Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), achieved fame writing songs from the 1920s through the early 1940s, with lyricist Lorenz Hart. Together they wrote more than 40 lighthearted, sophisticated musical comedies, including On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, I Married an Angel, and Pal Joey.
At the same time, Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) found success writing the words for operettas, or “light opera,” which had its root in 19th-century Europe. He collaborated with a number of composers, including Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg. The shows he wrote include The Desert Song, Rose-Marie, and The New Moon. He tackled many challenging social issues in his work, including racism, as illustrated in the musicals Show Boat, written in 1927 with Jerome Kern, and Carmen Jones, an African-American version of Georges Bizet’s tragic opera Carmen.
Rodgers and Hammerstein first collaborated in 1943 on Oklahoma!, a show that is widely considered to be the first true musical play, combining elements of musical comedy and operetta to create a more integrated, dramatic musical than had been seen before. Their subsequent works include Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music. They also wrote the movie musical, State Fair, and for television, Cinderella, which was recently staged on Broadway.
Their musicals won many honors, including a total of 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards. Today, their musicals continue to be mainstays in high schools, community theaters, and professional theaters around the world.
Oscar Hammerstein II died in 1960, but Rodgers continued to write for the Broadway stage. No Strings, the first show he wrote without a partner, won Tony Awards for both music and lyrics. He followed it with Do I Hear a Waltz, Two by Two, Rex, and I Remember Mama, which opened on Broadway in 1979, only a few months before his death.
The sections about Rodgers and Hammerstein and the history of American musical theater were drawn from Victoria Abrash's teacher resource guide for Lincoln Center Theater's production of South Pacific.