Hyland's 'Richard Rodgers' - song is his heart

May 17, 1998|By Richard M. Sudhalter | Richard M. Sudhalter,Special to the sun

"Richard Rodgers," William G. Hyland. Illustrated. Yale University Press. 337 pages. $30.

From most reliable accounts, Richard Rodgers was a hard man to know and often an even harder one to like. For every colleague who praised his charm, wit and dedication, there seemed as many who remembered him as an aloof, detached, even cold presence.

Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who once attempted a collaboration with Rodgers, opined that the composer was "only really happy making contracts, haggling about royalties, salaries and theatrical leases." Even to friends, Richard Rodgers could be, in Mary Martin's quaint phrase, "a son of a bear."

To its credit, William G. Hyland's new life of Rodgers doesn't scant this problematic side of the man whose partnerships with lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II are twin peaks of 20th century American musical theater. Neither indicting nor defending, Hyland presents his subject's utterances and behavior in no-frills fashion, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

Hyland, a distinguished foreign policy veteran and avocational musician whose "The Song Is Ended" provided a good overview of American songwriting, seems less sure-footed in trying to explain what made Rodgers' songs so durable over four decades, and what sets them apart from the work of such gifted contemporaries as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.

Musing on the middle section, or bridge, of "You Took Advantage of Me," he lauds a "downward chromatic passage that is obviously constructed for effect." But chromaticism isn't the point: What makes the bridge effective is a vivid but simple chord sequence, also used by Harry Barris in "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" and Hoagy Carmichael in "New Orleans."

Errors of fact turn up often. Bix Beiderbecke and his six-piece jazz "Gang" recorded only one Rodgers and Hart song, "Thou Swell." Woody Herman's late '40s band was not his "Thundering Herd" (a much later sobriquet), and its "four brothers" saxophone section contained not four, but three tenors and a baritone. The bassist with pianist Barbara Carroll was Joe (not Milton) Shulman; Alec Wilder was not a "musicologist"; Jerome Kern died of the effects of a cerebral hemorrhage, not a heart attack.

The prose seldom comes to life, itself no infraction; but more serious is the author's apparent policy in acknowledging his sources. Some other books, including Rodgers' autobiographical "Musical Stages," get endnotes from time to time, but such citations are few compared with the words, phrases, sentences, borrowed without attribution from other writers.

On page 88, for example, "The Depression was deepening, and for the first time, Rodgers' telephone was not jangling with offers from producers." Here is "Musical Stages," p. 143: "... I really began to feel the effects of the Depression. For the first time in many years my telephone was not jangling with offers from producers to write new shows ..."

Any songwriter who could work successfully with two lyricists as different in method, content and thrust as Hart and Hammerstein deserves careful scrutiny and informed analysis. Richard Rodgers himself is a challenging, contradictory, ultimately enigmatic figure - confirming the need for a musically incisive, keenly observed biography. Regrettably, this doesn't seem to be it.

Richard M. Sudhalter has been heard as trumpet soloist on recordings, concerts and soundtracks. A UPI correspondent in Europe for 10 years, he wrote "Lost Chords" and is the principal author of "Bix: Man and Legend."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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