Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote many of the most popular musicals in theater history. Their collaboration lasted nearly two decades, until stomach cancer made Hammerstein too ill to continue working. Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are often considered the height of 20th century musical theater.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical era began with Oklahoma! in 1943. Each had been interested separately in converting the play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical, and joined forces after their respective partners turned the idea down. This old-west musical was revolutionary in many respects, particularly in that it used song numbers as ways to advance the plot, rather than as entertaining breaks as was customary. It also introduced the popular idea of an oppositional love song, in People Will Say We’re in Love. This type of song, where a lover sarcastically or ironically sings about how bad or inappropriate it would be for them to be in love with the subject of the song. The oppositional love song became a trademark of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and examples are found throughout many of their shows.
In 1945, the pair returned from a temporary break to work on one of the most controversial Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Carousel. This unusual musical was a tragic story, following the life of Billy, a carnival worker who commits suicide after a robbery and must try to atone for his mistakes. Carousel is often criticized for both its bizarre story and what some see to be an endorsement of physical abuse toward women. However, several songs remain popular musical theater standards, including If I Loved You, another oppositional love song, and the inspirational You’ll Never Walk Alone.
The third of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, South Pacific is one of their most widely produced. The plot follows United States Naval officers stationed in the South Pacific Islands. This musical spawned an extremely popular 1950s film, and contains the memorable songs Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of my Hair, and Bali Hai.
The court of Siam was the setting for The King And I, which loosely follows the historical biography of Anna Leonowens, a governess to the King of Siam’s family. Several film versions of the story now exist, including a 1999 non-musical version starring Jody Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. The popular film version of the musical was made in 1956, starring Yul Brynner as the King and Deborah Kerr as Anna. The music in The King and I is less famous than that of many other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, with the only frequently reproduced number being Hello, Young Lovers.
Perhaps the best known and best loved of all Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals was their final collaboration, The Sound of Music. The story, which follows ex-novitiate Maria as she becomes a governess to an Austrian widower’s family and eventually marries him, contains both comedic and tragic elements, and is considered one of the most accessible musicals ever made. Oscar Hammerstein was quite ill during the writing process for The Sound of Music, and famously penned the beautiful ballad Edelweiss as his last composition. This song, along with several others from the musical, including My Favorite Things and The Sound of Music is considered among the best ever written for the theater. The Sound of Music shared the 1959 Tony award for best musical, and the 1965 film version won the Oscar for Best Picture.