October 28, 2001
Oh, What a Miserable Mornin'
By FRANK RICH
n March 31, 1943, a cold, sleet-soaked night some 16 months after Pearl Harbor, a new Broadway show couldn't attract a full house even for its opening. The producers were so desperate to fill seats that they sent minions out to Times Square with free tickets to steer stray servicemen away from the Stage Door Canteen and nearby movie palaces and corral them instead into the St. James Theater on 44th Street.
The show was ''Oklahoma!'' the first collaboration of the composer Richard Rodgers and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and the rest is cultural history, though history whose import has become fuzzy with time. Countless over-the-top amateur productions later, it's hard to remember just how much ''Oklahoma!'' stirred its original audience, a beleaguered population mired in war. Not for nothing did its producers soon add an extra weekly performance for servicemen passing through New York and form a U.S.O. company that would be seen by a million and a half fighting men overseas. What soldiers and civilians alike saw was above all an affirmation of the very idea of America at a time when its future was in jeopardy. In the torrential title song, inhabitants of the early 20th-century Indian Territory stormed the footlights to proclaim their rapture at the imminent prospect of a rite most Americans then and now find prosaic -- statehood. ''We know we belong to the land,'' sang the farmers and the cowmen, their voices rising to a rodeo whoop, ''and the land we belong to is grand!''
''Oklahoma!'' also raised the curtain on the iconization of Richard Rodgers. Already a star melodist from his 24-year collaboration with the lyricist Lorenz Hart, he would now with Hammerstein become as much monument as songwriter, spending more than 16 years as one of the most prominent purveyors of a wholesome, optimistic and, to some, kitschy brand of Americana that, like the contemporaneous output of Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, defined the country's platonic image of itself at midcentury. With Hart in the 20's, 30's and early 40's, Rodgers wrote ''Manhattan,'' ''Bewitched,'' ''The Lady Is a Tramp'' and ''My Funny Valentine'' for shows that are now mostly forgotten. With Hammerstein, deco-sleek urbanity, wisecracking irony and rueful sophistication were often banished to make way for ''Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,' '' ''Happy Talk,'' ''I Whistle a Happy Tune'' and ''My Favorite Things'' -- in shows that are mostly classics. Rodgers and Hammerstein became a mass brand tantamount to ''the Nabisco of musical theater,'' as Rodgers's grandson, Adam Guettel, a spikier songwriter for the stage (''Floyd Collins''), put it in a recent conversation. Such was the universal affection for their work that in 1954 all four TV networks (the fourth was then DuMont) simultaneously carried a 90-minute salute to their songs -- a feat matched by no other TV entertainment program until last month, when the current networks jointly broadcast an all-star relief concert in the aftermath of a new kind of Pearl Harbor.
Now, as America pivots into another war effort calling for unity and sacrifice, Rodgers, who would enshrine World War II in ''South Pacific'' and his symphonic suite ''Victory at Sea,'' is about to be celebrated again. This June is the centennial of his birth in New York City -- where he also died, at age 77, in 1979 -- and there are concerts, revivals and exhibits planned over the next year from Broadway (where ''Oklahoma!'' will return in the spring) to Stockholm to Tokyo. The timing of the Rodgers rollout, though coincidental, couldn't be more apt at a moment when patriotism and what one Rodgers-and-Hammerstein song labeled that ''thing called hope'' are again in fashion.
Yet in truth Rodgers's songs, whether written with Hart or Hammerstein, have never really gone away. Though rock 'n' roll was already usurping and marginalizing Broadway music when Rodgers and Hammerstein produced their last show, ''The Sound of Music,'' in 1959, all these years later Rodgers remains ''the most played composer of any kind who ever lived,'' in the reckoning of the popular-song maven Jonathan Schwartz. Not only are four thousand new productions of Rodgers musicals produced worldwide each year, but his more than 900 published songs turn up everywhere, from ubiquitous Ralph Lauren fragrance commercials (''My Romance,'' sung by Carly Simon and her son, Ben Taylor) to movies by directors as diverse as Spike Lee, Nora Ephron, the Coen Brothers and Masayuki Suo. The corn may be even higher than an elephant's eye in ''The Sound of Music,'' but that show's score is nonetheless fodder for such dark contemporary films as Lars von Trier's ''Dancer in the Dark'' and Baz Luhrmann's ''Moulin Rouge!'' -- as well as for the drag queens at the campy ''Sing-a-Long'' screenings of the Julie Andrews film version.
In that sense, the centennial blowout may seem gratuitous. What else is there to know about Richard Rodgers? A fair amount, as it turns out. The keepers of the Rodgers flame -- his daughters, Mary Rodgers Guettel and Linda Rodgers Emory -- have decided to make their father's centennial far less ceremonial than such affairs usually are by going public with the uncensored story of his private life. In ''Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest Sounds,'' a two-hour American Masters documentary produced by Roger Sherman that PBS will broadcast on Nov. 4, and in ''Somewhere for Me,'' a biography of Rodgers by Meryle Secrest to be published by Knopf soon after, the Rodgers sisters preside over candid accounts of their father's alcoholism, lifelong battle with depression and compulsive womanizing. They present his fabled, almost 50-year marriage to the smart and elegant Dorothy Feiner as a hypocritical arrangement that contributed to their mother's severe anorexia and long addiction to Demerol. Even the official oil portrait commissioned for the centennial by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, the family business that licenses his works, acknowledges reality by placing a glass of vodka near the composer's right hand while he's at work on a score. The portrait was painted by Kim Beaty, a Rodgers granddaughter.
Though the dark side of the ostensibly idyllic Dorothy and Dick household was known to some intimates and theater people -- and though Rodgers gave a bowdlerized account of a stay at the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic for depression in his emotionally opaque 1975 autobiography, ''Musical Stages'' -- the graphic details have not been divulged to a broad audience until now. The standard take on Rodgers has long been that he was an austere businessman-artist -- a sober contrast in particular to his notoriously dissolute first partner, Larry Hart, whose own alcoholism and binges of depression, which sped his death, at age 48 in 1943, have long been public knowledge. Who would have guessed that Rodgers, the sane and stolid one, was, clinically speaking, no better off, putting away a bottle of booze a day (hidden in the back of a toilet) and shaking from the D.T.'s? Larry Hart's last words -- What have I lived for?'' -- might have been his partner's as well.
The co-writer of ''You'll Never Walk Alone,'' it turns out, was almost always alone. Far from whistling a happy tune, climbing every mountain and not being afraid of the dark, he feared bridges, tunnels, elevators to high floors and any kind of travel, among other crippling phobias. With women, he wasn't looking for enchanted evenings but one-night stands, the younger the better. He had no close friends, except Jerry Whyte, a former Prohibition rumrunner who served as Rodgers's general factotum and procurer of chorus girls. Even his
collaboration with Hammerstein, which he once described as ''like a marriage,'' was in practice so distant that the two men can hardly be said to have known each other.
''I don't think anyone really knew who he really was, with the possible exception of one of the five psychiatrists he went to,'' says Mary Rodgers on PBS. ''And I'm sure they didn't know either. I don't think he knew. He was just all locked up in there, grinding out gorgeous stuff.''
Since Hammerstein almost always wrote the words for the songs first -- and since both men plotted their musicals' themes, stories and characters in close unison -- Rodgers's music was implicitly both an endorsement and an enhancement of sentiments he couldn't realize in his own life. Reflecting on the discrepancy between Rodgers's own grim story and the sweetness and light that informed so much of his work, another composer grandson, Peter Rodgers Melnick (Linda's son by her first husband, Daniel Melnick), says: ''He didn't write the lyrics, but he was able to connect emotionally with their ideas. They tapped into a great well of beauty within him.'' Nonfamily members find the connection something of a puzzlement. ''There's some fundamental river of sadness,'' observes the conductor John Mauceri in the PBS documentary, ''in spite of the fact that so many of his shows tell you to buck up and it's going to be O.K.'' Or as the Broadway writer Peter Stone poses the question in Meryle Secrest's biography: ''How could beauty come out of this morass of anger?''
interviewed Mary Rodgers Guettel, 70, and Linda Rodgers Emory, 66, in the palatial apartments where they live with their husbands high above Central Park -- the Guettels on Central Park West, the Emorys on Fifth Avenue. Though Mary Rodgers is assertive and outgoing and Linda Rodgers reflective and somewhat shy, they do have some striking similarities. Both went from New York's Brearley School to Seven Sisters colleges that they left before graduation for unsuccessful first marriages. Both Rodgers daughters also showed signs of exceptional musical promise -- though unlike their own sons, they took their talent only so far. Mary Rodgers composed the score for a Broadway hit, ''Once Upon a Mattress,'' while still in her 20's, but after one more Broadway score and a successful foray into writing children's books (''Freaky Friday''), she gradually gave up her composing career to raise five children and devote herself to arts-related public service, including a recent stint as chairman of Juilliard's board. Linda Rodgers was a gifted child pianist -- so much so that when she was 6, the head of Juilliard told her parents that she had the talent to pursue a professional career. But her mother and father, too busy ''holding their own lives together to get terribly involved in anything else,'' withheld news of that endorsement until many decades later, well after their child might have followed her calling. ''Piano was the only thing I adored, the only thing that made me absolutely happy,'' she says now of her childhood. But as her sister gave up composing, long ago she stopped playing entirely. ''I'm not quite sure what did make me stop,'' she says.
After her father died, Linda Rodgers went back to school and took up social work, and she cites her experience working with alcoholics in explaining the therapeutic value of disseminating the true Richard Rodgers story now. Her sister makes a similar case. ''There was such a veil of secrecy going on in our house,'' says Mary Rodgers. ''We were brought up on a myth that this was a tremendously happy marriage, that my father never strayed. It wasn't until I was 25 years old that my mother told me he was an alcoholic. When he had nervous breakdowns, Mommy would say he's had a physical breakdown. It's important for people to know that mental illness is not an irresponsibly acquired social disease. People deserve help. It should not be kept as a deep, dark embarrassing secret.''
I don't doubt the purity of their motives; Meryle Secrest, who has been writing biographies for 25 years, sometimes without cooperation from surviving family members, regards the Rodgers daughters as unusual both in their openness and in their refusal to seek editorial approval of her book's contents. But along with wanting to serve the worthy causes of cultural history and the destigmatizing of mental illness, these two sisters seem to be still -- and understandably -- hoping to make whole their relationship with a father whom they admire yet never knew. You feel their sadness and sense of irreparable loss. It's almost as if they were orphans who have belatedly learned the identity of their birth parents and are trying, from the distant vantage point of decades later, to come to terms with why their parents had abandoned them.
''In the PBS show,'' Mary Rodgers says, ''there is a home movie of Daddy with me when I was 10 months old or so out in Hollywood. There's a really handsome, loving, funny guy lying in a pair of swimming trunks on the grass playing with this baby, with a kind of good-natured, silly joy that I had never seen in my life because I was too young to remember that. And I looked at it and thought, God, where did that man go and why did I never see him? That charming-looking handsome kid turned into a wizened, sad, deer-in-the-headlights person.''
The one time Mary Rodgers remembered her father expending any emotion other than in the task of writing music was when her mother became pregnant when she and her sister were teenagers. ''She lost the baby, and it was his last chance to have a boy. And he cried all over me. It was horrible. To have a father cry if you've never seen him cry before was pretty overwhelming. And then to have him crying over you when you're his first girl and you know he's crying because he was hoping for a boy and you weren't it either.''
In the anecdote, I hear an echo of ''Carousel'' -- Rodgers's favorite show of his career, and by far his darkest -- in which the hero, Billy Bigelow, fantasizes about having a son but instead fathers a desperately unhappy daughter who is born after his suicide. ''Carousel,'' which opened on Broadway when she was 14, is Mary Rodgers's favorite show of her father's as well. ''I think for me it has to do with the father and daughter,'' she says. ''I'm not an easy crier, but there's something about redemption between parents and kids and forgiveness that always makes me cry. Forgiveness, saying you're sorry.'' Yet, she adds, ''my parents never, never, never said they were sorry in my entire life.''
Before her conversation with me, Linda Rodgers had sat down with a legal pad ''to list all the things in my life with my father that were wonderful fun.'' She showed me the list -- it had run only four lines. The most intimate was the experience of being at home when her father finished a song. ''It was a wonderful tradition for me that started with 'Oklahoma!' He couldn't sing, but he played piano wonderfully well. And he would sit down and he would play the bass and I would play the melody. We'd do it a couple of times, and I had a good ear then, so that was just heaven, to be able to play that music with him and look forward to it with each show.'' But she adds: ''It wasn't a warm, gay, friendly, loving household. My father was a
silent nonparent. He just wasn't there. He wasn't fond of a whole lot of people. He didn't listen to music at home unless he was listening to a recording of his that had just been made. He really didn't much like opera. He didn't play the piano except when he was writing a score. It was a silent house.''
Yet the emotion I hear in both daughters' voices, besides sadness, is love for their father, more than anger -- or if not love exactly, then empathy. They have more sympathy for him than they do for their hands-on mother, whom they tend to characterize as a narcissistic control freak as much as a victim. ''When he died,'' Linda Rodgers says, ''my mother had him cremated immediately, and his ashes were junked.'' There is no grave or memorial. Even now, the daughters seem to be trying to reach their father, much as Louise, the daughter in ''Carousel,'' longs to know more about the dead Billy Bigelow. ''Years ago I used to say that I felt more compassion for him than anything else,'' says Linda Rodgers. ''And I wasn't sure if that was true. But the older I get and the more I learn about him, the more I feel that way. Certainly I missed a childhood with a very important parent, but there wasn't anything he ever did that was consciously setting out to be hurtful. It was the only way he could manage his life.''
''To elicit the feeling his work does, it has to come out of his emotion. The love in his music is undeniable. I interpret that as his only well of real truth, but he wasn't able to deal with it or express it in the real world. He didn't know how to nourish himself in the world that way.''
His cousin Peter Melnick agrees: ''I think my grandfather was a man living underwater, and music was the straw that allowed him to live. The fact that he was able to write for as long as he did testifies to how deep his well was.''
Rodgers would hardly be the first artist of any kind who was able to access his feelings exclusively through his work. Mary Rodgers finds a certain peace in how typical her father is in that regard. ''I don't think Rodgers the man and his music connect any more than Mahler the man and Mahler's music,'' she says. ''I don't know of any genius who was happy. How much he drank or was depressed or cheated on my mother and was sometimes bitter and nasty to people -- that has nothing to do with what he wrote, which is the only important thing about him. If his music is uplifting, that's simply creative genius.'' Linda Rodgers feels that the emotions in her father's songs expressed what he ''wished for,'' adding, ''The only thing my father really adored and that always gave him the most incredible pleasure and joy was writing music. I think he wanted to believe in people, but I don't think he trusted people.''
The extended Rodgers family feels at ease with the truth about their father now, but it still comes initially as a shock if you grew up, as I did, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1950's, serenaded by the sunny voices of Mary Martin and Shirley Jones (whom, we now learn, Rodgers tried to hit on). It never occurred to me then that the Broadway patriarch who was canonized in Life magazine and on ''The Ed Sullivan Show,'' the man who wrote songs describing an idyllic domestic existence that I fantasized about as a child of divorce, was himself trapped in a personal hell that was more ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' than ''State Fair.''
After talking with the Rodgers daughters, I went to the stereo to reacquaint myself with a childhood favorite, ''The King and I,'' with its soaring progression of ''Hello, Young Lovers,'' ''Something Wonderful,'' ''I Have Dreamed'' and ''Shall We Dance?'' We all believed in these songs when I was a kid, just as we did in the unabashed can-do patriotism of ''Oklahoma!'' It's hard to imagine that those who learn about the ''real'' Richard Rodgers will think any less of them now. The songs wouldn't have lasted this long if they failed to resonate with a core emotion -- the ''undeniable love'' Adam Guettel describes -- that transcends time and cultural fashion.
That Rodgers couldn't consummate the romance in his art doesn't make him a hypocrite. If anything, that fact may make his work more poignant, not less. Many of those who listen to his songs are not as corny as Kansas in August or as high as a flag on the Fourth of July, either, and never were. We all have dreams that haven't been realized. A century after Rodgers's birth, a half-century after the war that inspired his and Hammerstein's homespun view of America, it's his plaintive notes of yearning for what he did not have himself that continue to touch us. Listen again, and you find that that thing called hope, nowhere in Richard Rodgers's life, is everywhere in the sound of his music.
Frank Rich is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times and a senior writer for the magazine. His memoir, ''Ghost Light,'' has just been published in paperback.
Frank Rich is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times and a senior writer for the magazine. His memoir, ''Ghost Light,'' has just been published in paperback.