Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Evening with Richard Rodgers

Last Saturday night, the Hartford Symphony presented -- with gifted students from the Hartt School Music Theatre and Ballet program -- an evening dedicated to the music of just one man: Richard Rodgers.

Who gets this kind of treatment? Beethoven. Tchaikovsky. I've seen and attended all-Brahms programs, sometimes on successive nights.

But Richard Rodgers? BELIEVE IT. And even if we were to play someone else's music on the same program, it wouldn't matter, because


More than Bach. More than Mozart. More than Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern. No one else comes close.

Think about it. Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies, and a good 15-20 of them are played regularly, around the world. Schubert wrote over 600 songs. How many of them do you know? Let's see . . . Doppelganger, The Earl King, Sylvia, Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Ave Maria, and there are many more.

Did you know Rodgers wrote over 900 songs? You might not be able to name them all, or even half of them, but if someone started singing them for you, you would find yourself saying over and over again, "oh yeah! I know that one (too)."

Because Richard Rodgers not only had the gift of melody, he was astoundingly prolific. He started composing at the age of 9. He made it to Broadway by the age of 18. (Gershwin didn't get there until he was in his 20s.) With Lorenz Hart he created 15 musicals between 1925 and 1930. With Pal Joey (1940) and later By Jupiter, Rodgers had turned in two decades of Broadway success, and had not yet reached the age of 40. If he were Rossini, he would have retired, his legacy secure. But no. Instead he moves on to a new association with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, writing musicals for nearly two decades more.

Let me put it you another way: Richard Rodgers made it to Broadway when Babe Ruth was just getting going. And he was still writing hit tunes when Richard Nixon resigned and Reggie Jackson became known as Mr. October.

If Richard Rodgers had somehow been more flamboyant, more of a bon vivant, hounded by media, then he would rightly take his place as the American Mozart in work and play. Instead, he was family man, with two daughters and a wife he loved (and who loved him). Sure he had a reputation for charming the ladies, but have you ever seen a picture of Rodgers when he wasn't wearing a suit and tie? (I haven't.) The first thing that comes to mind is an accountant, or an actuary. On television, he appeared dour and colorless.

But what a titanic genius! As a friend pointed out to me, Richard Rodgers is the only person to have received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony and 2 Pulitzer Prizes. After awhile, R & H, unhappy with what producers were doing with their shows, decided to start producing shows on their own, making them both fabulously wealthy (which also goes against the grain of what people associate with the laboring, starving artistic genius). Rodgers was so good, he got to a point where he could put on shows without stars, without bankable names. Since the music was so good, people were going to come anyway. Before Oklahoma, anything that got 500 performances was considered a Broadway hit. Laurie and Curly, Ado Annie and Will, Aunt Eller and Jud went on for 2,212 performances. After that colossal hit, one bigwig said to him, "Hang it up, now. You will never do anything better than Oklahoma." Oh yeah? How about Carousel?

So you can see my problem in planning last Saturday's show. The question was not, what to play, but rather, what can we leave out? For how many Broadway composers can you do a show like this, leave out so many hits, and still leave the audience happy? We didn't do anything from The King and I. We didn't do the Carousel Waltz. Not even 'My Funny Valentine,' or 'Out of My Dreams' (my favorite waltz, by the way). And no one cared.

Because this was perhaps the best pops show I have ever done with the Hartford Symphony. With Michael Morris's brilliant direction, Denise Leetch-Moore's majestic choreography, and Alan Rust's theatrical expertise, not to mention those fabulous young men and women from Hartt, we put on a show of shows. The buzz was palpable, from start to finish. The roars began early, and continued throughout.

It was my last pops show as Music Director of the Hartford Symphony, and it was a fabulous way to go out.

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