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Rodgers Explored

Ben Winters weighs in on Meryle Secrest's new biography of the troubled genius that was Richard Rodgers. logo

Richard Rodgers, the man who set down the music to Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, and South Pacific, also wrote a whole lot of shows you've probably never heard of. With Lorenz "Larry" Hart, for example, he wrote something called Betsy, which opened late in 1926 at the Ziegfeld Theater starring Belle Baker and ran for a scant 39 performances. Though in all other respects a stunning failure, Betsy introduced one indelible classic; unfortunately, that song was not by Rodgers and Hart.

"The opening night could not have gone worse," explains Meryle Secrest in Somewhere For Me, her new biography of Rodgers. "Ziegfeld had hired Irving Berlin to contribute the sure-fire hit for Belle Baker he evidently felt he had not received from Rodgers and Hart." It worked. "Blue Skies" was such a showstopper that Berlin stood up and took a bow in the middle of the performance, and his tune would become one of the favorites of the great American songbook. Understandably, Rodgers and Hart were a bit put out, a fact that Berlin noted and slyly lampooned many years later in a parody of his own famous tune (included in The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, also recently issued by Knopf):

"Blue Skies," we'd like to know,
Why is that "Blue Skies" in our show?

Somewhere For Me

is marvelously full of behind-the-curtain anecdotes like this. Another great one comes many pages later, when a proposed Rodgers collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner falls through rather comically. Secrest's work is strongest when consumed with the details of Rodgers' professional life; she moves with a strong, compelling voice through his astonishing career. Rodgers' breakthrough show was The Garrick Gaieties: Set to play for one performance only at the Theater Guild, this "topical revue" ended up bumping Lunt and Fontanne in The Guardsman. From there it was onward and upward to Broadway and Hollywood for Rodgers, with only the occasional flop intervening. The man apparently never had any interest in retiring, even after his health began to fail; his last show, I Remember Mama, closed on Labor Day of 1979, three months before his death.

Secrest does an excellent job of ushering her readers into the world of show making, including the often chaotic business of creating songs and scripts and the daunting process of assembling investors for the massively expensive enterprise of putting on a Broadway musical. We learn that this latter endeavor occasionally involved crossing paths with the Mafia, who became theater patrons for reasons of their own: "If a gangster backed a show," writes Secrest, "it was usually because he had some cutie whose career he was promoting." Somewhere For Me includes a great picture of "Legs" Diamond, looking as thuggish and intimidating as he must have when he kindly offered Rodgers his various services ("get rid of a car...get somebody roughed up a little bit") before his untimely death.

This is a fascinating world and a fun one--much more fun, for Secrest anyway, than Rodgers' personal life. Indeed, one gets the feeling at times that the author is annoyed that Rodgers even had a private life. The composer's relationship with his wife Dorothy and his daughters, his womanizing, his lifelong alcoholism and bouts with depression--these subjects are sketched by Secrest rather than fully detailed. She mentions Rodgers' various hospitalizations and his psychiatric history only in passing, as if unsure why they're important. She tosses out tantalizing anecdotes, as when the chronically phobic composer inexplicably refused to drive on the West Side highway after a dinner party. But, by the end of Somewhere For Me, we are left with a well-crafted portrait of a career and a far less convincing image of a man.

It's not surprising that, in Secrest's view, Rodgers' life was limned by two defining relationships: with his two most frequent lyricists, Larry Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Hart was mercurial and alcoholic, exceedingly gifted and exceedingly troubled, whereas Hammerstein was smooth-tempered, gentle and sophisticated. Rodgers, of course, was in some way all of these things, and Secrest best captures his personality in counterpoint to the lyricists'. The composer's own drinking was constant and voluminous but never as debilitating as that of Hart, who would shout at actors from the balcony during performances of his own shows. Rodgers' recurring lack of self confidence is perhaps best illustrated by the way he treated Hammerstein, who had similar anxieties--e.g., letting Hammerstein wait for agonizing days on end to tell him whether Rodgers thought a particular lyric was any good.

Rodgers, it seems, had a capacity for casual cruelty, whether he was reminding daughter Mary of her weight or dismissing Hart, after his death, as "that little faggot." But exactly how this capacity arose--along with his depression and alcoholism--or to what extent these dark traits dominated his dealings with friends and loved ones is never made entirely clear. As always with men of great of genius, there is a fascination in seeing them act badly; though Secrest doesn't allow us to wallow too long in Rodgers' psychological morass, we are granted the far healthier pleasure of watching him at work.

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