(l to r) Richard Rodgers, Dorothy Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Dorothy Hammerstein, at the premiere of ‘The King and I,’ 1956. (Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com)
By Ryan Leeds
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are having quite an honorary year. Oklahoma! celebrated its 75th birthday since premiering at the St. James Theatre in March 1943, The King and I, Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and The Sound of Music continue their successful national tours, and their latest Broadway revival of Carousel has racked up the most Tony nominations of any show this season. To top that, a new book exploring this ubiquitous musical duo has been released.
Author Todd S. Purdum, best known for his political writing at The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Politico, has switched focus with his latest book, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution. The result is a hugely readable history, jam-packed with backstage drama and fun tidbits that are sure to entice any theater geek.
The 400-page book delves into surprising revelations about the pair’s relationship with one another and their working styles. Composer Richard Rodgers preferred to “compose at his Manhattan apartment or Connecticut country” while lyricist Hammerstein wrote, “at his farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or in his Manhattan townhouse.” Purdum continues, “To the end of their days, each maintained that he’d never been sure whether the other really liked him.” Still, the author acknowledges their incomparable status citing the team’s “thirty-four awards, fifteen Academy Awards, two Pulitzer prizes, two Grammys, and two Emmys.”
Purdum masterfully provides enough personal background on each of his subjects, but never to the point where it becomes tedious. Instead, he offers useful biographical information that helps explain what informed their works. Among their many similarities, both men were raised as upper middle-class New Yorkers, both attended Columbia University, and both suffered from depression. Purdum also notes that “the partners seemed to stand for the best of America: forward-looking, liberal, innovative, internationalist—progressive both artistically and ideologically.”
Purdum goes far beyond the technical aspects of how each of their shows was constructed, writing as though we were somehow privy to inside conversations and whisking us back in time as if we were there on opening nights. In addition, he often shares the seeds of inspirations for how their shows came to be. Most theater fans know that Oklahoma! was based on the Rollie Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, but few might be aware of how it formed the working partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Initially, Rodgers had asked his former writing partner, Lorenz Hart to join him on the project but after Hart refused treatment for alcoholism, Rodgers sought Hammerstein. Even more interesting is that Hammerstein was already familiar with the play and toyed with the idea of asking Jerome Kern to help set it to music. Kern was not interested.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s spouses, both named Dorothy, also played pivotal roles in their husbands’ projects and Purdum does not gloss over their contributions. Nor does he neglect to emphasize the influence that Trude Rittman had on Rodgers’ arrangements and the legacy that Agnes de Mille’s choreography left on most of their musicals.
From the ill-fated show Allegro to their outspoken political views amid the McCarthy era, and fascinating findings of rough draft lyrics, Purdum gives us a comprehensive view of a musical duo whose beautiful artistry remains as fresh and timeless as ever.
Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution is available by clicking here.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.