Richard Rodgers' inexhaustible flow of melody came, I believe, not from some inner mechanism he could turn on, but from his attitude toward life. His music expressed a strong, considered and very personal philosophy.
The composer, who died in New York Sunday night at 77, had expressed this firmly, often, in words and actions.
"I'm a cockeyed optimist," sang Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific." The words were by Oscar Hammerstein II, but the music and the bounce were by Rodgers. He knew exactly what Hammerstein meant by optimist.
"I've been lucky," he once told me. "I was never poor, my parents knew music, loved it, and I quickly knew what I wanted to do in this world, so I guess you could say my music does express my attitude toward life.
"If I could be remembered as someone who made people whistle after they'd done a day's work which bored them, that would add to my happiness."
When he was aware of something that wasn't working in which he might be helpful, he didn't hesitate.
Twice I appealed to him to come to Washington for particular projects. He didn't have to make the trip, but he did.
Three decades ago, when the creators and performers blacked out Washington stages because of their racial discrimination policy, both Rodgers and Hammerstein made several trips here to see what could be done about reopening such houses as the old Strand, and Belasco. Nothing came of either now-vanished building, but when Arena Stage and the Gayety Theather opened in 1950, Rodgers was called to respond to another need.
In the early 1950s, a Child Labor Law prevailed here, forbidding professional children to appear on stage under the age of 14. Since the period included such works as "Member of the Wedding," "South Pacific" and "The King and I," Washington productions of these could not be given. When "Life With Father" played its several engagements, "small people" had been used; but they could be kept away from the spotlight. That was impossible in these three later plays and several others. s
Along with Helen Hayes, Rodgers and Hammerstein trained to Washington for a congressional hearing about amending the law. The congressmen, admiring Rodgers' poise -- and with "Some Enchanted Evening" no doubt dancing through their memory banks -- listened gravely and agreed to amending the local law.
With his associates, Rodgers always was more than ordinarily generous. He'd been impressed in the mid-'50s on hearing the choral training the late Josephine McGarry Callan had given Catholic University students in Greek dramas and determined she should train the chorus for "Allegro." That musical, an original idea of Hammerstein's, ultimately failed, but Rodgers always looked back on the experience with Professor Callan as "one of the most stimulating of my life." e
About his collabroators, Rodgers was always admiringly generous. Though Larry Hart's personal problems would ultimately let their collaboration down, Rodgers would remember:
"One of the odd aspects of our partnership was that we never had a fight. Disagreements, of course, but only about work and never about anything serious. Basically Larry was such a sweet guy that it was impossible to be angry with him. I could be angry with what he was doing to himself and what this was doing to our relationship, but I never reached the point of issuing ultimatums or expressing my displeasure in a direct manner.
"Larry needed the stimulus of music to get him started. Oscar's working habits were entirely the opposite. When I first started talking to Oscar about our method of collaborating he seemed surprised at my question. 'I'll write the words and you'll write the music,' he said. 'In that order?' I asked. 'If that's all right with you. I prefer it that way. You won't hear from me until I have a finished lyric.'
"And, for almost the entire 18 years, that's how we worked, exactly the opposite from how I'd worked with Larry.
"Oscar was slower, more painstaking than Larry, and since the creation of melody has always come quickly to me, I was spared the endless hours I'd once spent nursing Larry along to completing an idea."
Rodgers was of average height, Hart much shorter, Oscar a towering fellow.
Rodgers was a neat, conservative dresser and didn't look at all like anyone's idea of a composer, supposedly careless about dress and untidy of habit.
On the level of personal and family relationships, Rodgers' life seemed ideal. Dorothy Feiner's family and his had been friends long before their marriage, and she would be his single, ever-constant wife for 49 years.
Besides Rodgers' Madison Avenue office, which his wife had a hand in decorating, they kept a Park Avenue duplex apartment and a country home in Southport, Fairfield County, Conn. Her decorating skills led to a career of her own: books and a monthly column for McCall's magazine, in which daughter Mary and mother Dorothy expressed generational points of view. wSome years ago, Mary composed a musical which made a star of unknown Carol Burnett, "Once Upon a Mattress" and Rodgers took understandable pride in its music and, eventually, his grandchildren.
There were disappointments, not only the recent failures of "Rex" and "I Remember Mama," but the inability in the '60s to develop a continuing musical company for Lincoln Center's New York State Theater. He contributed generously to that project, but the limited runs and expensive touring made the dream of a continuing company impossible.
He seemed to take such things in stride."So the theater may seem sick and dying," he said not long ago, "but it does manage to be a fabulous invalid, doesn't it? As soon as something opens that the public wants to see, the public goes. It's always been like that; always will be."
Thus it was an unquenchable, personal optimism which glowed through his melodies -- and which makes them live still, flowing, soaring, rising, ever rising. He could be witty with Hart and find sentiments with Hammerstein; but always there were the melodies that seemed sprinkled with sunshine or starlight.
He was never 'coockeyed," but he was ever the optimist, and it shows through all his 60 years of torrential, gliding, lasting melodies.