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Richard Rodgers was the most successful composer of popular music for the theater in the 20th century. Over the course of a 60-year career, he wrote the song scores for 42 musicals staged on Broadway or in the West End, as well as 11 movie musicals and two television musicals (not counting numerous film and TV adaptations of his stage productions), along with a few instrumental works. Although many of his songs became popular hits in sheet music and on records, he never wrote music independent from some dramatic context. In addition to composing, he also occasionally collaborated on librettos for his shows and served as a producer for them. His work won him Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award. For most of his career, he worked exclusively with one of two lyricists, Lorenz Hart (from 1919 to 1943) or Oscar Hammerstein II (from 1943 to 1960). His 38 professional shows and films with Hart are remembered primarily for the individual songs that came out of them, including "Manhattan," "Blue Moon," "It's Easy to Remember," "Soon," and "There's a Small Hotel," all of which were recorded for major hits. For the 11 productions with Hammerstein (nine stage musicals, one movie musical, and one television musical), it's the works themselves that remain memorable, particularly Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, each of which produced an original-cast and/or soundtrack album that topped the charts. Rodgers adapted his writing style to each partner. With Hart, who usually wrote the lyrics after Rodgers had composed the tune, he wrote catchy songs that matched his partner's wit and wordplay, resulting in compositions that attracted jazz musicians as well as pop singers. With Hammerstein, who usually wrote the words first, he created sweeping, long-lined melodies that sometimes recalled operetta. (He once said that he often met people who thought that the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hart was a different person from the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and he wasn't entirely sure they were wrong.) After Hammerstein's death, Rodgers continued to work for another 19 years — right up to his own death, in fact — sometimes collaborating with new lyricists, but frequently writing both words and music by himself, and some of his more successful works late in life were the ones he did alone.
Rodgers was born into an upper-middle-class family in New York; his father, William Abraham Rodgers, was a physician. Dr. Rodgers and his wife, Mamie (Levy) Rodgers, frequently attended Broadway musicals and would buy the scores of the shows to sing and play at home. Rodgers early on showed an interest in music, picking out melodies on the piano. By the age of nine, he was writing them himself. The first complete song he recalled writing was "Campfire Days," a tribute the summer camp he attended in 1916. His older brother Mortimer attended nearby Columbia University, and on March 28, 1917, still 14 years old, Rodgers attended the Columbia Varsity Show, Home, James, after which his brother introduced him to Oscar Hammerstein II, then a Columbia law student, who had written the book and lyrics for the show and appeared in it. (Lorenz Hart, also a Columbia student and also a participant in the show, did not meet Rodgers on this occasion.)
Rodgers' brother also provided him the opportunity to write the music for his first show. Mortimer Rodgers belonged to the Akron Club, an athletic organization, which decided to raise money to buy cigarettes for American troops fighting in World War I and to that end put on a musical revue. None of the members were musically inclined, however, so Rodgers was recruited to write the tunes, and the show, One Minute Please, gave one performance at the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel on December 29, 1917. A little over a year later, in the late winter of 1919, while working on a second benefit show, Up Stage and Down (also mounted for one performance, at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on March 8, 1919), Rodgers finally was introduced to Lorenz Hart, who was then adapting German plays into English for the Schubert theatrical organization; the two agreed to form a songwriting partnership. Hart directed a revised version of Up Stage and Down called Twinkling Eyes that played for one performance in a Broadway theater on May 18, 1919, although he did not write any of the songs, many of which had lyrics by Rodgers, along with three contributed by Hammerstein (who was already launched on a professional career).
Rodgers & Hart scored an early success when they persuaded veteran comic actor and producer Lew Fields to interpolate one of their songs, "Any Old Place With You," into his show A Lonely Romeo in the late summer of 1919, Rodgers' first composition to be heard in a regular Broadway show. Meanwhile, the budding composer was still only 17 years old, and in the fall of 1919 he began taking extension courses at Columbia, making him a freshman and eligible to write the varsity show, which he admitted was his only reason for going to the college. The songs he wrote for the show, Fly With Me (which had four performances starting on March 24, 1920), convinced Fields to let Rodgers & Hart write the songs for his next Broadway musical, Poor Little Ritz Girl. Fields later hedged his bet and replaced half of the songs with ones by Sigmund Romberg and Alex Gerber, but Rodgers & Hart still could claim they had had their first show on Broadway when the production opened for a 93-performance run on July 28, 1920.
Up to this point, the career of the 18-year-old Rodgers seemed to be moving very fast; it then slowed down considerably. He again wrote the Columbia Varsity Show, You'll Never Know, directed by Hammerstein and others, which played four performances starting on April 20, 1921. But after that he left Columbia and enrolled at the Institute of Musical Art (later renamed Juilliard) to concentrate on music, staying until June 1923. During this period, he and Hart wrote songs for a number of amateur shows, but their next professional effort came when they, along with Lew Fields' son Herbert, wrote a play, The Melody Man, under the pseudonym Herbert Richard Lorenz, along with a couple of songs for it, and Lew Fields produced it starting on May 13, 1924, for 56 performances. At this point, finished with his education and having reached the age of 23, Rodgers considered giving up music as a career. He had been offered a job as a salesman and was about to accept it when the Theatre Guild asked him and Hart to write the songs for another benefit show, a musical revue called The Garrick Gaieties. The show played its scheduled two performances on May 17, 1925, but proved so popular that it was given a regular commercial run, eventually amounting to 161 performances, Rodgers & Hart's first hit show. Their score produced two song hits, as well. "Manhattan" was given popular instrumental recordings by the Knickerbockers and Paul Whiteman's orchestra. The Knickerbockers also recorded "Sentimental Me," as did the Regent Club Orchestra led by pianists Victor Arden and Phil Ohman. (Rodgers would have been more interested in the success of these songs in sheet music sales, however. Like such peers as Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, he much preferred to have his songs performed exactly as they had been written for the stage, not as they were rearranged by dance bands or reinterpreted by pop singers on records, even though those recordings helped popularize his work.)
The success of The Garrick Gaieties launched Rodgers & Hart. Over the next six years, they mounted a remarkable 16 additional shows in New York and London, all but three of which ran at least 100 performances each, a benchmark of profitability in the period. With the exception of 1927's A Connecticut Yankee, none proved memorable as shows, but they provided a steady stream of songs that produced hit recordings and went on to become standards: from Dearest Enemy (1925), "Here in My Arms," recorded instrumentally by the orchestras of Leo Reisman and Jack Shilkret; from The Girl Friend (1926), the title song, recorded by George Olsen & His Orchestra, and "The Blue Room," recorded vocally by the Revelers and instrumentally by Sam Lanin & His Orchestra and the Melody Sheiks, and revived for a chart entry in 1949 by Perry Como, who sang it in the Rodgers & Hart film biography Words and Music; from the second edition of The Garrick Gaieties (1926), "Mountain Greenery," recorded instrumentally by the orchestra of Roger Wolfe Kahn; from Peggy-Ann (1926), "Where's That Rainbow?," recorded by Olsen, and "A Tree in the Park," recorded by Helen Morgan and by Frank Black's orchestra; from A Connecticut Yankee (1927), "Thou Swell," recorded by the Broadway Nitelites, and "My Heart Stood Still" (originally heard in the London revue One Dam Thing After Another), recorded by Olsen, the Broadway Nitelites, and Paul Whiteman; from Present Arms (1928), "You Took Advantage of Me," recorded by Whiteman, and "Do I Hear You Saying 'I Love You'?," recorded by the team of Vaughn DeLeath and Frank Harris; from Spring Is Here (1929), "With a Song in My Heart," recorded by Reisman and by James Melton; from Simple Simon (1930), "Ten Cents a Dance," recorded by Ruth Etting, who introduced it on-stage; from Ever Green (1930), "Dancing on the Ceiling," recorded by Jack Hylton & His Orchestra; and from America's Sweetheart (1931), "I've Got Five Dollars," recorded by the orchestras of Emil Coleman and Ben Pollack.
The introduction of sound in movies in 1927 led to an interest in film musicals, and several of Rodgers & Hart's shows were adapted as motion pictures, often much altered. Spring Is Here, Leathernecking (based on Present Arms), and Heads Up all opened as movies in 1930. Not surprisingly, the film studios became interested in hiring songwriters to write musicals directly for the screen. At the same time, the onset of the Depression in late 1929 made it more difficult to mount shows on Broadway. Starting in 1930, Rodgers & Hart began working regularly in Hollywood, and they did not have a new musical on Broadway for nearly five years between 1931 and 1935. (Meanwhile, Rodgers married Dorothy Feiner on March 5, 1930. Their first daughter, Mary, went on to become a musical theater composer, as did her son, Adam Guettel.) Rodgers & Hart signed a contract with Warner Bros., but eventually worked for several of the movie studios. Their first major film was The Hot Heiress, released in March 1931, but their first real success in the movies came with Love Me Tonight, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, which opened in August 1932 and featured the song hits "Love Me Tonight" (recorded by Bing Crosby and by George Olsen), "Lover" (recorded by Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, and Greta Keller, and revived for a Top Ten hit by Peggy Lee in 1952), "Isn't It Romantic?" (recorded by Harold Stern & His Orchestra), and "Mimi" (recorded by Chevalier and by Frank Crumit with the Paul Biese Trio). Al Jolson, who starred in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (February 1933), made a recording of the Rodgers & Hart title song. Their last significant success in Hollywood came the film Mississippi, starring Crosby and released in April 1935. "Soon," which Crosby recorded, was number one on the first broadcast of the radio series Your Hit Parade on April 20, 1935, and "It's Easy to Remember," also recorded by Crosby, was on the list as well.
One other major Rodgers & Hart song dates from their Hollywood period. They wrote a song called "Prayer" for the film Hollywood Revue, but it was cut before release. With a new set of lyrics, it became "The Bad in Every Man," sung by Shirley Ross in Manhattan Melodrama in 1934. Hart then wrote yet another lyric, and it was published independently as "Blue Moon," earning successful recordings by Glen Gray & the Casa Loma Orchestra, Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, and Al Bowlly. After Mel Tormé sang it in Words and Music, he recorded it for a chart entry in 1949, as did Billy Eckstine. Elvis Presley had a chart entry with it in 1956, and in 1961 the Marcels took a doo wop treatment to number one, followed by charting covers by Herb Lance and the Ventures.
Rodgers became disenchanted with the lax work ethic and the lowly status of songwriters in Hollywood, and he and Hart returned to New York, where they re-established themselves with their score for the stage extravaganza Jumbo. Opening November 16, 1935, it ran 233 performances, and such songs as "Little Girl Blue," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," and "My Romance" might have become hits at the time if the producer had not placed a ban on radio performances of them in a misguided attempt to boost the box office. (That producer had his name over the title when Billy Rose's Jumbo was released as a film starring Doris Day in 1962, accompanied by a soundtrack album that reached number 33 in the charts.) Over the next seven years, Rodgers & Hart put nine new musicals on Broadway, of which eight ran for at least 235 performances each, enough to ensure a profit. These shows from the team's second phase of theatrical work tend to be somewhat better known for themselves, especially because many were adapted as popular motion pictures. Increasingly, too, the songwriters also served as librettists or producers of the shows. On Your Toes (1936), with a book by Rodgers, Hart, and George Abbott, included "There's a Small Hotel," which was recorded by Hal Kemp & His Orchestra and had ten weeks in the hit parade, as well as "Glad to Be Unhappy," revived for a Top 40 hit by the Mamas & the Papas in 1967. It also featured a ballet, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," and when this was recreated in Words and Music in 1948, it became popular, with chart recordings by Lennie Hayton & the M-G-M Studio Orchestra (excerpted from the soundtrack) in 1949, Ray Anthony in 1952, and the Ventures in 1964. Babes in Arms (1937), with a book by Rodgers & Hart, was full of songs that became standards, among them "I Wish I Were in Love Again," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and "My Funny Valentine," as well as "Where or When," which Dion & the Belmonts revived for a Top Ten hit in 1960 and the Lettermen charted with in 1963. The title song from I Married an Angel (May 1938), another show with a Rodgers & Hart libretto, was recorded by Larry Clinton & His Orchestra and spent seven weeks in the hit parade. The Boys From Syracuse (November 1938) included "This Can't Be Love," recorded by Benny Goodman, and spent ten weeks in the hit parade. Too Many Girls (1939) included "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," recorded by Goodman, with seven weeks in the hit parade. A dispute between the songwriters' licensing agency ASCAP and the radio networks probably prevented any of the songs from Pal Joey (1940) from being hits at the time. But "Bewitched" belatedly scored in 1950 with no less than nine chart recordings, five of which reached the Top Ten, the most successful being the one by Bill Snyder & His Orchestra. Columbia Records' 1950 studio-cast recording of the score helped lead to a Broadway revival that was even more successful than the original production. Frank Sinatra starred in a movie version in 1957, resulting in a number two soundtrack album.
By the late '30s, Rodgers was finding Hart more and more difficult to work with. An alcoholic, the lyricist became increasingly unreliable to the point that Rodgers sometimes had to finish the words to songs himself, and he was only able to get Hart to work on the team's 1942 musical By Jupiter by taking a room in the hospital where Hart was recovering from alcohol-related illness. Rodgers had been approached by the Theatre Guild with an offer to adapt the play Green Grow the Lilacs, about life in the Indian Territory at the turn of the century, into a musical. Hart was not interested in such homespun subject matter, and the two agreed to work with outside collaborators for the first time since in 20 years. Hart took up projects with other composers, none of which came to fruition. Rodgers called Hammerstein, who agreed to write the book and lyrics for the show that became Oklahoma!
Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943, was a milestone in several respects. First, it was wildly successful, running for more than five years, a total of 2,212 performances, which made it the most popular stage musical in Broadway history up to that time. One result of that success was that it changed expectations about musicals, many of which had been loosely plotted combinations of songs and dances up to that time. Oklahoma! was not the first "integrated" musical in which the songs are written in character and serve to advance the plot, but its success made such musicals the dominant style for Broadway thereafter. Oklahoma! also revolutionized the record business when Rodgers & Hammerstein agreed to let Decca Records record the original cast on an album of the show's songs. In its initial release as a set of 78s, that album sold half a million copies; it was thought to have sold another two million by 1960. Alfred Drake, who starred in the show, reached the charts with his recording of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," excerpted from the cast album. Pop singers were quick to cover other songs: "People Will Say We're in Love" was given three chart recordings, two of which reached the Top Ten, a duet by Bing Crosby and Trudy Erwin, and a solo version by Frank Sinatra; Crosby and Erwin also bested Sinatra on "Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin'," getting to number five as he peaked at 15; and "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" was a Top Ten hit for Hildegarde with Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians.
The success of Oklahoma! did not immediately spell the end of Rodgers & Hart and the establishment of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Rather, Rodgers went back to working with Hart on a revised version of A Connecticut Yankee, while Hammerstein wrote an English-language, musical-theater adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. But five days after A Connecticut Yankee's opening on November 17, 1943, Hart died of pneumonia. After the successful opening of Hammerstein's Carmen Jones, with Oklahoma! still doing sellout business, Rodgers proposed making their partnership permanent. Their next musical was Carousel, based on Liliom, a Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnár that had been translated by Hart. Opening on April 19, 1945, it ran 890 performances, with a cast album that spent six weeks at number one on Billboard magazine's newly created album chart. "If I Loved You" was given four Top Ten recordings, the most successful by Perry Como (with a Top 40 chart revival by Chad & Jeremy in 1965), while Frank Sinatra recorded "You'll Never Walk Alone" for a Top Ten hit. (There were four chart revivals in the 1960s, the most successful of which was Patti LaBelle & Her Bluebelles' Top 40 hit in 1964.) Rodgers & Hammerstein then accepted an offer to write songs for a musical remake of the film State Fair. Released in August 1945, the movie boasted six songs, among them the Academy Award-winning "It Might as Well Be Spring," of which there were three Top Ten recordings, the most successful by bandleader Sammy Kaye. There were also three chart recordings of "That's for Me," two in the Top Ten, with Jo Stafford having the most popular one. Dick Haymes, who appeared in the film, charted with both songs and also recorded his own State Fair solo album, which hit number one. (Much later, the film was adapted into a stage musical that reached Broadway in 1996.) Returning to Broadway, Rodgers & Hammerstein next launched Allegro (October 10, 1947), their first commercial disappointment, although it had a run of 315 performances and "So Far" brought three chart recordings, with one, Frank Sinatra's, making the Top Ten. In December 1948, Words and Music opened in movie theaters. Its biography of Rodgers & Hart was largely fictionalized, but it was full of the songwriters' classic songs, and the soundtrack album featuring Mickey Rooney (who played Hart), Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and others, topped the charts for six weeks.
Rodgers & Hammerstein bounced back from Allegro with South Pacific (April 7, 1949), based on two stories in James Michener's bestseller Tales of the South Pacific and starring Broadway veteran Mary Martin and opera star Ezio Pinza. Winning the Tony Award for best musical, the show ran 1,925 performances, second at the time only to Oklahoma!, and the cast album spent a record 69 weeks at number one, reportedly selling nearly three million copies by 1963. It also produced several pop hits: "Bali Ha'i" (five chart recordings, two in the Top Ten, with Perry Como in the lead), "Some Enchanted Evening" (seven chart recordings, six in the Top Ten, with Como hitting number one, plus a Top 40 revival by Jay & the Americans in 1965 and a chart entry by Jane Olivor in 1977), and "A Wonderful Guy" (four chart recordings, led by Margaret Whiting). The King and I (March 29, 1951), Rodgers & Hammerstein's fifth show, was their third to have more than a thousand performances, 1,246 to be exact, and their second Tony Award winner for best musical. Although the cast album stopped at number two in the charts, the score included "We Kiss in a Shadow," taken into the charts by Sinatra as "We Kissed in a Shadow," along with such future standards as "Hello, Young Lovers," which Paul Anka revived for a Top 40 hit in 1960; the instrumental "March of the Siamese Children," a chart entry for Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen in 1962; and "I Have Dreamed," a chart record for Chad & Jeremy in 1965.
Rodgers had taken occasional assignments to write purely instrumental music over the years, but his most ambitious was the score for the documentary television series Victory at Sea, telling the story of the naval battles of World War II, broadcast weekly over NBC in 26 half-hour installments from December 26, 1952, to April 6, 1953. After it was edited and released as a feature film, a soundtrack album became a Top Ten hit in 1954, followed by equally successful successors in 1958 and 1961.
Rodgers & Hammerstein worked regularly through the rest of the 1950s, generally without matching the success of their previous shows on-stage, although films of those shows were massively popular. Their next musical, Me and Juliet (May 28, 1953) had a disappointing 358-performance run, but the cast album reached number two and "No Other Love" became a number one hit for Perry Como. The first of several big-budget film versions of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, Oklahoma! was released in October 1955, accompanied by a soundtrack album that spent four weeks at number one and sold two million copies. In contrast, the next of the team's stage shows, Pipe Dream (November 13, 1955), was their least successful, with a run of only 246 performances, although Como hit number 11 with "All at Once You Love Her" and Eddie Fisher reached number 20 with "Everybody's Got a Home but Me," beating out a competing chart version by Roy Hamilton. Carousel reached the screen in February 1956, along with its soundtrack LP, which hit number two and sold a million copies, and The King and I followed in July, its soundtrack hitting number one and going gold, with sales eventually passing the one-million mark. Ella Fitzgerald hit the charts with her double LP Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book in March 1957, reaching number 11. Rodgers & Hammerstein turned to television, writing their own version of Cinderella, which was broadcast live on CBS March 31, 1957, starring Julie Andrews, followed by a charting album and charting cover of "Do I Love You (Because You're Beautiful)" by Vic Damone. (There were subsequent versions in 1965 and 1997.) Then came the South Pacific movie in March 1958, accompanied by a soundtrack that spent 31 weeks at number one. Both the film and LP were the year's most successful, and the album reportedly sold eight million copies worldwide. Rodgers made a rare appearance as a recording artist himself in 1958, accompanying Mary Martin at the piano for the LP Mary Martin Sings, Richard Rodgers Plays.
Rodgers & Hammerstein's eighth stage musical, Flower Drum Song (December 1, 1958) was their biggest success in seven years, running 601 performances, with a number one, gold-selling cast album that eventually sold over a million copies worldwide. (The movie version that followed two years later produced a soundtrack that hit number 15.) But the duo scored their last great success with The Sound of Music (November 16, 1959), again starring Mary Martin. It tied for the Tony Award for best musical and ran 1,443 performances, with a Grammy-winning cast album that spent 16 weeks at number one (with a reported sale of over two million copies). The score included such favorites as "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" (which produced chart recordings for Tony Bennett in 1960 and the Hesitations in 1968), "The Sound of Music" (a chart entry for Patti Page), "Do-Re-Mi" (a chart entry for choral leader Mitch Miller who employed the children from the cast on the recording), and "My Favorite Things" (a Christmastime chart entry for Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass in an instrumental recording that helped establish it as a holiday classic). But on August 23, 1960, the Rodgers & Hammerstein team ended when Hammerstein died of cancer. 1
Rodgers, then 58 years old, initially went on alone while seeking another collaborator. His music was heard in the documentary television series Winston Churchill - The Valiant Years, running from November 27, 1960, to May 21, 1961. Then he turned his attention to Broadway, writing both words and music for No Strings (March 15, 1962). The show ran a profitable 580 performances and produced a Top Ten cast album that won a Grammy Award, while "The Sweetest Sounds" was nominated for the Grammy for Song of the Year. He also wrote new songs for a 1962 remake of State Fair starring Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Bobby Darin. The soundtrack album reached number 12. Also in 1962, Rodgers was appointed president and producing director of the Music Theater of Lincoln Center, an organization devoted to mounting limited-run summer revivals of great musicals in the New York State Theater at the recently constructed Lincoln Center for the Arts complex in New York. From 1964 to 1969, he put on a series of shows including revivals of his own works and such classics as Annie Get Your Gun and Show Boat.
Rodgers' last great triumph came in March 1965 with the opening of the film version of The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews. He wrote two new songs ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good") for the film, which went on to best Gone with the Wind as the highest grossing motion picture in history up to that time, with a soundtrack that hit number one and went gold, reportedly selling seven million copies worldwide. The same month brought a new Rodgers musical, Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which he enlisted Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Gypsy) as lyricist. But the show was a disappointment, running only 220 performances, with a cast album that barely reached the Top 100. Another generation became aware of Rodgers' early work with The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart, which entered the charts in June 1967 and rose to number 20. Rodgers returned to writing by himself for a television musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Androcles and the Lion starring Noël Coward that aired in November 1967. His last profitable musical was Two by Two, which paired him with lyricist Martin Charnin (later known for Annie) and starred Danny Kaye; it ran 343 performances after opening November 10, 1970. Rex (1976), written with Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) was a flop, but Rodgers, by now in his 70s, continued to work. I Remember Mama, his final musical, with lyrics by Charnin, opened May 31, 1979, and ran 108 performances, until September 2, 1979. Four months later, Rodgers died of heart failure at age 77.
Well into the 21st century, interest in Rodgers' music showed no signs of dying out, however. On the contrary, his songs with Hart continued to form a basic vocabulary (along with his peers, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter) for jazz musicians and traditional pop singers, while his musicals with Hammerstein were revived frequently on stages from Broadway to grade schools. (Even some of the Rodgers & Hart musicals enjoyed revivals, albeit with drastically revised librettos and numerous song interpolations.) As his centenary passed in 2002, Rodgers' reputation as the pre-eminent composer for the American musical theater seemed secure.