“If a composer is to reach his audience emotionally – and surely that’s what theatre music is all about – he must reach the people through sounds they can relate to.” So wrote the Broadway composer Richard Rodgers in the closing chapters of his 1975 memoir, Musical Stages. And “relating” is what Rodgers’s music continues to do, 30 years after his death – his melodies are as much a part of the musical fabric of Britain as they have always been in America.
Richard Rodgers isn’t a name one is used to hearing on its own. It usually comes as half of an equation that first included the lyricist Lorenz Hart and, later, Oscar Hammerstein II, between the two of whom Rodgers created such musical theatre classics as Babes in Arms and The Boys from Syracuse (with Hart) and Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music (with Hammerstein).
This week sees the arrival in London of Shall We Dance, the dancer and choreographer Adam Cooper’s tribute show of sorts at Sadler’s Wells. A new ballet scored to Rodgers’s music, it separates the composer from his lyrical collaborators and celebrates the durability of a melodic bequest that has even found pride of place in English football courtesy of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Will the music stand up to it? Of course. This is the classically trained New Yorker – Rodgers attended the Institute of Musical Art, now the prestigious Juilliard School – who also gave us Soliloquy and If I Loved You, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught and Do-Re-Mi: all classic tunes rooted both in the specifics of the narratives in which they find themselves and in a degree of melodic invention that enables them to stand alone – or to assist in a fresh, non-verbal narrative, as Cooper uses them.
Listen to the way, for instance, that the ascending notes are wedded to the words that give If I Loved You, Carousel’s heartbreaking first-act duet, its title, hesitancy turned to the sense of erotic possibility that is the song’s subject and is mirrored by the music itself. Similarly, one picks up on the brooding, solitary existence of Oklahoma!’s glowering Jud Fry from the song’s darkly melodic sonorities: as close, one feels, as Rodgers ever came to Benjamin Britten.
What matters, too, is Rodgers’s own interest in extending the very range of musical theatre, whether via the frontier sensibility he brought to his “western” sounds for Oklahoma! or the liturgical elements in The Sound of Music. Both those musicals are rarely far from view on British stages, which speaks to the special relationship that Rodgers’ work has always had with this country.
Whereas many defining musicals of the modern age make dance a cursory part of the whole, Rodgers is to be celebrated for giving movement its due. He worked with some of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers: the legendary Agnes de Mille devised extended second-act ballets for both Oklahoma! and Carousel that remain crucial to those shows’ sunny and wounding resolutions. Rodgers’ eleventh-hour waltz in The King and I lets the stern-faced King of Siam cut loose to the delight of an audience that is then wrenched 180 degrees – spoiler alert! – when the same character’s dancing days are abruptly cut short.
Rodgers’ vast output across more than 40 Broadway musicals is both sufficiently dance-friendly and also varied enough to sustain itself across the kind of evening one would be hard-pressed to devote to, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber (notwith-standing his Lordship’s 1980s venture, Song and Dance). Rodgers raised the bar on musical theatre writing, allowing choreographers a template by which to amplify a story in terms of movement as well as words. Slaughter On Tenth Avenue brings On Your Toes to an exultant finish, not only because it is a jazz ballet capping an otherwise traditional book musical, but because it startlingly redefines the show’s previously gormless hero as a ferocious mover.
This pulsatingly fierce dance has since achieved genuine as an entity on its own, though it is wittier seen in the context of the material from which it sprang. The ballet not long before the finale of Carousel is alive to the vagaries of love and loss that mark out a musical whose sophistication was preeminently established in Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre revival of that show in 1992 ( still perhaps the greatest-ever R&H staging ).
To that end, it is worth emphasising Rodgers’ ongoing currency this side of the Atlantic. His output is often granted unique pride of place in the UK, where London’s Cadogan Hall, for instance, next month hosts a musical revue of Rodgers and Hart, to star Maria Friedman, and the same city’s tiny Finborough theatre will mount the European debut of the duo’s State Fair. New York’s most recent revivals of Carousel and Oklahoma! were both versions of productions that had begun at London’s National Theatre. And whatever your take on reality TV, Connie Fisher gave The Sound of Music a freshness that the same show certainly didn’t have in its most recent Broadway go-round in 1998. In fact, London’s original production of The Sound of Music was – until the revival of Chicago surpassed it a few years ago – the capital’s longest-running American musical ever. “Its longevity in the West End was all the more remarkable because of blistering first-night reviews,” Rodgers wrote in his autobiography. “Fortunately, the English have a habit of making up their own minds.”
In much of his output, an appealing simplicity leaves room for something more complicated. Think of Oklahoma!’s sweet-natured paean to The Surrey With the Fringe on Top, with what Rodgers referred to as its “clip-clop rhythm”, which gives way later in that same show to People Will Say We’re in Love, a ticklish account of attempting to conceal from view a passion that can’t be ignored. No musical theatre composer has written as richly and resonantly about love, as it lives on even when the person nearest to us passes on. That soaring appeal to the emotions helps explain the fact that You’ll Never Walk Alone can become a UK football stadium mainstay for thousands who may never have even heard of Carousel: a phenomenon Americans find at once amusing and slightly odd.
Could the outward reach of Rodgers’ work – a thematic and melodic breadth that sweeps from the American west and across the Pacific to Thailand, and on to Anschluss-era Europe – signify to us here a creative riposte to the isolationism or hauteur of which America is often accused? It’s become almost a cultural commonplace to deride the US for a navel-gazing that has led one British critic to coin the phrase “diaper drama”, describing a collective refusal in the American theatre to open the door to the larger world and breathe it in.
If Shall We Dance seems a sensible idea for an entertainment – and it does in principle, however well the results turn out in practice – it’s because the title reflects a genuine American maverick who saw the narrative possibilities in any number of peoples and all manner of behaviour. Faced with that, why shouldn’t Adam Cooper fashion something entirely afresh from melodies we know by heart, with a few rarities thrown in to keep aficionados on their toes? Rodgers’s is the music that makes us dance.
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