He was rich, famous and admired as a composer on Broadway, in Hollywood ("Love Me Tonight" and "State Fair") and on television ("Cinderella" and "Victory at Sea"). He was a producer of musicals written by others ("Annie Get Your Gun") and plays ("I Remember Mama" and "The Happy Time"). He won two Pulitzer Prizes--but had flops, too, like "Pipe Dream" and "Rex." He wasn't above the meretriciously cute (see "Flower Drum Song"), but he reinvented musical theater.

What he couldn't reinvent was Richard Rodgers. He was a notorious womanizer and a sometime heavy drinker and had himself committed following a nervous breakdown at the height of his success in the 1950s. His daughter, Mary Rodgers, called Rodgers "deeply unhappy" and "tough to live with." He was distant, impersonal and depressive and two major cancer operations severely compromised his ability to speak. He sounds an ideal, even riveting biographical subject.

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