Romance -- fini.

Your chance -- fini.

Those ants that invaded my pants -- fini...

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered no more!

-Larry Hart, from "Pal Joey"

Walk on, Walk on, With hope in your heart, And you'll never walk alone.

-Oscar Hammerstein II, from "Carousel"

TWO LYRICS: alike in brevity, opposite in philosophy.

The man who bridged them in memorable melodies is Richard Rodgers. Along with Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine and Arthur Rubinstein, Rodgers was selected by the board of trustees to be honored tonight in the first annual Kennedy Center honors for his contributions to the American musical theater.

Unlike his contemporary, Irving Berlin, Rodgers didn't have to rise from Lower East Side poverty. He was born into a comfortable family with no financial worries.

His material grandfather came from Russia to America penniless, but became wealthy in the silk business. His father's parents had come from Russia to New York by way of France and, surprisingly, Missouri.

Rodgers' father, William, worked as a customs officer on the New York docks while studying medicine, which his older son, Morton, would follow. He became a highly successful physician, working from his large townhouse near Mt. Morris Park. Years later, composer Richard would donate an outdoor theater to that park.

His parents' passion for musical theater stirred him early. His mother, Mamie, would play the piano while his father sang songs from shows they'd seen downtown: "Mlle. Modiste," "The Merry Widow," "The Chocolate Soldier." They must have inculcated the boy in his search for melody.

In his autobiography, "Musical Stages," Rodgers remembers: "I don't know exactly how old I was when I first tried to play the piano, but I gather that I had to be lifted onto the stool. I had heard all those beautiful sounds my mother could make simply by prossing her fingers down on the keys, and I wanted more than anything else to be able to make the same beautiful sounds. I wasn't much more than a toddler when I discovered that I was able to reproduce the melodies with accuracy."

Rodgers confesses that he doesn't know how he received his gift for music, and points out that "no two composers for the musical theater have the identical background and environment, nor does there seem to be. any consistency in the factors that shaped their interest and talent."

In any event, his family recognized his quick interest and encouraged his youthful theatergoing, even his decision to spend his allowance on a Saturday night subscription to the Metropolitan Opera's top (sixth) tier.

When elder brother Morty's club, the Akron, needed music for a show at the Hotel Plaza's grand ballroom, he tapped 15-year-old Richard for the assignment that no other Akronite could tackle.

There was only a single performance -- on Dec. 29, 1917 -- of the Akron Club's "One Minute, Please," but it began a melody which still ripples with fresh sounds 61 years later in Rodgers' new "I Remember Mama."

Larry Hart was Rodgers' collaborator in the Columbia University varsity shows for which Rodgers, then still in high school, was a campus "ringer" who went on to what became Juilliard.Columbia had no composers to match him and while getting those chances on Morningside Heights, an awed Rodgers also met the older Hammerstein, who already was making a professional reputation.

Beginning with "Poor Little Ritz Girl," on Broadway in 1920, Hart was Rodgers' partner through 1942. When Hart faded, Rodgers and Hammerstein joined forces for "Oklahoma!," a partnership which ended 18 years later with "The Sound of Music" and Hammerstein's death.

There are strong links among these creators, all three born and bred in New York -- Hart and Hammerstein born in 1895, Rodgers in 1902. And nothing so illustrates the richness of Rodgers' career as the dissimilar music his two disparate lyricists inspired.

Adapted from his New Yorker stories, John O'Hara's book for "Pal Joey" is about a con man not unlike Billy Bigelow, whom Oscar Hammerstein II transported from the Budapest of Molnar's "Lilliom" to New England for "Carousel." The difference between them is that Joey never reformed; whereas, having a chance at heaven, Billy turned a slap into a kiss.

The biting, mocking, unsentimental melody Rodgers created for "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" fits the lyrics so precisely that it remains in your head after only one hearing.

On the other hand, Hammerstein's, friendly, easy "h" sounds in the third line of the "Carousel" song quoted on Page One and the dominance of the soft '1' sound in the last inspired Rodgers' soaring, melodic modulation that has become a 20th-century hymn.

The "Pal Joey" score is Rodgers' favorite of the 30 musical works on which he collaborated with Hart. And he considers "Carousel" the finest he did with Hammerstein.

With the lyric writers, the words generally came first, although Rodgers often contributed to Hart's phrases. Almost always Hammerstein would contribute fully completed words for Rodgers to set to melodies.

Hart was gnome-like, painfully conscious of his small size, a bright but too bibulous, lonely man who finally lost all self-discipline and drank himself to death. Their partnership, when they were little more than boys, had begun with a handshake -- and even after the "Oklahoma!" success with Hammerstein, Rodgers worked out "A Connecticut Yankee" revival to inspire new material from Hart.

Their songs were of their time -- sharp and sassy, sophisticated yet comparatively innocent. Their characters were generally young, giving any number of unknowns their first chances for celebrity.

Hammerstein was tall, robust and, despite a pock-marked face, darkly handsome.Brought up in a famed theatrical family, he was the opposite of what Broadwayites were expected to be. He lived in the country and avoided crowds, clubs, parties, booze and even coffee.

The world Rodgers and Hammerstein would create was infinitely broader and deeper than those various book writers had offered Rodgers and Hart. In fact, Hart's world vanished with World War II.

"Oklahoma!" celebrated pioneer America. "Carousel" and "Pipe Dream" explored the American past and "Allegro" its philosophy of success. Wider explorations took them to "South Pacific" and strains of racial and cultural integration -- also a theme for "The King and I" and for "Flower Drum Song." They pictured Nazism on the rise in Bavaria for "The Sound of Music."

Throughout these collaborations, Hammerstein edged Rodgers into another strain of his music. While the sparkle remained, the melodies -- with Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations -- soared. Hammerstein's words came as much from the heart as the head, and affected Rodgers accordingly.

When Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart were young, they consciously aimed to create a new American musical stage which did not simply imitate European operatta style -- though Jerome Kern was always Rodgers' melodic hero -- nor repeat the flimsy plots about carefree youth, however popular they were in the '20s and '30s. It is a measure of Rodgers' success that his shows still find a wide audience.

Last month Rodgers was talking to disc producer Ben Bagley, who has just come out with the first full score recording of the 1939 Hart lyrics and Rodgers tunes for "Too Many Girls," sung by Nancy Andrews, Estelle Parsons, Johnny Desmond and Tony Perkins.

"It's a truly fantastic job you do with these old shows," he told Bagley, who has produced six Rodgers recordings, "Not for the first time you have made one of mine come to life again."

Hammerstein's death 18 years ago didn't end Rodgers' activity. Continuing to produce, for a time at Lincoln Center, he wrote his own lyrics for a Samuel Taylor book, "No Strings," of 1962. "Do I Hear a Waltz?," with Stephen Sondheim as his lyricist, was a 1965 success. With Martin Charnin for the words, he created "Two by Two," a Clifford Odets Noah story, in 1970. Three seasons ago the Kennedy Center saw a rare failure, "Rex," a musical version of Henry VIII -- which, recordings remind you, had a score far better than its book.

Next month, rehearsals will start for the latest Rodgers score and the auguries are good.

The idea goes back to Dorothy, Rodgers' wife of 48 years, a decorator and magazine writer. When Rodgers and Hammerstein were producing other people's plays, to keep busy between their own hits, Dorothy had suggested that a novel by Kathryn Forbes called "Mama's Bank Account" might make a play.

The firm chose John Van Druten to adapt what became "I Remember Mama." Both a highly popular play (introducing an unknown named Marlon Brando) and a TV series which ran eight years, "Mama" made veteran actress Peggy Wood one of the first TV stars.

The new idea also owes something to Martin Charnin -- Rodgers' collaborator on "Two by Two" and the dogged writer-director who worked five years to get "Annie" on a stage. The book for "Annie" was by New Yorker writer Thomas Meehan who completed his "I Remember Mama" adaptation while "Annie" was here last summer. Charnin has done the lyrics and, as he did for "Annie," will also direct. The star will be Liv Ullmann in her first musical role. Tryouts begin March 3 in Philadelphia for a New York opening in late April.

At 76, Rodgers remains ebullient despite a heart attack a few years back and, four years ago, a laryngectomy which required him to master esophageal speech. He keeps an office on Madison Avenue but lives most of the time in a house Dorothy designed for 10 Connecticut acres, and will make one of his rare outside appearances for the Kennedy Center gala.

Tonight's Opera House special, to be shown Tuesday on CBS-TV, will include a starry cast to salute the honorees from the stage: Leonard Bernstein, Harry Belafonte, Edward Villella, Mary Martin, Hal Linden, Gregory Peck, Florence Henderson, John Raitt, Art Buchwald, Peter Martins, Suzanne Farrell, Itzhak Perlman, Grace Bumbry and Alberta Hunter.

But, as well deserved as they are, the Kennedy Center honors cannot equal the joy Rodgers spoke of recently at having a new show to work on: "Nothing matches the exhilaration of conceiving and creating with others something that has no purpose other than to give people pleasure."

That is, in words, what his music always has conveyed.