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How Rodgers And Hammerstein Revolutionized Broadway


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we begin a holiday week series of favorite interviews of the year, as chosen by our listeners and our producers. The interview we've selected for this Christmas Eve was our second most downloaded podcast of the year. It's about composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein who had one of the most successful musical partnerships of the 20th century. They wrote songs for the musicals "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King And I," "Cinderella," "Flower Drum Song" and "The Sound Of Music" - musicals that continue to be revived.

We're going to hear from Todd Purdum, author of the book "Something Wonderful: Rodgers And Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution," which tells the story of their partnership. Purdum loves their music, but he's best known as a political reporter. He covers politics and culture for The Atlantic, is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and senior writer for Politico. We're going to hear some Rodgers and Hammerstein cast recordings. Purdum also selected a couple of Rodgers and Hammerstein interview excerpts that we'll hear.

When we recorded our interview last April, we started with this recording of Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's song "It Might As Well Be Spring," which they wrote for their 1945 movie musical "State Fair."


SARAH VAUGHAN: (Singing) I'm as restless as a willow in a wind storm. I'm as jumpy as a puppet on a string. I'd say that I had spring fever, but I know it isn't spring.


GROSS: Todd Purdum, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TODD PURDUM: It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: So before there was a Rodgers and Hammerstein, there was a Rodgers and Hart. Rodgers and Hart had a very long partnership. Hart's death officially ended their partnership, but it was already ending. So before we get to how Hammerstein entered the picture, why were things between Rodgers and Hart so rocky at the end?

PURDUM: Well, they had been close friends and partners for more than two decades, Terry. But as you point out, as 1942 rolled around, Larry Hart was increasingly falling prey to a problem that had plagued him for years, which was severe alcoholism. And he really was almost completely dysfunctional. He didn't want to work. He told Richard Rodgers he wasn't interested in working on adapting a play called "Green Grow The Lilacs," which is what became "Oklahoma!" He said he wanted to go off to Mexico. And Rodgers said if you go off to Mexico, all you'll want to do is drink. And in fact, when they brought him home, they had to sort of pour him off the train on a stretcher. So it was really a tragic moment in their long friendship.

GROSS: So at the end of the Rodgers and Hart partnership, Rodgers was ready to kind of leave Hart if Hart didn't stop drinking. He even offered to go to a sanitarium with him. But what happened was Hart just died. So Rodgers then teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein. How did their relationship start?

PURDUM: Well, they'd known each other for years. Oscar Hammerstein was a contemporary of Larry Hart's at Columbia University and he had known - and of Richard Rodgers' older brother, Morty. And Rodgers had known him starting as a teenage boy when he went to see the annual spring varsity show at Columbia and made up his mind then and there that he wanted to go to Columbia and write a varsity show too. So they'd been in touch for many years. So there were family connections. They grew up in the same part of Manhattan, in what's now East Harlem. But they had been in each other's circles. And they'd certainly known of each other over the years. They'd actually even collaborated on a couple of songs for a varsity show when they were younger men.

But what happened was Hart was still alive. He didn't actually die until after "Oklahoma!" premiered. But he was unable to work. So Richard Rodgers approached Oscar Hammerstein. Actually, he approached him when he was in Philadelphia working as a silent producer on a show called "Best Foot Forward." And Oscar had a farm in Doylestown, Pa., in Bucks County not far away. And Rodgers went out to see him. And asked him if he'd consider collaborating with him because he thought Larry was falling apart. And Hammerstein said, well, as long as Larry can do the work, you have to stay with him because it would kill him if you left him. But if he can't do the work, then I'll be there. And that's what happened.

GROSS: So because Rodgers and Hammerstein are such a famous pair now and their songs and their shows are so famous, we take it for granted that people always recognized what a great pairing this would be. But that's actually not what happened (laughter). Yeah, initially there was a lot of skepticism about them. And I want to play a clip that you suggested to us. And it's an interview from 1960 in which Tony Thomas is interviewing Richard Rodgers and asking why it was so hard to get "Oklahoma!" off the ground.


TONY THOMAS: I wonder why there was so much difficulty in getting "Oklahoma!" staged. I've heard the difficulty was that you were a new team. But you had known each other and worked together before.

RICHARD RODGERS: Yes. But nobody took that very seriously. These were two amateur songs that we wrote together for a college show. And there was an almost superstitious feeling on the part of the people in the business - that anybody who had worked for 24 years with one man, as I had with Larry, simply couldn't hit it off with a brand-new partner. So this ought to put superstition to rest on, I hope, a permanent basis.

GROSS: So that was Richard Rodgers being interviewed in 1960. And my guest Todd Purdum is the author of the new book "Something Wonderful: Rodgers And Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution." So "Oklahoma!" was considered a breakthrough. What made it a breakthrough?

PURDUM: Well, for one thing almost all musical comedies of that era opened with a big choral number to satisfy latecomers, the rustling playbills. They'd get them adjusted. They'd have a display of pulchritude across this footlights with dancing girls and boys singing a big ensemble number. But "Oklahoma!" began the same way that "Green Grow The Lilacs" did - with a woman churning butter on the stage and a cowboy singing offstage in the wings. And it was quiet. And it was so quiet that it landed like a bomb. It was revolutionary. Nobody could sort of believe that a musical comedy would open in such a naturalistic way.

Then it proceeded to unfold. And the story's very simple. As I said, it's about which of two guys is going to take a girl to a party. But it involved real characters and real people with real emotions and not some cartoonish figures that were strung together just as an excuse for having some wonderful songs. And then it did another thing which was that it used dance - and particularly Agnes de Mille's ballet - as a way of propelling the story forward, of exploring and explaining the characters innermost thoughts and feelings and fears. And it wrapped this all up in one package that just felt completely unlike anything that had ever appeared on Broadway before. It was received in 1943 the way "Hamilton" is received today, as something really radically new in the theater.

GROSS: So "Green Grow The Lilacs," the play that "Oklahoma!" was adapted from, was written in France by a 29-year-old gay cowboy turned poet and playwright who was from Oklahoma. And you say he was trying in that play to capture his nostalgic feelings about growing up in Oklahoma before it was a state. So Hammerstein worked the stage directions into his lyric for "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," which is one of the songs from "Oklahoma!" Would you read the stage directions? And then we'll hear the song. And we'll see how Hammerstein worked in the stage directions into the lyric.

PURDUM: Here's what Lynn Riggs wrote in the stage directions to the prologue to the play. (Reading) It is a radiant summer morning several years ago. The kind of morning, which enveloping the shapes of Earth - men, cattle in a meadow, blades of the young corn, streams - makes them seem to exist now for the first time, their images giving off a visible golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination, focusing to keep alive a loveliness that may pass away.

GROSS: OK. So do you want to say anything about how that was worked into "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" before we hear the song?

PURDUM: Well - so Oscar Hammerstein took that kind of ripe passage of prose and turned it into the first poetry that he ever wrote to give to Richard Rodgers in the opening lyrics of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning."

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. And this is Alfred Drake from the original cast recording.


ALFRED DRAKE: (Singing) There's a bright golden haze on the meadow. There's a bright golden haze on the meadow. The corn is as high as an elephant's eye, and it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky. Oh, what a beautiful morning. Oh, what a beautiful day. I got a beautiful feeling everything's going my way. All the cattle are standing like statues. All the cattle are standing like statues. They don't turn their heads when they see me ride by. But a little, brown maverick is winking her eye. Oh, what a beautiful morning.

GROSS: So that's from the original cast recording of "Oklahoma!" My guest Todd Purdum is a journalist who's written a new book about Rodgers and Hammerstein called "Something Wonderful." And that - "Something Wonderful" was one of the songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein show "The King And I."

So another thing about "Oklahoma!" is that, you know, it's considered the first or maybe the second (laughter) Broadway show that actually had a cast album, although cast albums weren't then what they are now.

PURDUM: No, they were actually albums full of 78s and brown paper sleeves. But the genius of "Oklahoma!" was that Decca Records decided to record the original cast, the original orchestrations. They put it out. And it was such a success that from that point on, it became the normal pattern for a successful Broadway show, on the Sunday afternoon after the opening, to record an album. And in those days, we have to remember that these songs were on the top-hit parade of American popular music. They were the songs that people heard all over the radio and in dance bands and orchestras all around the country. This was the Top 40 of its day.

GROSS: So Richard Rodgers had a different approach to writing songs with Hammerstein than he did with Hart. And he was asked about that in a 1960 interview with Tony Thomas. And we're going to play a short excerpt of that interview in which Rodgers talks about that.


THOMAS: Now, with Hart, you followed the traditional Broadway habit of writing the music first. Hammerstein was used to this method, too. But when you collaborated, you switched.

RODGERS: Yes. And that was logical enough. Oscar is one of the few people in the entire world who has a - I'm talking about lyric-wise, of course - who has a tremendous sense of construction. And without a tune, his lyrics are beautifully built. And he likes the latitude of being able to write first without the constriction of a melody. On the other hand, I find that having the lyric in addition to the situation in the play is very helpful to me. It gives me an extra push into the solution of the problem of finding the tune.

GROSS: OK. So that was Richard Rodgers in 1960. Todd Purdum, what were some of the other differences that Rodgers faced writing with Hammerstein as opposed to with Larry Hart?

PURDUM: Well, for one thing, Hammerstein's habits were extremely regular. He was just as predictable as Larry Hart was unpredictable. But he and Dick usually didn't work in the same room. Hammerstein usually composed his lyrics in his farmhouse in Pennsylvania or one of his town houses in Manhattan. Rodgers would work in his Manhattan apartment or his Connecticut country house. And Hammerstein would dictate or mail or messenger the lyrics over. And he'd typically slave for days, if not weeks, on a single lyric.

And Rodgers, having thought about the situation, having known what the scene was going to be, who the character was, what voice part, maybe even what tempo, typically wrote the tunes with enormous speed, often, you know, famously writing "Bali Ha'i" from "South Pacific" in five minutes at lunch. But he said that was an overblown reputation, that really what he was doing was reflecting all the thinking and sort of walking around that he'd been doing for weeks or months before he sat down to put pen to paper.

But I do think the fact that Rodgers worked from the words first had a deepening effect on his music and a deepening effect on the meaning of the songs. It wasn't just that Oscar was trying to fit some clever words to a pre-existing tune. Richard Rodgers saw the words on the page, and they definitely deeply affected and reflected what he wrote in the music.

GROSS: So a beautiful song from "Carousel" is "If I Loved You." And Stephen Sondheim, who was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein - and Hammerstein was like a surrogate father for Sondheim - he called "If I Loved You" probably the singular, most important moment in the evolution of contemporary musicals. What does Sondheim think is so important about that song and how it's done in the show?

PURDUM: Well, in the show, "If I Loved You" is set in the middle of an extended scene of spoken dialogue, sung dialogue and the purely sung song. It's known as the bench scene. And it's when the hero of the show, Billy - the anti-hero Billy Bigelow, the ne'er-do-well carnival barker, is falling in love with Julie Jordan, the mill worker. And they're both instantaneously attracted to each other, but they're too awkward. They don't have the words to admit it or to express it. So they sing this love song in a conditional voice. If I loved you, this is how I would behave. And if I loved you, this is what I would feel and how I would think and what I would do.

And what the effect of it is that in these 15 or so minutes of the scene, they're falling in love in front of our eyes. And by the end of the song, by the end of the scene, we feel it. We understand how they got there, which is a pretty fast - you know, it's zero to 60 in five seconds in a way. But because of the way the dialogue blends in and out of the music - and there's also - during the spoken dialogue, there's musical underscoring in the way there might be in a movie. So it has the effect of heightening the emotion of the scene. It's extremely naturalistic. But it's also almost operatic in its impact and in its emotional power.

So I think when Sondheim says it's the single most important scene in the development of musicals, it's really a little play all by itself in which Rodgers and Hammerstein show the audience how these people are falling in love. And they do it in a very sort of quiet, intimate way in which you almost feel like you're eavesdropping on their most intimate kind of conversation. And by the end of it, you are swept along by their own emotional tug. And when they kiss and the orchestra rises in a crescendo, a climax, it's kind of an overwhelming feeling.

GROSS: So let's hear an excerpt of "If I Loved You" from the original cast recording of "Carousel."


JAN CLAYTON: (Singing) Soon you'd leave me. Off you would go in the mist of day, never, never to know how I loved you, if I loved you.

JOHN RAITT: Well, anyway, you don't love me. That's what you said, wasn't it?


RAITT: You're a funny kid. Don't remember ever meeting a girl like you. Say, are you trying to get me to marry you?

CLAYTON: Oh, no.

RAITT: Well, then, what's put it into my head? I wonder what it'd be like.


RAITT: Nothing. I know what it'd be like. It'd be awful. I can just see myself. (Singing) Kind of scrawny and pale, picking at my food and lovesick like any other guy. I'd throw away my sweater and dress up like a dude in a dicky and a collar and a tie if I loved you. And somehow I can see just exactly how I'd be. If I loved you, time and again, I would try to say all I'd want you to know. If I loved you...

GROSS: So that was "If I Loved You" from the original cast recording of "Carousel." And we had Jan Clayton and John Raitt, who, in addition to being a famous Broadway singer, was Bonnie Raitt's father. So it's interesting to compare the original lyrics of that song with lyrics that were actually used. So I'm going to ask you to read some of the original lyrics, if you don't mind.

PURDUM: So in a way, Hammerstein's first attempt at a lyric was just as halting as the would-be lovers' own proclamations. (Reading) If I loved you, I would tremble every time you'd say my name. But I'd long to hear you say it just the same. I don't know just how I know, but I can see how everything would be if I loved you. If I loved you, I'd be too scared to say what's in my heart. I'd be too scared to even make a start, and my golden chance to speak would come and go. And you would never know how I loved you, if I loved you.

GROSS: You want to compare that to the final lyric?

PURDUM: Well, it's certainly a testament to the benefit of a second draft. I told my children in writing this book...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PURDUM: I showed some of these things to them, said, this is why you have to write your papers two or three times. You don't just go with the first inspiration. So at the end, what Oscar produced was this. (Reading) If I loved you, time and again, I would try to say all I'd want you to know. If I loved you, words wouldn't come in an easy way. Round in circles I'd go, longing to tell you but afraid and shy, I'd let my golden chances pass me by. Soon you'd leave me. Off you would go in the mist of day, never, never to know how I loved you, if I loved you.

Which of these is not like the other? One is clearly much better.

GROSS: The female star of "South Pacific" was Mary Martin, who later starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound Of Music." Why don't we hear Mary Martin singing the title song from "The Sound Of Music"? Do you want to say anything about how Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote this song before we hear it?

PURDUM: One thing to keep in mind as you listen to Mary Martin sing this song is that she was almost 46 years old when the show opened. She was playing a young postulant. But the conventions of theater were such that older actors and actresses often played younger characters. And she had trained for this role like a fighter. She took Pilates classes, which were unknown to the general public then but already favored by dancers. She worked out with a punching bag to strengthen her diaphragm and strengthen her voice. And so when you hear her sing this, just keep in mind that this was not a young girl. This was a mature woman playing the part of a young girl.

GROSS: OK, so here's Mary Martin.


MARY MARTIN: (Singing) The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years. The hills fill my heart with the sound of music. My heart wants to sing every song it hears. My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake to the trees. My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies from a church on a breeze, to laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones in its way, to sing through the night like a lark who is learning to prey. I go to the hills when my heart is lonely. I know I will hear what I've heard before. My heart will be blessed with the sound of music, and I'll sing once more.

GROSS: That was Mary Martin from the original cast recording of "Sound Of Music." My guest Todd Purdum is the author of the new book "Something Wonderful: Rodgers And Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution." Boy, the songs in that show have such staying power. Just last night (laughter), as I was finishing reading your book, a commercial came on TV for Volvo that's using "My Favorite Things" as the music in the ad.

PURDUM: Yeah. I mean, it's ubiquitous. It's part of the soundtrack of life. When you go to Disneyland, songs from "Oklahoma!" - "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top" and "Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City" - are playing all up and down Main Street USA from the hidden loudspeakers. So their songs have really become a kind of part of the soundtrack of life in a way that when they were in their prime, only, say, Stephen Foster and Gilbert and Sullivan songs had lasted as long as theirs have now.

GROSS: So I don't know how you feel about this, but there's the people who think Hammerstein's lyrics are a little too sentimental and corny some of the time and those who don't. I'm kind of on the side of sometimes they're a little too sentimental and corny. But apparently, Stephen Sondheim, who was mentored by Hammerstein, was like his son - he takes issue with some of Hammerstein's lyrics. Like, in "Sound Of Music," which we just heard, the line like a lark who is learning to prey, Sondheim hates that line (laughter).

PURDUM: No, Sondheim is under no illusions. He's thinks Oscar Hammerstein saved his life. And, you know, he once said that Oscar was a man of limited talent and infinite soul, and Richard Rodgers was a man of infinite talent and limited soul. So he's under no illusions about Hammerstein's shortcomings as a lyricist and his fondness for bird and fauna and flora and stars and astrological metaphors. There's an awful lot of that kind of overripe, romantic, 1920s kind of language in Hammerstein's lyrics.

But at the end of the day, what Sondheim comes down in favor of is the, as he says, monumentality of the lyrics, not just the sentimentality. And the thing that is remarkable about Hammerstein's lyrics - in fact, that makes him vulnerable to criticism - is that his lyrics are so naked. They often make very sparing use of rhyme. They're not intricate, you know, triple internal rhymes the way Cole Porter's or Larry Hart's might be. But I also think it's a canard that Hammerstein can't write funny songs. I think there's no funnier song than - I'm just a gal who can't say no or with me, it's all or nothing from "Oklahoma!" - those lines are wonderful.

And he also had a kind of, at times, almost proto-feminist sensibility. He had great strength for writing strong, independent female characters, whether it's Ado Annie in "Oklahoma!" or Nellie Forbush. And in the original draft of "Carousel" before - during its out-of-town tryout in Boston - he had the godlike figure that later became the Starkeeper portrayed by a married couple, a sort of Mr. and Mrs. God, as if they'd been drawn by Currier and Ives.

And the dialogue in which they tell Billy Bigelow - oh, you're surprised to see a woman here. You don't realize the Earth needs a mother as well as a father. Well, you've got a lot to learn. And it's an interesting window. The Boston critics hated it, and it was changed. But he - Oscar was very respectful of women, and he had a flair for writing strong female characters.

GROSS: I mean, on the other hand, like, Billy Bigelow in "Carousel," you know, hits his wife.

PURDUM: It's very uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable in the original play, "Liliom." And it's uncomfortable in "Carousel" - that she could tell her daughter, yes, it's possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt you at all. I think that falls very heavily on modern audiences' ears. It'll be fascinating to me to see how that whole question is handled in the current revival of "Carousel" in the age of #MeToo, what they make of a wife beater, basically. At the end of the day, I think Jack O'Brien, who's the director, and other people involved in this production say that what you have to do is let the text stand as it is. Let each generation of audiences interpret it. Don't try to change it. Don't try to sanitize it. But let audiences make of it what they will.

And, in fact, Julie is strong and resilient. She's the strongest character in the play. And Billy, the one who hits her, is, in fact, the weak person who can't cope with life and checks out and commits suicide, whereas Julie soldiers on and makes a life for her daughter that we sense, by the end of the play, will be okay.

GROSS: We've been talking about Rodgers and Hammerstein's hit shows. They did have a few flops, including "Allegro" and a show called "Pipe Dream" that was based on John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row." So this show - it's funny. Like, you write in your book that they turned down two opportunities for other shows...

PURDUM: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To do "Pipe Dream," which ended up being a huge flop. What did they turn down to produce this flop?

PURDUM: Well, they turned down what eventually became "My Fair Lady" and what eventually became "Fiddler On The Roof." So, you know, their batting average was not perfect.

GROSS: Right. OK (laughter). However - well, I'm going to play a great song from it in a moment. But first, this is an interesting story because it's kind of set in a house of prostitution. Two of the characters are - one character is a madam. One character is a young girl who becomes a prostitute. I've never seen the show. I've only heard the cast recording. But apparently, this was not necessarily the perfect material for Oscar Hammerstein, who had a reputation as being a little prudish in his writing.

PURDUM: Yes, and Rodgers, too, in his own way. And John Steinbeck said at one point to Oscar, you've turned my prostitute into a visiting nurse.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PURDUM: And the problem was that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn't really quite bring themselves to make it clear that this was all happening in a whorehouse. They kind of cleaned it up, and it seemed a little bit like a USO post or something. So I think critics and audiences alike reacted with puzzlement to the show because it - unlike so many of their other shows, it didn't really have the courage of its convictions. And it didn't go all-out to really explore the grittiness of these characters. But a couple of the songs really did get at that.

GROSS: Yeah. And there's a song - there's two songs I really love from it. But this one is called "Everybody Has A Home But Me (ph)." And in the original cast recording, it's sung by Judy Tyler, who'd played Princess Summerfall Winterspring on "Howdy Doody." And I have to say, I was just listening back to the original cast recording last night. Her singing, with all due respect, isn't good on it. And she doesn't put across the song. Her pitch is kind of wavery. It's just not - you'd never know what a great song it is, in my opinion (laughter).

PURDUM: Well - and she's too brassy for the character. The character is supposed to have a vulnerability underneath. And I think that she sounds a little bit too much like, you know, a belter. And that diminishes the impact.

GROSS: However, when Encores did a revival of it just a few years ago, Laura Osnes sang this song. And she was recently in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella." She's got a beautiful voice, so let's hear her singing "Everybody's Got A Home But Me." Will you set the scene for us about where this song fits into the show?

PURDUM: Well, this young prostitute has just arrived in Monterey from San Francisco on a bumpy, overnight bus ride. She's feeling pretty bedraggled. And she's trying to explain how she wound up where she is - in Monterey on the waterfront, the scruffy waterfront of, you know, Cannery Row. And this is her story.

GROSS: OK. Here's Laura Osnes.


LAURA OSNES: (Singing) I rode by a house with the windows lighted up, looking pretty as a Christmas tree. And I said to myself as I rode by myself, everybody's got a home but me. I rode by a house where the moon was on the porch and a girl was on her fella's knee. And I said to myself as I rode by myself, everybody's got a home but me. I am free, and I'm happy to be free - to be free in the way I want to be. But once...

GROSS: That was Laura Osnes from the recent Encores revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein flop (laughter) "Pipe Dream." So do you love that song too, Todd?

PURDUM: Yes. When I first heard that song - I had never really known the score of "Pipe Dream" until I started to work on this book. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the song. And I asked Ted Chapin, the head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, how can I not have known this beautiful song? - because I think it's actually one of the most haunting melodies Richard Rodgers ever wrote. It's just a heartbreaking - and beautiful words - a heartbreaking song.

GROSS: Yeah. So how did they handle having such a big flop in which they lost their complete investment?

PURDUM: Yes. For the first and only time, they invested their own money in the show, and they lost everything. They went on. The problem by the - mid-1950s, when "Pipe Dream" premiered, was that they were so busy being Rodgers and Hammerstein and tending to all their multifarious business interests - and the movies were being developed during this same period and television specials and so on and so on - that I think they had a hard time doing their best work. They were so busy managing the sprawling enterprise they'd created that they didn't have time to sit down and do the hard work of writing shows and songs.

And it shows. It really shows that they rushed the writing of the book of "Pipe Dream." They committed to the theater. They have a big advance sale of tickets already sold, and they had to deliver, regardless of whether they were really ready or whether they'd done their best work. And it's a kind of a poignant reality that their very success - I have a chapter in the book called "Catastrophic Success" - in some ways inhibited their creativity.

GROSS: I keep finding myself asking you more questions about Hammerstein than Rodgers. And I don't know whether that's because he was the writer, so there are kind of literal things to talk about, whereas music is more abstract, or whether he was the more visible personality than Rodgers.

PURDUM: It's an interesting question. Rodgers was, in some ways, the dominant partner in the relationship. His name came first, even though he was younger than Oscar and he had less experience. It is a question that I wrestled with in the book because, obviously, I deal in words. You deal in words. Music is much harder to write about in English than English is (laughter). So, you know, there are a lot of Hammerstein's lyrics quoted in the book. We don't have any musical notations quoting Rodgers' music. And I try to explain in certain places how his music did what it did technically, why it did what it did. But I think it is often easier to talk about the words than the music.

It is also true, though, that Hammerstein - and Shirley Jones once told an interviewer that she thought, in a way, Oscar, who was quieter and not on the surface the dominant personality, might actually have been the more dominant partner in the sense that he was the one - he was really the pioneer who was so instrumental in writing these books.

And his dramaturgical skills are sometimes overlooked. They're just as important as his lyrical and poetic skills. And he's the one who was pushing the ball forward, trying new forms in "Oklahoma!" and in one of their - their one experimental show "Allegro," which was about the life of a doctor who had compromised his ideals. He was pushing the ball forward in some ways - breaking the conventions more than Rodgers, I think, in some ways.

GROSS: What was the relationship like - the friendship between Rodgers and Hammerstein?

PURDUM: I think the thing that was most interesting to me in doing the research for the book was to come to realize how they had tremendous professional respect for each other. They had terrific artistic collaboration and commercial success, but they weren't personally close. And I found it very sad to learn that each went to his grave not knowing whether the other really had liked him. And they had a kind of a distant - a very formal relationship.

The one documentary example that survives is some letters they exchanged during the writing of the special television program of "Cinderella," written for Julie Andrews in 1957. And they'd been working together for 14, 13 years by that point. And the tone of their letters is - they sign each other love. But it's really - it's a very formal - well, Mr. Hammerstein, well, Mr. Rodgers. They're so correct with each other you might think they just met.

GROSS: Do you think one of the reasons why each didn't know if they were liked by the other was that they worked long distance - with Hammerstein in Pennsylvania and Rodgers in New York? They weren't in the same room composing. They weren't even in the same state. So they didn't have that kind of direct partnership where, you know, every day or every week, they're together in the same room working something out together, collaborating in real time.

PURDUM: Yeah, no. It definitely wasn't the cinematic ideal of, you know, sitting around the piano and cranking something out together, you know. But I think part of the reason they worked long distance is because they were very different personalities. And they had very different styles and approaches to life. And they found that that's what worked for them. I think they found that maintaining a respectful distance but an unbroken public alliance was what worked for them. And Oscar had had 12 straight years of flops before he and Dick teamed up. And Rodgers, despite Hart's alcoholism and other problems, had really had an unbroken success.

So Oscar came in very self-consciously even though he was the senior man - the more experienced man of the theater, the older man. He accepted his role as a kind of a junior partner to Dick as the price of having success again. And I think that colored their entire relationship. But I did find some letters in which Hammerstein would very rarely but occasionally complain bitterly that he thought Dick was getting too much credit for something, and he wasn't getting enough. And it rankled. It rankled and bothered him a lot.

GROSS: They had a 50-50 business relationship, and they formed a corporation under the advice from their manager or accountant. Can you tell us about their business partnership?

PURDUM: Well, the important thing they decided to do from the very beginning was, whenever they could, to own their own work and to own it, in so far as they could, outright. Both had been in the theater for a long time. Both had seen the rapaciousness of producers and the way that creative people maybe sometimes suffered at the businessman's hands. So they decided that they would become businessmen. And the first thing they did was to set up their own music publishing company so that they would own the copyrights in their songs. And they wouldn't just have the royalties to the songs for public performance or sheet music sales or records and so forth. They would own the copyrights outright.

And they did this very deliberately with an idea that these songs might last. And indeed, they've lasted for 75 years. They're going to last until they go out into public domain and are not copyrighted anymore. But in the meantime, they made sure that they and their heirs and now the companies that have bought the catalog from the families are still making tens of millions of dollars every year from Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.

GROSS: So they were very savvy about that. But they - also people who they worked with weren't so happy with how they handled the business end. They kind of diminished other people's roles. Can you talk a little bit about that?

PURDUM: On the one hand, they were very loyal to the creative team that they worked with. They worked over and over again with the same orchestrator, the same vocal arranger, the same scenic designer. But many of those people felt that they didn't share equally in the financial rewards that Rodgers and Hammerstein reaped. And they both had a reputation as being pretty stingy and very tough bargainers, very tough businessmen.

One figure in particular has been overlooked, I think. And that's the vocal arranger and dance arranger Trude Rittmann, who really, in the case of "The King And I," composed a whole suite of original music for the ballet "The Small House Of Uncle Thomas," which Richard Rodgers signed as if it were his own composition. And in fact, except for its quotation of a couple of themes from songs from the show, the music is wholly her own. And she just had to sort of shut up and take this as the price of doing business, especially as a woman on Broadway in the 1940s and '50s.

But her champions, including the choreographer Agnes de Mille, who had her own disagreements with Rodgers and Hammerstein about how much money they paid her, really felt correctly that Trude Rittman was a very unsung, crucial component of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work. For example, in "The Sound Of Music" in "Do-Re-Mi," when the children sing the do, mi, mi, mi, so, so - that's all written by Trude Rittmann. It's not written by Richard Rodgers at all. And he signed it as if it was his own music.

GROSS: So I know you mostly as a political reporter from The New York Times in the past, from Vanity Fair, now Politico. So what are you doing writing a Rodgers and Hammerstein book?

PURDUM: (Laughter) Well, these are the songs I grew up with, the songs my parents played on a record player. My brothers and sisters - my brother and sister and I all grew up listening to this music. It's really been the love of my life. And when I wrote my last book on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I owed the publisher the right of first refusal on a next book. And my wife, Dee Dee Myers, said you should really write about Rodgers and Hammerstein. That's what you really care about. And I have to say, for the past 3 1/2 years, to be working on this has been a blessed relief from my day job of covering politics, which - let's put it honestly - is not the most uplifting subject in America these days.

GROSS: Todd Purdum, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

PURDUM: Thanks so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Todd Purdum's book about Rodgers and Hammerstein is called "Something Wonderful." Our interview was recorded in April. It's kind of a FRESH AIR tradition to close our Christmas Eve show with one of the greatest holiday songs, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," which was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane and introduced by Judy Garland in the classic 1944 film "Meet Me In St. Louis." This is Rosemary Clooney.


ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay. From now on, our troubles will be miles away. Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more. Through the years, we all will be together if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough, and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a merry Christmas. And for those of you who will be working, thanks for holding things together, which is what makes it possible for others to take the day off. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.