When Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborated with Irving Berlin, Berlin was worried about credit and quite possibly the reputation of the other two, fond of quoting his couplet “There goes time with your last year’s prize/ Whittling it down to its proper size.” Which, of course, seems ridiculous given that Berlin, Rodgers, and Hammerstein are still titans half a century after their heyday, but it’s nice to see that even the mighty have their anxieties.
The book follows Rodgers from his early days writing music with Hart, before the latter’s alcoholism rendered him too unstable to work, and his fortunate partnership with Hammerstein, a lyricist whose gift for adaptation matched Rodgers’. The two go on to craft some of the most timeless musicals of the American stage – Oklahoma, Carousel, The Sound of Music, Cinderella – and a few misses that still added to the culture at large. (introducing Shirley MacLaine to the stage, a scrapped number from South Pacific being adapted into “Getting to Know You” from The King and I).
The book outlines the duo’s process as much as the outcome, and seeing how a song evolves (Hammerstein more often wrote the lyrics before Rodgers composed the music, which blows my mind) was delightful. The dynamic between the two and the attribution of credit was likewise an interesting look behind the curtain – the author notes a cameo in a film where Rodgers receives rapturous applause, and when Hammerstein comes out Rodgers quickly quiets it with a “that’s enough,” poking fun at their public perception. But, I think my favorite part of the whole book comes in the intro, where the author notes that both Rodgers and Hammerstein both were never sure whether the other one truly liked him. It’s kind of a relief for my own anxiety prone self that you can work so closely with another person to create works that (tongue in cheek jokes aside) everyone thinks of as a joint creation and stand the test of time, and still wonder if the other guy likes you.