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Not Alone in Appreciating Richard Rodgers' Later Work

COUNTERPUNCH

May 20, 2002|RONAN TYNAN

It is the confluent timing of two events that compels me to respond to Howard Reich's article on Richard Rodgers ("He Composed Dreams of Urban and Middle America," May 11). Reich is a distinguished music critic and his article was informative, scholarly and suitably admiring. But one major thrust of its theme was painfully objectionable.

As most readers were awakening to their weekend and reading Reich's tribute to and assessment of the work of Rodgers' staggering body of work, I was at the Los Angeles Coliseum singing to the bravest, most admirable audience for which I've ever performed. That audience's spirit-soaring response to one particular Rodgers work powerfully disputed Reich's lone caveat to Rodgers' genius: his criticism of the direction of Rodgers' musical output in the second half of his career.

Speaking of "Oklahoma!," Rodgers' first musical with Oscar Hammerstein II manning the words rather than Lorenz Hart, Reich observes, "With this show, Rodgers transformed himself into an utterly new composer, simplifying his art for mass appeal, attaining unprecedented popularity and, alas, leaving behind the searing work he had done with Hart."

His point is that Rodgers' work in his Hammerstein years was not merely different--it was lesser.

Reich's piece aptly places Rodgers' brilliance as a Broadway composer alongside that of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and the rest of an elite pantheon. He observes of Rodgers' tunes that he "announced himself as a sublime melodist on a par with Schubert or Chopin."

But it is with the following paragraph that I take issue. I offer in evidence the 60,000 souls (I use that word in its fullest and most ennobling meaning) in the Coliseum that morning.

"No doubt Rodgers justly took pride in the operatic flourishes he brought to 'Carousel' (1945), particularly in its 'Soliloquy,' which covered a breadth of emotion more commonly associated with European opera. Yet, ultimately, the songs from this musical--as well as the blockbusters 'South Pacific' (1949) and 'The King and I' (1951)--showed Rodgers writing melodies that were catchy and clever but also simplistic and superficial."

Let me describe that very special audience I joined on that Saturday morning. The event was the Entertainment Industry Foundation's ninth-annual Revlon Run/Walk for Women. People filled the Coliseum field and lapped up high into the stands following a 5K run or walk around the USC campus to raise more than $3 million to fund the National Women's Cancer Research Alliance. This march to effect a cancer-free near future was infused with tears and with joy, fueled by fears and by hope.

Every participant was courageously dealing with her own cancer experience or was there to celebrate and support the struggle of a loved one, in many cases the loss of someone who meant everything to them.

Kenny Loggins and his band and the Dorrell Coleman band already had rocked the Coliseum with their joyous music. I had been invited to perform something that would commemorate the spirit of those gathered so specially there.

I chose Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel": "When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high. And don't be afraid of the dark," with Rodgers' inspired and inspiring music rising to capture the full power of those words.

Reich quotes Rodgers' explanation of his musical process: "It is simply using the medium to express emotion." The emotion of his music, the sublime emotion of that music, was reflected on the faces and in the hearts of those wonderful people before me. Yes, this is what they felt. Yes, this is the spirit and belief and vow to which they were now dedicating their lives. Yes, the melody and power of that music expressed what they had all come here to say and to feel.

It was one of the greatest privileges of my life.

Thank God that Richard Rodgers did not stop composing after the first half of his career.

It was not only on that particular occasion that this work sings out to us. I noted this a few months back when America (and so much of the world) was just crawling out from the shock of the World Trade Center terrorist atrocities. The Emmy Awards were going forward after understandable delays. But the meaning and memory of 9/11 was still the prevailing presence for all of us. As a finale, the incomparable Barbra Streisand appeared to our delighted surprise and gave a rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" that none of us will ever forget. The sheer beauty and power of the composition and of the performance brought to the world a surcease and a healing that we sorely needed.

We knew we did not walk alone. Whatever our religious conviction, we, each and every one, knew that we did not walk alone. Millions of people, hundreds of millions--we had conjunction and, with it, strength.

I could refer you as well to "Climb Every Mountain," simply one of many others. But we are talking about one specific song here, "You'll Never Walk Alone," a song that could validate decades of work if it needed to. But it most certainly does not need to.

Mr. Reich, I understand and appreciate your abiding respect for the Rodgers body of work, but please do not overlook the latter work that so enriched our music and our humanity.

*

Ronan Tynan performs internationally both as a solo artist and with the trio the Irish Tenors.

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