"He could be totally withdrawn and very cold," says his daughter Linda. "He was a complicated and difficult person," says his daughter Mary. "I was always afraid of him."
Surprisingly, the father they're talking about is Richard Rodgers, the most brilliantly productive of all Broadway composers and a man whose persona always seemed warm and gentle -- your proverbial wonderful guy. But a new TV biography portrays Rodgers as a troubled, phobic workaholic who may never have experienced the joy that his music gave others.
There've been many TV specials devoted to the man and his music, but PBS's "Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest Sounds," one of the most edifying television events of the year, comes closest to being definitive. It airs tomorrow night at 9 on Channels 26 and 22 -- opposite the Emmys on CBS, as fate would have it, and also opposite the first half of "Uprising," a stunning new NBC film about the Warsaw ghetto.
One can assume, or at least hope, that both "Rodgers" and "Uprising" will have long afterlives on home video.
Richard Rodgers survived two lyricist-partners, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, in a career that included such landmarks as "Oklahoma!" and "The King and I." He was forever setting standards and upsetting old established apple carts. Rodgers and Hart's "On Your Toes" was the first musical to incorporate serious ballet. Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" dared to deal with racial prejudice. And on and on.
For all the honors heaped on him, Rodgers appears to have been a resolutely unhappy man who enjoyed hard work but little else. "Sweetest Sounds" suggests again that there is no such thing as an untortured genius.
Compressing his astonishing life and career into two hours was a challenge for producer-director Roger Sherman, but he's done a remarkably satisfying job. While it's dismaying to hear that Rodgers's life wasn't as blissful as his music, the cold hard facts do nothing to diminish the power and glory of the work.
All the world still sings his songs. People fall in love to them, or find inspiration in them or, now especially, take comfort in them.
The title comes from the only Broadway show for which Rodgers wrote both music and lyrics, the 1962 "No Strings." Diahann Carroll, who starred, is seen on film singing its biggest hit song: "The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head / The kindest words I'll ever know are waiting to be said."
In newly shot interview footage, Carroll looks as elegantly beautiful as ever -- untouched by time. She recalls Rodgers as demanding and exacting, a man who knew precisely how his music should be performed and demanded that precision in others. She also remembers his being aggressively flirtatious; though married, he had a reputation as a womanizer, especially in later years.
Rodgers's first collaborator, Lorenz Hart, was his exact opposite -- undisciplined about working and hard to pin down. The documentary includes rare early film of them in movie featurettes. Cultural commentator Max Wilk says Hart was a man who felt, bitterly, that he had too many obstacles to overcome: "He was small, he was ugly, he was Jewish and he was gay. And he was a drunk."
Though the popular impression is that Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein after Hart's death, Hart was in fact still alive when Rodgers and Hammerstein turned the play "Green Grow the Lilacs" into the epochal musical "Oklahoma!" Hart died of pneumonia soon afterward. Though Hart's lyrics had been sophisticated and cynical, while Hammerstein's tended to be sentimental and optimistic, Rodgers adapted easily, and his new partnership became the most successful in Broadway history.
In one of many clips from archival interviews, Rodgers is asked whether he remembers the first words that Hammerstein ever gave him to be set to music. Without a beat, Rodgers replies, "Yes: 'There's a bright golden haze on the meadow.' " That opening line to "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " summarizes Hammerstein's entire philosophy of life.
Sherman's documentary isn't just a perfunctory chronological recitation of hits. He brings in guest experts like Andrew Lloyd Webber to explain the technical excellence of Rodgers's music, the special qualities that have made him "the most played composer of any kind of music who ever lived," as the narrator puts it.
"Sweetest Sounds" more or less officially kicks off the Rodgers centennial; he was born in 1902. After bouts with cancer, heart disease and alcoholism, he died in 1979. Rodgers is by no means overpraised, but it is unfair for Laurence Maslon, who wrote the script, to say Rodgers was more prolific than George Gershwin. He was, but he also outlived him by 42 years. Gershwin, one of the most tortured of all geniuses, was born four years before Rodgers but died of a brain tumor in 1937.
The documentary ignores many of Rodgers's less successful shows. It also omits the epic score he wrote for the NBC documentary series "Victory at Sea," but then the portrait is of a man of the theater.
Many viewers will probably wish for less musical analysis and more music. Sherman attempts to encapsulate the wittiness of "Isn't It Romantic?," the cleverest number from the movie "Love Me Tonight," but its charm can't really be appreciated unless more of the number is seen. It begins in a Paris tailor shop run by Maurice Chevalier, travels into the country as strangers pass the tune along, is eventually sung by a band of Gypsies and finally makes its way to the country estate of Jeanette MacDonald, thus establishing the first link between her and her leading man. The excerpt takes the song through only about half its journey.
Similarly frustrating is the treatment given "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," the ballet George Balanchine created for "On Your Toes" to a great Rodgers rhapsody. Warner Bros. filmed "On Your Toes" and, while stupidly throwing out all the songs in the score, did capture on film a fairly faithful version of the ballet, which ends with a hoofer literally dancing for his life. Hired hit men in box seats are waiting for the cue to shoot him.
Instead of this version, Sherman includes a few humdrum non-Balanchine steps that Ray Bolger, star of the original show, did for a "Bell Telephone Hour" in the '60s. Worse, he includes an atrocious variation that Gene Kelly did in MGM's Rodgers & Hart biopic "Words and Music." Kelly used the original's setting, a sleazy dive, but otherwise went off on his own ego trip.
In addition to the invaluable insights of Rodgers's daughters, illuminating commentary comes from such authorities as critic John Lahr, musicologist Jonathan Schwartz, Julie Andrews, Maureen McGovern, conductor John Mauceri, jazzman Billy Taylor, Celeste Holm and celebrated theatrical director Trevor Nunn, who says that when Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote "Oklahoma!," with all its departures from tradition, "something utterly 'other' had been invented."
Rare clips include black-and-white scenes from the first "Cinderella," televised live on CBS in 1957 with Andrews starring (a still-shown color remake with Lesley Ann Warren aired years later); original "Carousel" stars Jan Clayton and John Raitt performing the show's beautiful "park bench" scene; Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in a scene from "South Pacific"; and performances of Rodgers songs by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland.
Sherman has a stunner of a finale, a Louis Armstrong rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" as a kind of New Orleans marching dirge -- but foolishly interrupts it for such oddities as Glenn Close doing "Honey Bun" in the weird film of "South Pacific" that ABC aired last season.
Anyway, it would take more hours than two to include everything Rodgers did. Indeed, it would, and did, take a lifetime. Whatever his private demons, Richard Rodgers unquestionably made the world a better place with his singularly awesome talent, and it becomes that better place again whenever and wherever his music is played.