Getting To Know Them: Rodgers & Hammerstein Profiled In New Dual Bio

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The musical team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had a special connection with Connecticut. During his life, Rodgers lived in three homes in Fairfield where he did a major part of his composing. And New Haven’s Shubert Theatre was where many R & H musicals premiered en route to Broadway, including their first collaboration, Oklahoma! (That landmark show was originally titled Away We Go! when it played the Elm City in 1943.

“It was the first stop for many shows and, of course, it was the out-of-town theater that was closest to New York and therefore the easiest to get to,” says Todd S. Purdum, whose new biography of R & H’s musical partnership, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, has just been published. “They must have felt that it was well worth the cost of these often very short runs in New Haven — sometimes they were there just for a few days — before they went on for longer runs in Boston.”

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The new book, published by Henry Holt, is filled with fascinating details, including the little-known fact that Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx and Mary Martin were all mentioned for Oklahoma! before the decision was made to cast largely unknowns. (The New Haven Register review of the world premiere is also a treat to read.)

Purdum says the most surprising — “and poignant” — thing he discovered in his research was the degree to which each man did not really know the other. “While they had an extremely professional working relationship and were artistically and commercially in sync, I was stunned to learn how little personal emotional connection there was between them. Each went to his grave [Hammerstein in 1961, Rodgers in 1979], not 100 percent sure if the other really liked him.”