RICHARD RODGERS (1902-1979) : Biography

The Formative Years

Richard Rodgers was born in Manhattan on June 28, 1902, the son of Dr. William and Mamie Rodgers. From his earliest recollections, he loved music.  By the time he was six, he played the piano by ear, the right hand carrying the melody, the left providing support with tonic-dominant chords.

At an early age, he sat in rapt attention as his mother played piano and his parents sang music from the shows they saw on Broadway.  He saw his first musical, Victor Herbert’s Little Nemo (1908.35), at the age of six, but his great love was the music of Jerome Kern.  At the age of fourteen he saw Very Good, Eddie (1915.30) at the Princess Theater and never forgot the moment:

“The sound of a Jerome Kern tune was not ragtime; nor did it have any of the Middle European inflections of Victor Herbert.  It was all his own—the first truly American theatre music—and it pointed the way I wanted to be led .  .  . The influence of the hero on such a hero-worshipper is not easy to calculate, but it was a deep and lasting one.  His less successful musical comedies were no less important to a listener of thirteen or fourteen.  I know that for a large part of one winter [1917] most of my allowance was spent for a seat in the balcony of the Maxine Elliott Theatre listening to Love O’ Mike.”

First Attempts at Composition

At the age of fifteen, Rodgers received his first opportunity to write the score for One Minute Please, an amateur performance by the Akron Club to raise money for the troops in WWI. The success of this show led to the second, alternately called Upstage And Down and Twinkling Eyes in early 1919.

In 1918, Phillip Leavitt introduced Rodgers to Lorenz (Larry) Hart, seven years his senior, who became his collaborator and best friend. One of their songs, “Any Old Place With You,” was included in Lew Fields’ production of A Lonely Romeo.  In 1920, they collaborated on You’d Be Surprised, another Akron Club commission, and they joined forces with book writers Milton Kroopf and Phillip Leavitt for the Columbia Varsity Show, Fly With Me.

Transitioning to Broadway 

Rodgers and Hart composed the score for a Fields production, Poor Little Ritz Girl (1920.25).  In an interview, Fields praised the young composer: “Rodgers has real talent.  I think that within a few years he will be in a class by himself.” By the time the show opened on Broadway on July 28, 1920, Fields, to Rodgers’ embarrassment, had replaced half of the score with songs by Sigmund Romberg.  

In early 1921, Rodgers enrolled in the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School) where he studied harmony with Percy Goetschius, music theory with Franklin Robinson, ear training with George Wedge and music appreciation/critical analysis with Henry Krehbiel.  Rodgers wrote music for three shows at the Institute, Say It With Jazz (1921), Jazz A La Carte (1922) and A Danish Yankee In King Tut’s Court (1923).

In the spring of 1924 Fields produced a show by Rodgers, Hart, and Herb Fields, The Melody Man, which ran for fifty-six performances.

To furnish their new theater on 52nd Street, the Theatre Guild decided in autumn 1924 to present a revue, using its resident players. Rodgers agreed to write the score.  The Garrick Gaieties (1925.17), opened in May 1925. Scheduled to run for two performances, it ran for twenty-five weeks. Rodgers’ next show, Dearest Enemy (1925.31), which opened in September 1925, was a success.

In the following seventeen years, Rodgers and Hart wrote scores for the next edition of The Garrick Gaieties, nine films, and twenty-four Broadway and London shows.  In 1942, Hart turned down the opportunity to work on the Theatre Guild production of Oklahoma!, for which Rodgers collaborated for the first time with Oscar Hammerstein II. His last show with Hart was a revision of their 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee.

Rodgers and Hammerstein

Following Hart’s death in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein worked together for the next sixteen years, writing eight musicals, one film, State Fair (1945), and one television special, Cinderella (1957).  They opened their own production office and produced seven plays and musicals, including the 1947 revision of Showboat and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946.12).

Following Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Rodgers wrote five shows with various collaborators including Stephen Sondheim, Martin Charnin, and Sheldon Harnick, a television special, Androcles And The Lion, and new songs for two films: the adaptation of The Sound Of Music and a new version of State Fair.