Days after an ecstatically received "Oklahoma!" production opened again on Broadway and while still another begun touring under British government sponsorship in England, composer Richard Rodgers died Sunday night in his native New York at the age of 77. r
He had been ill for some years, during which he had kept on working, producting scores for "Rex" and "I Remember Mama," two uncharacteristic failures. He had suffred from cancer of the throat, making speech a trail for him, and only five weeks ago had received a pacemaker for his heart.
During the past 60 years Mr. Rodgers composed over 1,000 songs for 43 stage productions, nine films, four television productions and a variety of special events. His last of many Washington visits was 13 months ago when, sitting with president and Mrs. Carter in the Kennedy Center Opera House, he was one of the first five American artists to receive the center's newly instituted Honors salute.
He is survived by his wife, the former Dorothy Feiner, whom he married in 1930, and two daughters, Mary and Linda, and several grandchildren.
If "the song has ended," as Irving Berlin put it in one of his lyrics, "the melody lingers on."
Of the composers who brought the American musical to its presently distant peak -- Rodgers, Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, Sigmund Romberg and Rudolph Frimi -- only Berlin remains from that creative period of the bubbling twenties.
Two lyric writers dominated Rodgers' rich song-writing career. With Lorenz Hart he created his first Professional score, "Poor Little Ritz Girl" in 1920, and their association continued through "Pal Joey" and "The Boys from Syracuse" 22 years later.
At Hart's decline and before his death, Mr. Rodgers turned to Oscar Hammerstein II for "Oklahoma!" an assignment Kern had declined. In the 18 remaining years of Hammerstein's life they later collaborated on "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The Sound of Music," "The King and I," "Me and Juliet," "Flower Drum Song," "Cinderella" and "pipe Dream."
Nor were those creative efforts Mr. Rodgers' only association with Hammerstein. With a great deal of knowhow and leisure from their "Oklahoma" incomes, they joined forces as producers.
They mounted a John van Druten play Mrs. Rodgers and daughter Mary admired when they had read it as a novel Kathryne Forbes' "Mama's Bank Account." It was a straight play titled "I Remember Mama" and the cast included a teen-ager named Marlon Brando. It was because of this early association with the Norwegian-turned-American that Mr. Rodgers took on the 1979 score of Broadway's "I Remember Mama."
But with a star equipped to sing only four notes -- Liv Ullman -- Mr. Rodgers had the vocal scale tipped against him, as he had had a few years earlier when Nicol Williamson played Henry VIII in "Rex." One might say that the casting drift from singers-who-act to actors-who-singing signaled the decline of the American musical.
As producers, Rodgers and Hammerstein also staged "Happy Birthday" by Anita Loos, "John Loves Mary," "The Happy Time," "The Heart of the Matter" and "Burning Bright," by John Steinbeck. The greatest of their production hits for other creators was Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun."
There were films, the first with collaborator Hart in 1931, "The Hot Heiress," "Love Me Tonight" the next year, background music for "The Phantom President," "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum!" "Mississippi," "The Pirate," "They Met in Argentina," and State Fair," a Hammerstein collaboration which inspired two versions, in 1945 and 1962.
In 1952 Mr. Rodgers mastered the pecuilar craft of composing for television, "Victory at Sea," a thrilling series on the U.S. Navy in World War II. In that one was a haunting theme, "Beneath the Southern Cross," which Mr. Rodgers loved as much as his audiences did. He used it again for "Me and Juliet," when Hammerstein wrote a song which refrained "No Other Love." Again there were TV specials of his various scores and still another backgrounder, for 1960's "Winston Churchill -- The Valiant Years," a work of which he was admittedy proud.
Rodgers and Hammerstein ultimately created a music publishing firm, Williamson Music Inc., named for both their fathers, named William. With Lynn Farnol as their public relations-archivist, two fat books were privately published covering their joined and separated careers supplemented in later years by blue books of 20 to 40 mimeographed pages.
Virtually and the theater and film awards, as well as Emmys and Grammys, Obies and Vernon Rice salutes, went to Mr. Rodgers, including two Pulitzer Prizes and college and university degrees.
It has been estimated that Mr. Rodgers' melodies earned him about $100 million and it is known that he supplied scholarships and foundations with annual funds. Through the Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation and their own firm, they presented their archives to the New York Public Library's Threatre Collection in Lincoln Center.
Unlike some composers, Richard Rodgers' rise was not from rags to riches. His father was a New York physician, William, who had a very comfortable practice in Harlem, then a middle-class white neighborhood.
With a mother Mamie at the piano and his father singing, Mr. Rodgers remembered his childhood as filled with music. They sang from musicals of the period. "Mlle. Modiste," "The Chocolate Soldier" and "The Merry Widow" and Mr. Rodgers, who played his first "Chopsticks" at 4, could pick out the melodies and later the bass on the living room piano.
At 14, Mr. Rodgers composed his first song, "Auto Show Girl," and two years after he met Lorenz -- "Larry" -- Hart, then 23. Mr. Rodgers wanted espeically to go to Columbia University because that school always had a spring musical. Already graduated, Hart returned to Columbia to work with Mr. Rodgers, the first freshman ever responsible for a Columbia show.
Though they joined forces, it wasn't until 1925 that they clicked professionally, doing the score for a little revue the Theatre Guild was allowing its junior members as a Sunday night show-off time. It was an instant smash, "Garrick Gaities," transferred to a Broadway theater for an 18-month run and a follow-up edition.
After Hammerstein's death, Mr. Rodgers tried writing his own lyrics for "No Strings," a decided success. Later came "Do I Hear a Waltz?" to lyrics by composer Stephen Sondheim, "Two by Two" with Martin Charnin, starring Danny Kaye and "Rex," with Sheldon Harnick.
His own favorites? He always was too wise to say, but the world will long be singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "My Heart Stood Still," "Hello, Young Lovers," "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Some Enchanted Evening."
From "Mountain Greenery" of 1920 onwards, Mr. Rodgers' life was a flood of melody.