It would have been easy for Richard Rodgers to say no.
In 1942, when Richard Rodgers fluttered in the upper echelon of American songwriting, it was remarkable for him to dismantle the process he had embraced so successfully with Lorenz Hart for more than two decades, the process which contributed so much to the Great American Songbook.
When Oscar Hammerstein II, his new collaborator, asked if he could first write the lyrics for their new musical’s songs and then bring them to Rodgers to write the music, Rodgers agreed.
For the previous 22 years Rodgers first wrote the music and then Hart wrote the lyrics.
The depth of change was stunning. It was as if an artist suddenly had to apply canvas to paint.
Mechanics and the comfort of creative routine aside, this shift must have been something of a leap of faith for Rodgers. Hammerstein’s six most recent musicals had bombed. Rodgers knew that his new collaborator’s prestige at the time fell far short of his own.
But Hammerstein was not lacking credentials. After all, he had written the lyrics for Showboat! and, while there had been a dry spell, he was far from washed up.
The result of this creative inversion was Oklahoma! which ran on Broadway for 2,212 performances.
Just as Showboat! redefined the musical in 1927, shoving European operettas offstage, Oklahoma! was similarly innovative in 1943. For the first time, songs helped drive a musical’s plot rather than simply accenting it, and worked to define and reveal characters.
Rodgers was astonishing, a daunting master of melody. He wrung every strand of emotion from his music. Hammerstein was similarly brilliant, grinding past the role of the craftsman with lyrical complexity that hit home runs by sounding simple.
And the way these two men worked together could not have been more different.
It took Hammerstein three weeks to write the lyrics for Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’. Another entire week was spent agonizing over whether or not the “Oh” should stay or go.
When Hammerstein finally brought the lyrics to Rodgers, his new partner was delighted, and wrote the music for the song in just twenty minutes.