Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) wrote some of the loveliest and most touching popular music of the 20th century, from "Thou Swell" in A Connecticut Yankee
through "Edelweiss" in The Sound of Music
. He was half of the two most celebrated teams in American musical theater: Rodgers and Hart sparkled with the insouciant gaiety of the 1920s and '30s, while Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein forged a revolution with more serious, artistically unified productions like Oklahoma
and The King and I
. Meryle Secrest skillfully depicts Rodgers's glittering lifestyle and the complex personality hidden underneath the suave manner and elegant clothes. Born into an affluent but tension-riddled New York Jewish family, he was playing the piano at seven and had his first Broadway musical produced before 18. Life after that was a succession of hit shows, glamorous parties, famous friends, and lavish homes decorated by wife Dorothy, who turned a sophisticated blind eye to his affairs with pretty actresses. Theatrical colleagues recall Rodgers as amusing and charming, if not precisely warm; daughters Mary and Linda paint a darker picture of a hypercritical and sometimes cruel father enmeshed in a marriage he often found confining. Secrest hasn't anything very new to say about Rodgers's music, but she's written a perceptive biography of an intriguingly complicated man and a formidable creative artist. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
"Whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens," sings Maria to a lighthearted melody in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, but this sentimental, carefree imagery was hardly the stuff of which composer Rodgers's life was made. This deeply researched and moving critical biography covers the composer's long life and career (he died in 1979), with astute analysis of his work and sympathetic, but not hagiographic, insights into the man. Born in 1902 to an upper-middle-class Jewish family in New York City, Rodgers copyrighted his first song, "Auto Show Girl" when he was 15. After he teamed up with Lorenz Hart in 1919, they turned out a series of shows and songs that made them world famous and well-off (by the mid-1930s, at the height of the depression, they were each making more than $100,000 a year). When Hart died in 1943, Rodgers partnered with Oscar Hammerstein and went on to produce some of the most popular and important musicals in the second half of the 20th century, including The King and I and No Strings. Secrest, who has penned critically acclaimed biographies of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, has a good eye for detail and neatly integrates important personal details such as the impact of Dorothy's homophobia concerning her husband's relationship with the gay Hart or the increasingly debilitating effect that Rodgers's alcoholism had on his work. Based on extensive interviews (and the help of Rodgers's children) as well as comprehensive research in the sociology of the music and theater industry, this is a wonderful addition to the literature on American popular culture. (Nov.)Forecast: Bookstores with music sections would be wise to stock this title. Expect strong sales from both theatergoers and lovers of song standards.
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