Book Review:

The Man Who Wrote Our Soundtracks

Reviewed by Joseph Rosenberg
Somewhere for Me--A Biography of Richard Rodgers
By Meryle Secrest
401 pages; Albert Knopf, 2001

No, Emily, this is not a book about Mr. Rogers, ubiquitous host on PBS; this is a book about composer Richard Rodgers, who authored so many popular songs that only a select few are quoted in this book. Rodgers, first with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein, wrote such songs that they form the foundation of any popular musician's vocabulary.

Ms. Secrest tracks Rodgers' long life, filled with health challenges and anxiety over becoming a musical giant and then maintaining that role. The book shows he was a man who could only express his warmth with his music and charity. In his three most important relationships--with his wife and musical partners--Rodgers turned out to be a man who hid his interior life.

Rodgers' first musical partner, Larry Hart, had many emotional problems. yet together they produced some great musical comedies, and songs with trenchant lyrics and clever melodies. Then, once he hooked up with Hammerstein, Rodgers participated in some of the greatest musicals this country has produced.

Starting with "Oklahoma," Rodgers and Hammerstein reinvented musical theatre. With "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King and I" and the "Sound of Music," R &H made racial tolerance a subtext of their endeavors. To Hammerstein's sentimental and somewhat preachy words, Rodgers added soaring melodies.

To make a case for their greatness, I herewith offer my top ten list from each partnership:

When someone from the world beyond our insular shores asks what we Americans have contributed to the world, the answer is easy--Jazz and the Popular Song. Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charles Parker, The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein have created the soundtrack of our world.

From Africa, Ireland, Middle Europe and England, their ancestors passed by the Statue of Liberty or came to this country in chains. Some of them had trouble with alcohol and sexual identity. Yet I submit they all would understand and appreciate the freedom this country promised better than any mayonnaise-on-white-bread-eating member of the Moral Majority ever could.

This book is a celebration of Richard Rodgers in this milieu. Braving his own illnesses and his frailties, Rodgers moved past pain and heartbreak and created a world of melody that binds the wounds created by our savage reality.

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This story was published on April 4, 2002.