Indelible contributors to the Great American Songbook, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II were one of the most popular and influential songwriting teams in Broadway history. They each had high-profile careers with other writing partners before teaming up for the groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning stage musical Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway in 1943. Following the example of 1927's Showboat (which featured lyrics by Hammerstein), it helped to define the "book musical" by placing character-driven songs in the context of a dramatic, high-stakes plot. In poignant contrast to the prior era's operettas, musical revues, and light musical comedies, they addressed serious social issues such as racism, classism, and sexism in much of their work, including such stage classics as South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Along with Rodgers' sweeping, memorable melodies and Hammerstein's natural yet highly structured lyrics (Rodgers would write music to Hammerstein's words), these and other hit Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals were turned into blockbuster Hollywood films. Some of their best-known songs include "My Favorite Things," "Getting to Know You," Some Enchanted Evening," "You'll Never Walk Alone," and "Edelweiss."
Before joining forces with Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers spent over 20 years as half of Rodgers & Hart with Lorenz Hart. Their many Broadway musicals included such classics as A Connecticut Yankee (1927), Babes in Arms (1937), and Pal Joey (1940). "Blue Moon" and "My Funny Valentine" were among their dozens of hit songs. In the meantime, Hammerstein produced hits with composers including Jerome Kern, a stated influence of Rodgers. With contributions from co-lyricist P.G. Wodehouse, Kern and Hammerstein's biggest hit together was 1927's Show Boat, based on the Edna Ferber novel. Two film adaptations of Show Boat followed within the next ten years, and the songwriting team won an Academy Award in 1941 for "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from the movie Lady Be Good.
Due to Hart's declining health in the early '40s, Rodgers partnered with fellow New York City native Hammerstein for the musical Oklahoma! The two had previously collaborated during their days as students at Columbia University, including on the 1920 Varsity Show Fly with Me. Oklahoma! opened at Broadway's St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943. The show ran for over five years and 2,000 performances (a record at the time), winning a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944. During that time Rodgers & Hammerstein followed up with another Broadway hit, Carousel, and the musical film State Fair, both in 1945. State Fair, the only musical Rodgers & Hammerstein ever wrote for film, included "It Might as Well Be Spring," which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Like many of their songs, it was a Top Ten hit that year, this time charting with recordings by Dick Haymes, Sammy Kaye, and Paul Weston with Margaret Whiting. In contrast to the box-office success of their first two Broadway shows, their lesser-known third stage musical, Allegro, opened in October 1947 and closed the following July. In June of 1948, Rodgers & Hammerstein were guests on the first episode of Ed Sullivan's long-running variety show (then called Toast of the Town), alongside Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
In 1949, the songwriting team returned to Broadway with South Pacific. Based on James Michener's novel Tales of the South Pacific, it confronted racial prejudice, most notably with the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." Their first musical to be eligible for Tony Awards (established in 1947), the production won Best Musical, Best Score, Best Libretto, and all four acting categories. Rodgers & Hammerstein shared the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with South Pacific co-writer Joshua Logan.
Candidly exploring racism as well as sexism, The King and I, an adaptation of Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam, followed in 1951. It took home five Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Featured Actor for Yul Brynner. They followed it with the less successful Broadway musicals Me and Juliet in 1953 and Pipe Dream in 1955. After Oklahoma! was adapted for the big screen in 1955, the 1956 CinemaScope film version of The King and I saw Brynner reprising his role in an Oscar-winning performance. A film adaptation of Carousel also saw release in 1956.
The only musical they wrote specifically for television, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella aired on CBS on March 31, 1957, the 14th anniversary of Oklahoma! It starred Julie Andrews, who was nominated for an Emmy for her performance on the TV special, as was Richard Rodgers' score. Back on Broadway, Rodgers & Hammerstein premiered Flower Drum Song, a musical featuring an Asian cast, in 1958. It marked Gene Kelly's stage directing debut. That year, South Pacific was made into a Hollywood film starring Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor.
Arguably Rodgers & Hammerstein's most beloved musical, The Sound of Music would prove to be their final collaboration. Set against a backdrop the Austrian Anschluss of 1938, it opened on Broadway in 1959 and went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. "Edelweiss" became the last song the team wrote together when Oscar Hammerstein died of stomach cancer in August 1960. A film adaptation of Flower Drum Song saw release in 1961 before the film of version of The Sound of Music arrived in theaters in March 1965. Starring Julie Andrews as Maria, it was the highest-grossing film of the year and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Richard Rodgers continued to compose songs after 1960, producing musicals with Stephen Sondheim (1965's Do I Hear a Waltz?) and Martin Charnin (1970's Two by Two), among others, until his death in 1979. Rodgers & Hammerstein were honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1999, and their songs endure as oft-performed American standards. Their legacy in theater can be illustrated with Broadway revivals of, among several other productions, The Sound of Music in 1998, South Pacific in 2008, The King and I in 2015, and Oklahoma! in 2019. ~ Marcy Donelson