THE APPRENTICESHIP OF RICHARD RODGERS
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and
music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
You can’t create in a vacuum.
Richard Rodgers’ extraordinary body of work studied in isolation — an army of hits stretching four decades, some deceptively simple, even folklike, others technically complex and as sophisticated as a well-shaken martini — would lead one to believe that here was the artist as miracle man, a lone genius of melody sitting on a rock in the pantheon, making even Beethoven whistle along to such happy tunes.
But the wider picture reveals Rodgers as a child of his times, absorbing the hustle and flow, the bustle and racket of the early 20th century American popular music game. And what a game it was! — from bellowed European operetta imports, through rowdy Irish-American knockabout turns, to the true native grit of bottom-feeding ragtime. The highly stimulated boy took his music from where he wished in this merry maelstrom and the results, although individual and special, bear marks of his pop forbears and contemporaries. However, his focus from childhood, was always on musical theatre, so a little background is in order…
The American Musical took its time coming out and growing up. In the Victorian age, the New World was still under the
heel of the Old, with England firmly in command. The only resistance came from the native yelps and struts of strolling blackface minstrels, cultural originals even if rough and not yet ready for the drawing room. In the cities indigenous musical theatre could only manage “Grand Spectacle Burlesques”, crude affairs sporting hefty women in minimal clothing, dubbed “Leg Dramas” by the press. A cultural circus with songs and dances thrown in and tossed out, depending on the reaction of the audience -- a motley crew mostly made up of lusty males hell-bent on tipsified high jinks.
Next came the feisty, violent “Oirish” playlets written around songs and starring New Yorker terriers Harrigan & Hart whose tenement turf held every racial stereotype up to be pilloried with insult set to a jaunty tune, redolent of the old country.
Meanwhile, even as Variety was being smoothed into Vaudeville — a treat for the entire family — the ever-reliable slap-stick was not abandoned: Joe Weber of the comic duo Weber & Fields, was still spilling blood on stage from beatings delivered by his partner, all in the service of crowd delight and loud applause as he staggered off the stage to a ragtime melody.
In contrast to native vulgarity were the imported civilized wit and pretty lace melodies of Gilbert & Sullivan, favorites of Queen Victoria who especially liked her music “slow and sweet”. Gilbert, daring to rhyme “wary at” with “commissariat”, let Sullivan adjust to his lyrics and was proud that their comic operas, far from dealing with pomp and circumstance, were near at hand, as easy to digest as rump steak and onions, accessible to both the man of refinement and to the whistling butcher boy on his bicycle.
However, once in America their work was liable to hatchetry: a “Pinafore” production boasted a 7 foot female impersonator as dear little Buttercup; pop songs of the day were shamelessly “interpolated” – that is, shoved into the score. Dublin-born Victor Herbert, settled in New York and a colossus of turn-of-the-century operetta, fulminated in vain against the practice of interpolation. A conservatory-trained musician, he wanted his score left intact: a $100 penalty was imposed. But music publishers, seeing theatre as just another form of exploitation, paid the fines or paid off the stars. Musical theatre was developing into a star vehicle and very often the star was a comic.
And so it was that many a good number was brought to hit status by a comic star: “A Lemon In The Garden Of Love” by Richard Carle, “Under The Bamboo Tree” by Marie Cahill — neither song had anything to do with the plot. England might still be setting the standard but the calling of the tune was left to capricious and canny producers. A flood of British musical comedies had hit Broadway, following the phenomenal success of Leslie Stuart’s “Floradora” (1900) with its sextets of leggy lovelies and its trippingly charming songs, and they all seemed to have “Girl” in the title.
Stuart’s light and lilting music, owing not a little to English minstrelsy and rich with subtle key changes, had a profound effect on young American songwriters eager to rise above the clang and rattle of Irish-American songsters, and the blackface street slang of ragtime. There was much more talent, too, from the land of Stuart — a noble set of well-mannered musicians, some of whom had been to Oxford and were on speaking terms with the aristocracy, all of whom had that feathery touch, that certain ambling charm, an effortlessness that spoke of lunch at the club, a round of golf, and then perhaps a few minutes dashing off a number for the next “Girl” show. Of course, they were all schooled composers but you’d never know it from their ease of manner and courtly old world airs.
A nice Jewish kid called Jerome Kern was dazzled by these men. He’d seen action in the rude New York scene of music publishing, he’d been a song plugger, and had played piano for a top vaudeville knockabout comedienne, Marie Dressler. Earlier he’d been to Europe and done the Conservatory thing. But the “Viennese” school was not for him. He preferred the English souffle composers, with their classy long melodic lines and juicy but tasteful harmonies. So he borrowed from their trick bag and together with a clever lyricist devised a nifty interpolation for an imported British musical comedy called “The Earl And The Girl”. Girlies on swings shot almost into the orchestra stalls, delighting the Johnnies no end with a coaxing, “How D’You Like To Spoon With Me?”. It was, as the ads declared, “A Swinging Sensation”.
On the strength of this hit Kern was dispatched to London, center of genteel hitmakers, where the term “musical comedy” had been coined by the prime mover of this up-to-date mélange of song and story, George Edwardes. Once a producer of Gilbert & Sullivan he was now manager of The Gaiety Theatre and keeper of those gorgeous Gaiety girls who were nightly chased by Earls and Dukes. Kern was told to learn everything about the English way with light music, not to mention the pursuit of love.
In London he made himself useful by collaborating with lyricist Fred Leigh, a tireless worker in England’s Tin Pan Alley and the later writer of two deathless humorous hits, “Poor John” and “Waiting At The Church”. Both were wows in America and made a big impact on Irving Berlin, just starting to make his mark in the music business. Kern & Leigh’s creation was another flirty question song, “Won’t You Kiss Me Once Before You Go?” which made littler stir, but Kern didn’t care because he was too busy networking with the cream of his peers and enjoying the success of the “Spoon” song. He couldn’t stay away from the London action: next year he returned and met P.G.Wodehouse who told him about the awful gaffe he’d made at a lunch with W.S Gilbert; then he and Kern settled down to write a topical song about a politician; a few year’s later he met a Thameside publican’s daughter and wooed and won her, returning to New York with his Eva as the ragtime dance craze started to shake the stately house of melody.
Irving Berlin and other smart fellows were quick to board the non-stop syncopation train that would eventually circle the globe, even as far as Czarist Russia. But there were to be casualties and none more tragic than the gentlemen of British musical comedy, riders in a leisurely carriage, who couldn’t or wouldn’t write ragtime.
The period of fast-paced revue with lightning sketches and zippy snags and dances set in but Kern stuck to what he knew and loved, continuing to contribute songs for interpolation even as the British dominance of Broadway waned. In 1914 when America had gone ragtime dance mad and Irving Berlin’s jingles lit up the revue “Watch Your Step” Kern had a breakout number in another British import called “The Girl From Utah”.
The song, despite a verse that jogs to a foxtrot motif, soon settles into an easy saunter in the chorus, a sinuous naturalness, like a conversation, even as the tune strays into another key for a moment. But it works as if taken from nature, a perfect melding of words & music — the words, by the way, were by the same fellow (M.E. Rourke) who’d told of “A Lemon In The Garden Of Love” back in raunchier days, thus showing how much is connected in the rush of popular music.
“They Didn’t Believe Me” marks the beginning of a truly American style, a kindly breaking away from the English high-buttoned hopping and daintiness, as well as from the operatic formality, the vocal mountains and valleys of the European school that Victor Herbert belonged to. Herbert, who in his time had contributed a goodly share of catchy tunes and whose chord sequences and chorus bridges were to much imitated by songwriters high and low, pronounced upon hearing Kern’s song: ”Someday this young man will inherit my mantle!”.
And two New York boys, upon hearing “They Didn’t Believe Me”, decided that if theatre could produce such quality, far above the jangle of the Alley, then it would be theatre for them: George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers -- but, separately, without yet knowing each other.
Like Kern, Rodgers came from a comfortable background and never knew the driving demons of an Irving Berlin. He was all of 12 when captivated by Kern’s 1914 tune but already he was prodding at the family piano, imitating the Broadway hits to the delight of his theatre-going parents, who often treated him to Gilbert & Sullivan duets or a beefy ballad by Victor Herbert. Two years before he’d been exposed by his grandfather to the magic of “The Quaker Girl”, an English confection with music by Lionel Monckton, the top drawer West End composer. Theatre transported him to an unchanging world where birds sang and butterflies flitted. In the world around him dwelled a bullying older brother, stoppable only when his victim fled to the sanctuary of the piano bench. There was also the constant family bickering, too. The boy was not happy, never was. All he wanted to do was pick out tunes at the piano. Soon he was inventing his own.
From 1915 he started having revelations and they took place in his temple of theatre. He went to see the modest intimate musical comedies written by Englishmen Guy Bolton and P.G Wodehouse to music by Kern which were running at the tiny Princess Theatre. A revolution. Here were no Ruritanian princes and princesses, nor were there English girlies with cut glass accents. And certainly no coarse and vulgar ragtimers shouting about “babes” and life in Dixie. Instead here were everyday nice middle-class people in improbable but not impossible situations not far from Broadway. The songs sprang out of the story, continuing it rather than stopping the show. Curiously, though, there was very little dancing, the very stuff of all-round stage entertainments. But this was of no concern to the boy.
In his autobiography Rodgers describes what hit him musically, specifically the orchestral arranging. Even at that young age he was attentive to the inner musical voices, aware of Kern’s arranger, Frank Saddler, the man who worked the bricks and mortar into the palace dreamed up by the songwriter. This is important because from Kern onwards (and with the exception of Gershwin) the creators and continuers of the Great American Musical never did their own arranging. In fact, they didn’t know how to. For all the public bluster about music conservatory training the truth was that they were only a little higher in notation skills than Irving Berlin. And he couldn’t write a note. But he could create great songs out of the air and that’s what it’s all about. That’s the basis.
“ Saddler used comparatively few musicians”, wrote Rodgers, “and his work was contrapuntal and delicate, so that the sound emanating from the orchestra pit was very much in the nature of chamber music. The lyrics floated out with clarity, and there was good humor as well as sentiment in the use of instruments. Actually, I was watching and listening to the beginning of a new form of musical theatre in this country. Somehow I knew it and wanted desperately to be a part of it”.
Rodgers was a boy in a hurry. Still in short pants he shook the hand of Oscar Hammerstein II, lyricist of the 1917 Columbia University annual Varsity Show. He was determined to soon write an entire Varsity score himself but to do that he needed to attend the institution itself and here he was still at high school. As an interim exercise he made up tunes for amateur club and society productions. The words were provided by whoever was handy, including his father, who also footed the printing bills for the sheet music. Emboldened he got an audience with Harms, the most up-market of all the music publishers, and home to his idol Jerome Kern. “Keep going to high school”, they said.
Undeterred, focused solely on theatre and not on abstract music -- concertos and the like — Rodgers sought out a suitable lyricist and he found him in a wordsmith called Larry Hart, a disheveled midget in constant motion who lived with his mother but loved Kern and knew his way in and out of the Broadway jungle, even if he was a relative of Heine, the poet, and had the nerve to rhyme Heine with China. An old hand at the spieling game Hart was at present eking out a living by translating German operettas for a few dollars. But he had dreams, like his well-groomed and precise new kid friend, to deliver artistic merit to a musical theatre imbecilic enough to be content to fill a stage with gals and gags accompanied by a moon/June tune.
Larry, characteristically clad in slippers and tux pants and undershirt, rattled on at their very first meeting of “interior rhymes” and “feminine endings”. Bolton, Wodehouse & Kern were a great model but Hart and his boy would outdo them in melody and rhyme. Mind you, it would be hard to get smarter than Wodehouses’ recent rhyming “man jealous” with “Los Angeles”. Still, they’d give it a whirl.
Lew Fields, he of the blood-letting slap-stick, gave them a chance, interpolating their clever place name “list” song into a play he was currently producing. “Any Old Pace With You”, clearly inspired by Cole Porter’s earlier “A Shooting Box In Scotland”, bursts with smartyboots precociousness in its words (“In dreamy Portugal/ I’m goin’ to court you gal”, and “I’ll got to hell for ya/ Or Philadelphia”), but, as was to be the future pattern, Rodgers’ melody is sweetly bouncy, not at all boastful, not a bit jazzy. A good start but no cigar. There was lots of competition from the real pros. The 1919 market boasted hits by boy wonder George Gershwin (“Swanee”) and primitive genius Irving Berlin(“A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody”). Songs that were close to the ground, ready to plunge deep in the heart of the populace.
But Lew Fields seemed to have faith in the pair and next offered them the entire score for his ”Poor Little Ritz Girl”, yet another Cinderella story in a current fleet of them. The Broadway of 1920 was enjoying a boom, there’d be enough gravy for everyone. Surely now the boys would find fame and fortune. Alas, when the show reached Broadway the Rodgers & Hart songs had been whittled away to a handful to make way for more commercial product from seasoned pros like Sigmund Romberg. Broadway was not ready for them. Five years of hard apprenticeship with plenty of disappointment lay ahead.
Dropping out of Columbia, after writing two Varsity Shoes, Rodgers took time out to do a little study at the Institute of Musical Art. A pedagogue there dictated that one must never end a phrase with a tonic chord, calling it a “pig” for being so ploddingly dull. The boy took note, determining to be as modernistic as possible. He avoided the orchestration classes. Meanwhile Larry Hart was buzzing about, hanging around Jewish summer camps where he hobnobbed with Billy Rose (writer of “Barney Google”) and was hired as an ideas and titleman (they say he sold him “Me And My Shadow”), sat in for bagels with the Tin Pan Alley gang in the hope of placing a song in vaudeville, and wrote a blackface specialty number for a Weber & Fields revival.
After music school Rodgers soldiered on with his songwriting — the only thing he liked to do, having no hobbies and no sports — which meant continuing to write for amateur shows such as one for the Benjamin School For Girls. He and Larry came together now and then for, say, the Home For Crippled Children benefit. For one show they parodied Victor Herbert, Franz Lehar and Gilbert & Sullivan, climaxing with a send-up of Al Jolson. Frustratingly, all this time contemporaries such as Vincent Youmans and George Gershwin were going from show to show, hit to hit.
In 1924 Larry teamed with Lew Fields’ son Herb to concoct an eccentric musical called “Winkle Town”, about a small town boasting electricity without nasty wires. Oscar Hammerstein II was asked to help on this unlikely project but gave up. Rodgers, always a fast worker, had already written a score. Hart, grabbing a handy envelope, scrawled off lyrics at a fast jazzy tempo.
Among the songs was a riposte to those raving about the joys of “Swanee” and other far-flung places, a slowly swinging foxtrot to a wistful tune (with no “pig” tonic notes except at the very end) and smooth harmonies — quite romantic in a modern way — but with oh-so-smart lyrics about the everyday joys of “Manhattan”: “We’ll go to Greenwich / Where modern men itch/ To be free”. The mix of sweet and sour was as delicious as a well-shaken cocktail.
Just as before, Rodgers took a meeting at mighty Harms publishing. They said, “There is nothing of value here. I don’t hear any music…”
A little later Richard Rodgers considered getting into the babies underwear business.
And now the happy ending and the beginning of a reign as the most successful team on Broadway: Rodgers & Hart — note the ampersand: there was to be no stopping this hit-making industrial operation.
“The Garrick Gaieties” (1925) seemed a trifle: yet another benefit show — a revue for the Theatre Guild put on by their Junior Players, the kids who carried the spears and brewed the coffee. “Manhattan” was dusted off and fitted with a slew of extra verses: “Your bathing suit so thin/ Will make the shell-fish grin”.
The song was the smash of the show. A dozen encores after the finale. Everybody from stagehands to audience singing along — amazing when you consider the tricksy rhymes of Hart, but maybe the easy-to-remember flow of Rodgers’ music ( shades of Victor Herbert, Arthur Sullivan and all those English gentlemen songwriters brought into a new sunlit age of suavity and sophistication, of melodies that seem casual but streamlined) was what turned the trick, turning a precious jewel into a pin that Everyman and his wife could wear and call their own.
“We’ll have Manhattan” said the song. Pretty soon Rodgers & Hart had New York and the entire country singing their hymn to the city. Pretty soon the dance bands were jazzing it up with hot arrangements and vocalists who slurred the words and party wags who contributed their own verse and worse. Rodgers was never happy with the demotic strain in American life. When the Jazz Age was followed by Swing and every player had his say, mucking with the melody and substituting the harmony he grew irritated. “I Like To Recognize The Tune” went one of his songs at the height of the jitterbug craze.
But for now, as the success of “The Garrick Gaieties” opened up the gates of Broadway, ending the wilderness years of the wand’ring minstrel, Richard Rodgers was content -- so long as he could spend the rest of his life safely ensconced in the plush of a theatre seat, watching a rehearsal or, especially, an audition involving pretty girls. For only then was he wrapped in his heaven — the sanctuary of song where his song jewels could be polished till they glittered, even as the rude world outside banged and hollered and the train of syncopation rattled by.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and
music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com