Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Something Wonderful

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution

Todd S. Purdum

Henry Holt and Co.



All They Cared About Was the Show

At the stroke of 8:00 p.m. on the rainy Sunday evening of March 31, 1957, in a converted vaudeville house on Upper Broadway in Manhattan, timpani rolled, herald trumpets blared a fanfare, and soon a chorus sang out, “The prince is giving a ball!” The crowded old theater at the corner of West 81st Street was the CBS Television Network’s smallest color studio, No. 72, but the program beaming live from its transmitters was being broadcast over the largest network ever assembled—245 local stations from coast to coast, including twenty-nine in Canada. The network had bigger, better studios in Hollywood, but this one had been chosen for its proximity to New York’s theater scene. For the real hosts of the evening were no mere princes, but the kings of Broadway themselves: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the reigning creators and impresarios of the modern musical theater, and two of the most influential producers of mass popular entertainment in Eisenhower-era America.

This evening’s production was Cinderella, a ninety-minute original musical play created especially for television, and it found Rodgers and Hammerstein at the very height of their powers. With a budget of $385,000, a live orchestra of thirty-three pieces, and an all-star cast, Cinderella preempted The Ed Sullivan Show and General Electric Theater, two of the most popular programs of the day. Sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and the Shulton Company, makers of Old Spice toiletries, the special broadcast was ballyhooed in full-page newspaper advertisements across the country and promoted in more than a hundred announcements over CBS stations alone. Shulton had offered a portable television set, two clock radios, and ten recordings for those station managers who did the most to promote the show. Letters were sent to the principals of public schools, urging them to encourage their students to watch the program, and Kenyon & Eckhardt, Pepsi’s advertising agency, sponsored prizes for a letter-writing contest in which people were asked to nominate “the nicest person I know” or to suggest “my wish for my town.” Five million four-page color Cinderella comic books were printed for insertion into cartons of Pepsi, and a long-playing album of the show’s score would be on sale from Columbia Records first thing Monday morning.

By now, this level of interest, attention, and dominance was par for the course for Rodgers and Hammerstein. After all, this was the team that had revolutionized the American musical theater, integrating song, story, and dance as never before with their blockbuster Oklahoma! in 1943, and then gone on to create the beloved and enduring hits Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I—a new show every other year for fourteen years and counting. Their songs, a bursting catalogue written for specific characters and dramatic situations in individual plays, had nevertheless produced a powerhouse lineup of popular hits, from “People Will Say We’re in Love,” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” to “Getting to Know You,” that had become part of the soundtrack, the background music, the very vernacular of America. The titles themselves—“There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune”—evoked the infectious, ebullient, can-do optimism of the era.

What is more, Rodgers and Hammerstein were also universally regarded by even their envious peers and competitors as perhaps the best (and richest) pair of businessmen in show business—with their own music publishing house, sole ownership of their dramatic properties, and a casting and producing organization that held open auditions every Thursday morning to spot new talent and fill out long-running and touring productions of their shows. They had pioneered the practice of recording original cast albums of Broadway musicals and were the first to exploit lucrative merchandising tie-ins for their shows, with themed pajamas, dolls, and tropical fashions from South Pacific. Just three years earlier, in 1954, the General Foods Corporation had chosen to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary with an all-star tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein, a program carried on all four extant television networks.

Now the boys were aiming even higher, bringing Cinderella to CBS in an effort to top NBC’s highly successful live productions of a musical version of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, in 1955 and 1956. Their package deal with the network called for them to bear the “above the board” costs of the show—that is, talent, costumes, scenery, and so on—while the network would pay for cameras, lights, sound, and technical equipment. Rodgers and Hammerstein would own the finished show outright, with an option for a single rebroadcast by CBS. And they had scored a casting coup: Julie Andrews, then the hottest star on Broadway, moonlighting from her role as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, to play Cinderella.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had first met Andrews two years earlier, when she auditioned for a role in what turned out to be their biggest commercial and critical flop, Pipe Dream, a musical set among the raffish characters of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Rodgers had sarcastically pronounced her singing “absolutely adequate,” and asked if she was up for other parts. She had replied that Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner had approached her about a musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which they would in fact transform into My Fair Lady. So now a happy reunion was possible, and Andrews managed to squeeze rehearsals for Cinderella into her days and afternoons off. The creative team rounded out the cast with a roster of some of Broadway’s most reliable names: Howard Lindsay, the co-author and co-star of Life with Father (to this day the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history) and his wife, Dorothy Stickney, as the king and queen; Edie Adams, fresh from her triumph as Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner, as the fairy godmother; the comediennes Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley as the stepsisters; Ilka Chase as the stepmother; and an unknown newcomer named Jon Cypher as the prince. (The production floor manager was also just getting his start in show business, but he would go on to big things: Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater.)

Hammerstein, who wrote the libretto, had kept the Cinderella story simple and sweet: no modern touches, no anachronistic interpolations, no wised-up twentieth-century idioms. But the logistical demands of the production were daunting. Studio 72, a former Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville house and later a movie theater, was a cramped space of just forty-two hundred square feet whose orchestra seats had been removed and filled in with concrete to make a level playing surface with the stage. Into this shoe box would have to be fit at least seven sets (of necessity, vertical ones) in tones of lavender and chartreuse, bulky color cameras, dressing areas for men and women, and a walled-off echo chamber for an orchestra that included violins, various woodwinds, horns, and a harp. “I just thought it was going to be the greatest train wreck in the history of show business,” Adams would recall.

To guard against that possibility, a rigorous rehearsal schedule was laid out, including two full-scale dress run-throughs that the producers referred to as the New Haven and Boston out-of-town tryouts that were then standard practice for Broadway-bound musicals. At one rehearsal Rodgers himself, always a stickler for having his music performed exactly as written, interrupted the director, a television veteran named Ralph Nelson. “Yes, Mr. Rodgers, what is it?” Nelson asked. “That boy in the second row in the back, you’re singing an E-flat instead of an E-natural,” Rodgers replied.

The special effects were crude by modern standards—a shot of a burning sparkler superimposed over a shot of the fairy godmother to herald her arrival; a comparable effect for the pumpkin-turned-carriage; and a system to administer a small shock to the four white mice who were about ready to be transformed into horses but had a tendency to grow somnolent in their cage under the hot studio lights. And because of the technical limitations of the time, viewers on the West Coast would not see the full-color production at all, only a kinescope—a black-and-white film version shot off a television monitor, which is the record of the evening that survives today.

The final run-through ended at 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of the broadcast, and a few minutes later, Ralph Nelson assembled the cast for a pep talk. “I love television,” he told them. “The trouble is, it’s the closing night. I want it to be your best performance. . . . I’m worried about people being nervous. . . . It’s there in the control room also. . . . I want this performance for myself. . . . Do exactly what I’m expecting you to do. . . . I love you all. . . . If I said anything more, I’d cry.”

Nelson needn’t have worried. There were a few glitches, yes. At one point, Cypher, who would go on to fame as Chief of Police Fletcher Daniels in Hill Street Blues, sang over some lines that were supposed to be Dorothy Stickney’s. Critical reception would prove to be somewhat mixed, with Jack Gould of the New York Times complaining that “the warmth of ageless make-believe sometimes was submerged in the efficiency of the modern touch.” But the audience? The audience was stupendous. More people watched Cinderella together than had ever collectively watched any event in the history of the planet to that point. At least 107 million people saw part of the program, in a country whose population at the time was roughly 172 million. Even today, only the Super Bowl draws an audience close to comparable. The viewers on that single Sunday evening would have filled a typical Broadway theater seven nights a week—for 165 years.

“I walked outside the theater Sunday night . . . and the streets were absolutely—it was raining—the streets were absolutely deserted,” Jon Cypher would recall. “Absolutely deserted. There were no cars, there were no people. It was almost as though they had dropped a neutron bomb, that the buildings had been preserved but all the people had died. It was a very, very peculiar feeling. Everybody was inside watching the show.”

The date of Cinderella’s broadcast was no coincidence for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Everybody had been inside watching their shows since another March 31, exactly fourteen years earlier, when their first collaboration, Oklahoma!, had opened at the St. James Theatre in the middle of World War II and turned the American musical theater upside down. From the distance of three-quarters of a century, it is difficult to fathom just how revolutionary Oklahoma! was in its day. It was not, as is so often said, the first musical play to integrate dance into its drama. (Rodgers’s On Your Toes had done that.) Nor was it the first to eschew typical musical comedy conventions, such as an opening chorus. (Rodgers’s Pal Joey had done that, too.) Nor was it the first to deal with serious themes and personalities in its story line. (Hammerstein’s Show Boat had broken that ground.)

But Oklahoma! was the first to do all three at once, with the smashing success that it did, and all in the service of realistic character development. The play’s plot turned on nothing more substantial than which of two men—a sunny cowboy or a brooding farmhand—would take a pretty young farm girl to a box social, and it opened with a lone woman churning butter on an empty stage and the cowboy singing in the wings about “a bright, golden haze on the meadow.” Yet Oklahoma! was as radical in its way as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop, genre-bending Hamilton would be more than seventy years later. The reason was simple: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s combined lifetimes of consummate theatrical knowledge, taste, and skill.

Between them, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew virtually everything there was to know about the theater. As a child, Oscar Hammerstein had thrilled to Broadway spectacles and Buffalo Bill’s touring Wild West show at the turn of the twentieth century. He went on to write books and lyrics for operettas with the likes of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml, and then pioneered the creation of the serious modern musical play with Show Boat in collaboration with Jerome Kern in 1927. Dick Rodgers, seven years younger, had had his first big hit, the Garrick Gaieties, in 1925, the same year The Great Gatsby was published, and had enjoyed a successful, and exclusive, twenty-year collaboration with the brilliant lyricist Lorenz Hart, fizzy with the joys of the Jazz Age and 1930s escapism. The collaboration with Hart finally foundered over the lyricist’s severe alcoholism, which left him unable to function, and Rodgers turned to Hammerstein, who was ready for a new partner himself, after a long and disappointing string of commercial and critical flops. By the time the two men finally teamed up, Hammerstein would recall years later, they didn’t “want anything that ‘looks like a good musical comedy.’ ”

They wanted something else.

And they would find it, each broadening and deepening his art, not just with Oklahoma! but with a succession of unconventional works, including Carousel, in which the ne’er-do-well antihero kills himself near the top of the second act; South Pacific, in which an American navy nurse and marine lieutenant grapple with interracial romance and prejudice during World War II; and The King and I, a sublimated love story of cross-cultural conflict in which the principal characters never so much as kiss but share the sexiest polka ever danced. Rodgers and Hammerstein worked with some of the biggest stars on Broadway, and made or boosted the careers of many others—including Shirley Jones, Florence Henderson, Shirley MacLaine, Celeste Holm, Alfred Drake, Sean Connery, John Raitt, Marlon Brando, Shelley Winters, Sal Mineo, Larry Hagman, and Yul Brynner—but some of their most important works featured unknowns. They preferred singers who could act to actors who could sing, and they developed a reliable stock company of behind-the-scenes collaborators—directors, stage managers, arrangers, conductors, scenic designers, and rehearsal accompanists—who would stick with them through the years, sometimes to their own financial detriment. One of their co-producers, Richard Halliday, the husband of Mary Martin, the original star of South Pacific and The Sound of Music, once complained, when Rodgers and Hammerstein had rejected some silly bit of stage business for the star, “All you care about is the show!” and it was true.

At the height of the partners’ success, Leonard Bernstein would say of Rodgers, “He is, perhaps, the most imitated songwriter of our time. He has established new levels of taste, distinction, simplicity in the best sense, and inventiveness.” David Ewen, Rodgers’s biographer of the same era, would judge that “nobody in the past forty years has written as many good songs for the stage over such a sustained period as he; nobody writing music for the popular theater has been heard and loved by so many people in so many different parts of the civilized world.” As for Hammerstein, the New Yorker’s Philip Hamburger concluded, “His songs are distinguished by such lucid wording, such unabashed sentimentality, such a gentle, even noble, view of life, and such an attachment to love, home, small children, his native country, nature and dreams come true that he has been called the Bobby Burns of the American musical stage.”

In their prime, the partners seemed to stand for the best of America: forward-looking, liberal, innovative, internationalist—progressive both artistically and ideologically. One need take only the briefest glances at the conventional Broadway fare that surrounded them at the beginning of their collaboration—and the flock of imitators that sprang up after their success—to recognize the radical nature of their innovations and the reach of their influence. As the decades wore on, and the tumult of the 1960s upended American society, it was a paradox of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s success that the musicals that had once been hailed as pioneering and daring would come to be seen in some critics’ eyes as conventional, conformist, patronizing, paternalistic, retrograde. Yet even as a new generation of composers, lyricists, and directors explicitly rejected and moved beyond the well-made formula that Rodgers and Hammerstein had perfected, in favor of “concept” musicals in which plot and character were often secondary to style and theme, such innovations would have been impossible if Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had not first blazed the trail.

As collaborators, they were a conundrum. They had much in common. Both had been born in the same swath of what was then upper-middle-class Harlem. Both attended Columbia University, where they were members of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, and fell under the spell of the college’s musical comedy troupe, the Varsity Show. Both had had unhappy, even miserable, experiences working in Hollywood, both grappled with bouts of depression (though Rodgers’s problems were far more severe and enduring), and both preferred New York. Both were married to women named Dorothy, who were both interior decorators, though with wildly different tastes and styles. Both were the keenest of businessmen—though both tended to downplay their interest in the nuts and bolts for public consumption—and both could be chary with collaborators, stingy with credit, and notoriously tight with a buck.

“Dick loved money more than anybody I’ve ever seen, except Oscar,” the costume designer Lucinda Ballard would recall. “But I think it was different with Oscar. I think part of Oscar’s nature was that he couldn’t bear for people to spend money, and also he was very stingy—really stingy. And yet, Oscar was the most lovable person I almost ever knew, and Dick really was not.”

Neither particularly fancied nightlife. Hammerstein perfected the art of backing out of cocktail receptions so discreetly (Jerome Kern called it “the Hammerstein glide”) that no one would realize he had gone, and on once running into Rodgers at a party, had inquired, “Fancy meeting you here—who’s minding the score?” Indeed, in their sober suits, they could have passed for bankers or lawyers or, as Groucho Marx once put it, “a couple of chiropractors.” For eighteen years, through ups and through downs, they maintained an unbroken public front of unity, harmony, and calm. “In our collaboration, Mr. Rodgers and I have no definite policy except one of complete flexibility,” as Hammerstein would write in the preface to his collected lyrics.

The truth was far more complex. The two men only rarely worked in the same room, with Rodgers preferring to compose at his Manhattan apartment or Connecticut country house, and Hammerstein writing at his farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or in his Manhattan town house. Rodgers was prolific and lightning fast—Noël Coward once said he could pee melody—while Hammerstein might labor for days or weeks over a single lyric before sending it off for Rodgers to write the tune. (Both had generally worked in just the opposite way with previous partners—music first, lyrics second—a remarkable reflection of their shared versatility.) Hammerstein once complained that Rodgers’s facility so irked him that he could have “thrown a brick through the phone,” when informed how quickly his partner had found a melody, while Rodgers confessed that his reputation as a speed demon “used to make me a little angry, you know, as if I perspired these tunes.” Hammerstein was a passionate political advocate for liberal and left-wing causes, while Rodgers was a conventional, middle-of-the-road liberal who steered clear of controversies. To the ends of their days, each maintained that he’d never been sure whether the other really liked him.

A glimpse of the careful, starchy formality of their professional relationship—even after long years of working together—can be seen in the only written record of their collaborative method that survives: an exchange of letters during the creation of Cinderella, as it happens. Hammerstein had gone to Australia to attend the 1956 Olympics, and he and Rodgers sparred delicately from afar over a ballad called “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?,” which would become the prince’s love song to Cinderella. It bears noting, as a sign of their symbiosis, that Hammerstein’s principal qualms involved the music and Rodgers’s the words.

Writing on November 10, 1956, from the Hotel Windsor in Melbourne, Hammerstein said he was uncomfortable with one of his lyrics for the prince: “Am I making believe I see in you, a girl too lovely to be really true?” partly because he thought it uncomfortably echoed his own famous song, “Make Believe,” from Show Boat. He suggested, “Am I telling my heart I see in you . . .” as a more emotionally revealing alternative. But his main suggestion involved the melody.

“Would it not be more exciting and psychologically sounder,” he asked, “to finish the refrain in major, even though you have started in minor. It is my conception that although the last line is a question the lover really believes she is ‘as beautiful as she seems.’ So after starting with doubt, the major finish would imply: ‘Oh, hell, I love you and I really think in my heart of hearts you are as beautiful as you seem.’ This is based, of course, on the assumption that it is not musically ungrammatical to start with minor and finish with major.”

Nine days later, Rodgers replied, with a touch of the schoolmaster’s asperity, that he had no objection to the phrase “making believe,” since it was simply common parlance (and by implication nothing special that anyone might attribute to Hammerstein), but added, “I am not devoted to the line ‘A Girl Too Lovely to Be Really True,’ for the simple reason I am not devoted to splitting infinitives.” Then, raising the temperature just a notch, Rodgers added, “Apparently you don’t remember that you gave me a pretty good briefing on the subject of going into a climax” at the end of the refrain. “At that time I agreed that you were absolutely right and I changed the tune to subscribe to your suggestion. . . . There is absolutely nothing ungrammatical about ending in major when you start in minor. It is quite conventional and extraordinarily effective. I think you will find that you have the lift at the finish that you expected.”

On November 28, Hammerstein answered, wounded that Rodgers had not noted his concern about making believe. “I think ‘Telling my heart’ has more emotional importance,” he wrote defensively. “You, apparently, don’t because you didn’t even mention it. Let us wait until we get together which will be in two weeks.” Hammerstein added that he had tried to avoid the split infinitive, and had even considered asking Rodgers to change his melody to aid in the effort, but thought the result would be less musically interesting.

Five days later, Rodgers had the final word. “As I said in my last communication, once you and I sit down in a room and discuss these matters of syllables and notes, there isn’t the remotest possibility of disagreement.”

In an interview, Rodgers once explained that when he and Hammerstein had a divergence of opinion, they resolved it with Gallic politesse in the manner of Alphonse and Gaston: “We’ll do it your way.” In this case, as in so many others, they apparently did: Hammerstein’s original words, which he doubted but Rodgers approved of, remained as written, and Rodgers’s melody, which Hammerstein proposed to alter, was, in fact, changed to end in a satisfyingly uplifting major key.

“I guess like Gilbert and Sullivan or any of the geniuses, they were wary of each other,” recalled the actor George S. Irving, who had parts in both Oklahoma! and the last musical Rodgers ever wrote, I Remember Mama, shortly before his death. “But when it came to the crunch . . .”

When it came to the crunch, they delivered—time and time again. But the results often hid the enormous effort and emotional toll involved.

Barley three months after Cinderella’s debut, Rodgers would sink into a depression—fueled partly by alcohol—that was so deep and severe as to require months of hospitalization at New York’s Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic. Years after his death, Rodgers’s daughters publicly revealed a secret that had been well kept in his lifetime: for much of his career, he was an alcoholic, albeit a high-functioning one, and an incorrigible womanizer with a girlfriend in almost every show he produced and a hideaway love nest in a Times Square hotel. When a chorus girl once slapped her hips in turn, saying that one side represented weight gained in New Haven and the other one extra pounds put on in Boston, Rodgers rejoined that he himself preferred Providence.

For his part, Hammerstein’s reputation as a “cockeyed optimist,” to borrow one of his most famous lines from South Pacific, belied a sometimes sardonic character, who could be surly and hypercompetitive with his own children, and cutting in debate with adversaries or supplicants when they crossed him. He was every bit as hard-driving a businessman as Rodgers. Even while relishing (and deserving) his sentimental reputation as a devoted family man, he apparently conducted at least one discreet affair of his own with a statuesque showgirl.

And yet. And yet the songs these two men made together. They are woven as seamlessly into the fabric of American life as “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Home on the Range.” In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s prime, only the music of Gilbert and Sullivan and Stephen Foster enjoyed a foothold in popular taste that had endured as long as their own songs have today. When a gravely wounded army lieutenant named Bob Dole struggled to recuperate after World War II, the only song that gave him comfort was Jane Froman’s recording of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel. More than sixty years later, when Barack Obama became the nation’s first African American president, the opera star Renée Fleming sang the same song at his inaugural concert, and it has become the favorite game-day anthem of soccer fans worldwide. As a young basketball standout at Princeton, Bill Bradley psyched himself up for every big game in the early 1960s by playing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” from The Sound of Music. When grieving White House staffers arrived for Richard Nixon’s resignation on the morning of August 9, 1974, they heard the Marine Band in the Grand Foyer playing songs from South Pacific. For a state visit by the Austrian president, Ronald Reagan’s staff ordered the marines to play “Edelweiss,” because someone thought it was the Austrian national anthem. When the broadcaster and Kennedy heiress Maria Shriver married the actor-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, she called the Rodgers and Hammerstein office for permission to march down the aisle to the strains of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria.” Even today, visitors to Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. hear “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Oklahoma! blaring from hidden stereo speakers in the park.

Collectively, the team’s musicals won thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammys, and two Emmys, a record unmatched by any other songwriting team. Later in life, Dick and Oscar liked to play a game in which they imagined that Oklahoma! had been a failure, “and then we tell each other why it was a failure, and how ridiculous we were to do what we did,” as Rodgers once explained. Indeed, nothing about their collaboration’s success was foreordained. If they had never so much as met, Rodgers and Hammerstein each would be remembered as signal figures in theatrical history. Together, they achieved immortality. But no one could have known that on the long-ago March evening when a handsome young cowhand loped onto a stage, singing about the dawn.

Copyright © 2018 by Todd S. Purdum