If you love musical theater, you’ve probably seen — or performed in — more than a few Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. From their first Broadway musical (Oklahoma!) to their last (The Sound of Music), Golden-Age darlings Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II changed the course of musical theater.
The two men formed an interesting and somewhat unlikely partnership. Both had long theater careers before they started working together — Rodgers was half of the legendary Rodgers and Hart duo for more than 20 years, and Hammerstein wrote lyrics for a number of composers, including Jerome Kern.
And yet, when they came together, they found a magic that hasn’t been matched since. As Rodgers himself famously said, “We are not songwriters, we are people of the theater.”
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Top image via courtesy of the United States Naval Academy (public domain)
Complete List of Rodgers and Hammerstein Musicals
Up Stage and Down (1919)
Even if you’re the most enthusiastic Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, you’d be excused for not knowing this show. It features the duo’s first-ever collaboration, written when Rodgers was just 17 years old — a song called “There’s Always Room for One More.” The amateur production was part of a charitable benefit event, and ran for just one night. Myron D. Rosenthal wrote the book, Rodgers wrote the music, and Hammerstein, Rodgers, and others worked on the lyrics.
Columbia University Varsity Shows (1920-1922)
After Up Stage and Down, Rodgers continued to write music for a variety of varsity shows at Columbia University. Hammerstein contributed lyrics to several of them, including Fly With Me (1920), You’d Be Surprised (1920), Say It With Jazz (1921), and Jazz a la Carte (1922). At the same time, Rodgers was writing with his first partner, Lorenz “Larry” Hart. The two would go on to write together for more than two decades.
Oklahoma! — the first professional Rodgers and Hammerstein musical — is based on a play called Green Grow the Lilacs. Set on the Western frontier in the early 1900s, the story follows the loves and tragedies of a group of cowboys and farmers. Rodgers was set to do the project with Lorenz Hart for the Theatre Guild; when Hart left (more about that below), Hammerstein stepped in.
As they began working on Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein experienced resistance from the Broadway community. “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,” said Rodgers in the 1960 CBC radio documentary, Conversations With Two Legends Of The American Musical Theatre.
Nodding to the success of the musical, he said, “This oughta put superstitions to rest.”
He was right — Oklahoma! transformed musical theater, bringing together music, acting, and dance. (Though some experts disagree.) It was an instant Broadway hit, and ran for 2,212 performances over 5 years.
Many of the songs from the musical became commercial hits, with the notable exception of “What’s the Use of Wond’rin.” Hammerstein believed he knew why — he’d intentionally ended the refrain with the word “talk.” While it’s exactly what he wanted Julie Jordan to say, the hard “k” made it difficult to milk the note for applause.
Hammerstein knew that a safer choice would have been a word with an open vowel, such as “know,” but made the decision anyway. “One of the pleasures in working is to break the rules every once in a while to see if you can get away with it. I broke this rule, and I think I did not get away with it,” he said.
With Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein show their fearlessness in tackling painful topics — in this case, domestic abuse and grief. Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár’s play, the musical follows a carousel barker named Billy Bigelow and his abusive relationship with mill worker Julie Jordan.
Carousel is packed with show-stopping numbers, including “If I Loved You,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and “Soliloquy” (one of our favorite musical theater songs for baritones).
In fact, the famous “bench scene,” where Julie and Billy fall in love over the course of 12 minutes, is widely regarded as one of the most transformative scenes in American musical theater. The music and dialogue are tightly interwoven, driving the plot forward in a way that no other musical had done.
If you’re a lover of musical theater history, you may have heard the legend that Rodgers wrote the music for “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” in just a few hours, while his wife and kids were at the movies. Rodgers bristled at that characterization, telling Arnold Michaelis in A Recorded Portrait about the “weeks and months” of thinking that went into the piece before he ever wrote a note.
“The impression was created that Oscar bleeds over these things for weeks and weeks at a time and turns the completed lyric over to me and I dash the tune off in five minutes,” he said. “Well, it just doesn’t happen that way.”
State Fair (1945)
State Fair is unique among Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — it’s the only one they wrote specifically for a movie. (Cinderella was written for TV.) The movie follows an Iowa farming family on their big trip to the state fair.
This movie musical includes songs from other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. When I Go Out Walking With My Baby” was originally written for Oklahoma!. “The Man I Used to Be” also appeared later in Pipe Dream.
Interestingly, the State Fair movie was remade in 1962, this time set in Texas. Though its cast included both Pat Boone and Ann-Margret (just before her star turn in Bye Bye Birdie), this version didn’t achieve the same success.
Allegro is the rare Rodgers and Hammerstein flop, playing for just 9 months on Broadway. It’s a more serious story than the duo’s typical fare, following a country doctor from birth to age 35. The unusual Greek chorus and the overly-preachy tone alienated audiences, who seemed to prefer the soaring style of Oklahoma! and Carousel.
Though the musical wasn’t a success, Hammerstein felt loyal to it. The book has autobiographical elements; like the main character, Hammerstein also lost a close female relative at a young age. He was also concerned about the integrity of doctors, and the musical explored what can happen when medical professionals become too wrapped up in “the social life that goes around medicine.”
The title of Allegro — and the lyrics of the titular song — encompassed Hammerstein’s feelings about the fast-paced modern world: “Our world is for the forceful and not for sentimental folk.”
South Pacific (1949)
South Pacific, which is set on a remote island during World War II, is one of the most-revered Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. In addition to the brilliant score, the book and lyrics were remarkably progressive for the time. That’s no surprise, considering that Hammerstein was a staunch activist, particularly when it came to issues of racial equality. In fact, his brother-in-law Jerry Watanabe, was held in an Ellis Island internment camp during WWII.
In response to criticisms about the central message in South Pacific — that prejudice is a learned behavior — Hammerstein said, “‘You’ve Got to Be Taught’ is part and parcel of the story and the theme. I don’t think South Pacific would be complete without this comment.” Despite repeated calls to remove the song, Rodgers and Hammerstein refused.
South Pacific became a hit, which was a relief after the failure of Allegro. Tickets were impossible to get, and critics raved. The show continues to have a life, with a 2008 Broadway revival and regular community theater productions.
Part of the success of South Pacific comes from the way Rodgers used music to reinforce characterizations. For the young lovers, Cable and Liat, he intentionally wrote melodies with a distinct sense of youth and innocence. While “Younger than Springtime” is “almost childlike,” “Some Enchanted Evening” reflects Emile DeBeque’s sophistication and robust approach to romance.
“He was a Frenchman who read Marcel Proust,” said Rodgers. “He knew a few things.”
The King and I (1951)
The King and I is based on the life of Anna Leonowens, a British woman who served as the governess at the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) starting in 1862.
Unlike other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the leading lady in The King and I doesn’t have show-stopping songs with a broad range. That’s because the role was written for the legendary Gertrude Lawrence — since she was 51, her already-limited vocal range was shrinking, and she was unable to carry off a typical Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad. (In its original key of C major, “Hello Young Lovers” tops out at a modest C5.) Rodgers was also concerned about the actress’ tendency to sing flat.
The original Broadway production ran for almost three years and won the Tony for Best Musical. Today, critics and audiences disagree — is The King and I a colonialist relic, or do the themes of cultural condescension feel so uncomfortable because they still ring true?
Modern productions often take great pains to avoid stereotypical orientalism, but it’s unavoidable in the music. Rodgers made that choice intentionally — concerned that Western audiences wouldn’t understand or “have an emotional response” to authentic Thai music, he chose to use a more familiar musical scale. He described the music as, “Western harmonizations with a Siamese inflection. Not even an accent; just a suggestion.”
Interestingly, the original Broadway musical included a song called “Western People Funny,” (listen here). Lady Thiang and the women of King Mongkut’s palace comment on how Westerners view them, singing:
They think they civilize us
Whenever they advise us
To learn to make the same mistake
That they are making too!
For decades, many theaters eliminated this song. Now, it’s being added back in with the hopes of providing a more balanced perspective.
Concord Theatricals, which handles licensing, has specific casting requirements: “Many of the characters are Siamese or from surrounding countries and of Asian heritage. The actors should be cast accordingly. The use of make-up or prosthetics to alter an actor’s ethnicity is prohibited.”
Me and Juliet (1953)
Me and Juliet is Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s tribute to the theater; it expresses how people in the theater feel about their business. Discussing how the song “The Big Black Giant” showcases these views, Hammerstein mentioned a combination of love and fear: “It’s how we feel about an audience, which really is the most fascinating part of the theater, the most unpredictable.”
The musical offers a peek backstage at a Broadway musical, showcasing the romances and dramas of the cast and crew. It’s constructed as a show-within-a-show, creating a contrast between the lavish onstage world and the simpler, community-oriented life in the wings.
Compared to other Rodgers and Hammerstein hits, Me and Juliet was a relative flop. Compared to other Broadway performances, however, it was a success; the show made a profit and ran for 358 performances to full houses.
Pipe Dream (1955)
Two years after Me and Juliet, Rodgers and Hammerstein had another Broadway failure with Pipe Dream. It seemed like a recipe for success — after all, the legendary John Steinbeck was writing the source material specifically for a musical adaptation. The musical brings back Doc from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and introduces an unlikely love interest in a woman named Suzy.
The trouble? Steinbeck’s work shines because of its authenticity and proletarian themes. Rodgers and Hammerstein obscured those elements rather than leaning into them; they went to great lengths to hide the lead character’s profession (prostitute) and the nature of a key location (a brothel), taking away the grit and lowering the stakes. As in Carousel, The pair brought in an opera singer to play the role of the wise, older-female character (the madam).
In the end, Rodgers and Hammerstein dulled the most compelling parts of Steinbeck’s story. It’s too bad — the music is beautiful, and the score is packed with gems like “Everybody’s Got a Home but Me,” “The Man I Used to Be,” and “Bum’s Opera.”
Reflecting on the show years later in an interview with Tony Thomas, Rodgers said, “At the time that you produce the play, you’re sure it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. If you didn’t, you’d be out of the business…it takes time. It takes three, four, five years to realize that Pipe Dream wasn’t very good.”
“It takes five minutes to realize that The Sound of Music is.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Cinderella as a TV musical. The decision to take the project was easy — after all, Julie Andrews had already signed on to play the starring role, and the two were eager to work with the rising star. It was the perfect combination from the start; Rodgers’ soaring melodies suited Andrews’ soprano voice, and Hammerstein was able to work his lyric magic on the familiar fairytale.
Cinderella was broadcast live on March 31, 1957, to 107 million viewers — the biggest-ever TV audience up to that point and for almost 40 years after. (You can hear Julie Andrews on the original recording.)
Thanks to the overwhelming success, Rodgers and Hammerstein soon turned Cinderella into a stage musical. It’s one of the most popular Golden Age musicals of all time, particularly among high schools and community theaters; there are four different versions available for licensing, each with a unique spin. Cinderella has been remade for TV multiple times and had a Broadway revival in 2013.
Flower Drum Song (1958)
Flower Drum Song is one of the least-produced Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Though it was a commercial success at the time, running for 600 performances on Broadway and receiving six Tony nominations, subsequent productions found it difficult to cast. The industry at the time was not particularly welcoming to performers of Asian descent, and theater companies had trouble finding enough actors to fill the roles.
This musical is an interesting dichotomy. It was undoubtedly groundbreaking for the time; Rodgers and Hammerstein based their story on the bestselling novel The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee, himself a Chinese immigrant to the United States. The Broadway musical and the subsequent movie offered unprecedented visibility for Asian actors.
Even so, the musical is also a relic of late-1950s attitudes. The story, which follows a young Chinese man’s search for love, centers on the conflict between immigrant parents’ traditional ideals and their children’s desires. Although Rodgers asserted in his autobiography that he wanted to depict Asian people “as characters, not caricatures,” the plot is full of stereotypes and a lack of nuance regarding the assimilation experience.
Playwright David Henry Hwang attempted to resolve these issues in 2002, rewriting the book for a Broadway revival starring Lea Salonga. The new storyline examines the Asian-American experience from the perspective of its characters, creating a clever new context for the original songs. While critics weren’t completely sold, the production earned three Tony nominations.
The Sound of Music (1959)
The Sound of Music is arguably Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s most famous musical, thanks in no small part to the movie version that starred Julie Andrews. The beloved tale follows a young novice nun who becomes a governess after finding herself unsuited to convent life; she eventually falls in love with a widowed naval captain with seven rambunctious children. Encroaching Nazis add a dark undercurrent to the story, which ends with the Von Trapp family escaping Austria — and forced military service for the Captain — on foot over the mountains.
Broadway actress Mary Martin is the reason The Sound of Music exists; she was interested in developing the story of the Von Trapp Family Singers, and she approached her old colleagues Rodgers and Hammerstein about writing the music. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the script.
The first title for the musical was Love Song. Their lawyer, concerned about copyright and plagiarism issues, asked in a letter, “PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE get a new title!”
The Sound of Music was the last musical Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together; “Edelweiss” was the last complete song Oscar Hammerstein wrote before he passed away the next year from stomach cancer.
Curious about Oscar Hammerstein’s writing process? Watch how “The Sound of Music” lyrics evolved in the video above from The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (spoiler: “the hopeful humming of a small brown bee” didn’t make the cut).
FAQs About Rodgers and Hammerstein Musicals
How Did Rodgers and Hammerstein Meet?
Richard Rodgers met Oscar Hammerstein when Rodgers was just 13 years old — they were introduced by Rodgers’ older brother, who was then studying at Columbia University with Hammerstein (then 20).
Hammerstein’s first impression of Rodgers was, “a little boy with very dark eyes and in short pants.” That impression stayed with Hammerstein throughout their working relationship; he said about his writing partner, “When he has a very worried look on his face, I know that underneath is that little boy.”
You can hear Rodgers and Hammerstein discuss how they met in the CBC’s Tony Thomas interviews. Hammerstein died of stomach cancer just a few months after the recording was released.
How Did Rodgers and Hammerstein Start Working Together?
Rodgers and Hammerstein started working together professionally around 1942, after Rodgers’ longtime writing partnership with Lorenz “Larry” Hart fell apart. However, the first-ever Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration happened in 1920. Rodgers was a freshman at Columbia University at the time, working on his first varsity show; he wrote the music, and Hammerstein wrote the lyrics for a song called “There’s Always Room for One More.”
The idea had come up about a year earlier in 1941, when Rodgers was working on Best Foot Forward in Philadelphia with George Abbott. He got a call from Hammerstein, who lived nearby on a farm in Doylestown.
In Rodgers’ own words, “I got a call one Sunday and drove down to his [Hammerstein’s] farm. I told him that I was awfully worried about Larry and I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to work for very much longer. And I asked Oscar if he thought he’d be interested in collaborating with me. And he told me he was very much interested.”
The two men agreed that if Hart reached a point where he wasn’t able to work, they would start working together.
The opportunity arose after Rodgers and Hart finished By Jupiter in 1942. Hart, who famously struggled with depression and alcoholism, was declining rapidly. He walked away from the pair’s latest project, which was to turn the play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical. Hammerstein joined the project instead, and the resulting musical — Oklahoma! — changed the face of musical theater and launched the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership.
(If you’re interested, The Atlantic has an interesting article on the “irresistible and tragic” Hart.)
The two took a novel approach to writing musicals — instead of starting with music, as was the custom on Broadway at the time, they decided that Hammerstein should start with the lyrics. Rodgers thought this method made sense, since Hammerstein’s lyrics were “beautifully constructed,” and he preferred to write “without the constriction of a melody.”
How Many Rodgers and Hammerstein Musicals Are There?
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote 11 full musicals together.
When Did Rodgers and Hammerstein Stop Working Together?
Rodgers and Hammerstein stopped working together in 1960, when Hammerstein died following a battle with stomach cancer.
A Recorded Portrait; Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II. MGM Records, Arnold Michaelis. 1957.
Conversations With Two Legends Of The American Musical Theatre. CBC, Tony Thomas. 1960.
Rodgers, Richard. Musical Stages: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1975.