- Historic Sites
Rodgers & Hammerstein, Inc.
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
One evening in the early 1950s Oscar Hammerstein II unexpectedly encountered his Broadway partner, Richard Rodgers, at a reception. “Well, fancy meeting you here,” he said. “Who’s minding the score?” Hammerstein, like most poets, couldn’t resist a pun. But anyone in show business in those days could easily have answered the question: Both of them, thank you, and very well too.
In their eighteen-year partnership Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote nine Broadway musicals, one movie, and one television musical. They were the first to fully integrate music, words, and dance in a musical play, and their success was unprecedented in the history of American show business. The original runs of their musicals averaged more than a thousand performances each; before Rodgers and Hammerstein, no musical play had lasted even seven hundred performances on Broadway. They won two Pulitzer Prizes, several Academy Awards, and uncounted Tony and Donaldson awards. Their songs have become among the most famous ever written and as much a part of American culture as the music of Stephen Foster.
And from the beginning Rodgers and Hammerstein fully understood that the show is just half of show business. The other half is business. They became the first men from the creative side of Broadway to establish a permanent organization to handle the business side of what they created. In doing so, they built a business empire that earned them the first great American fortune to be based on creative theatrical talent.
In the 1920s and 1930s the authors of Broadway musicals usually got the short end of the stick, receiving a relatively small percentage of the gross receipts while the producers and the backers made off with the lion’s share of the profits if the show was a hit. Each new show involved a whole new arrangement, usually a limited partnership. The money from any songs that were published in sheet-music form was split evenly between the authors and the publisher. When a show closed, the libretto, orchestrations, and any unpublished songs were treated very casually, often tossed into the nearest file drawer and soon forgotten.
When R&H, as they were soon to be known, first agreed to write a musical together, they accepted the usual arrangement, for at that time just getting the show to Broadway presented problems enough without worrying about the long term. Indeed, the desperate struggle to find backers for Oklahoma! is one of the great Broadway legends. On opening night, March 31, 1943, the St. James Theatre was not even sold out. These would be the last empty seats for several years to come. The next day the composer and the lyricist went off to lunch at Sardi’s to celebrate the glorious reviews. As they rounded the corner onto Forty-fourth Street, they found policemen trying to keep hundreds of frantic would-be ticket buyers in order.
Oklahoma! paid its once-reluctant backers large and steady dividends for more than a decade. Eventually a one-thousand-dollar investment in the original production would yield backers more than thirty-three thousand dollars in profits.
While Rodgers and Hammerstein shared the success of the Broadway production with the producers and the backers, they held all the rights to the music. They were determined to make the most of that fact. Max Dreyfus, of Chappell and Co., one of the largest publishers of popular music, knew that Oklahoma! would be a gold mine. He offered R&H a deal. If they would establish a company to publish the music, Chappell would provide all the necessary services in return for a much smaller percentage than usual. R&H set up Williamson Music, Inc. (so named because each had a father named William). This arrangement continued for all the rest of the R&H shows and assured that the partners maintained 100 percent control of all musical rights. These rights, from sheet music, radio, television, records, and advertising, were, and still are, worth millions.
Along with large sheet-music sales, Oklahoma! was the first musical to have an original-cast album, four years before the LP was even developed. The album sold more than a million copies in the 78-rpm format alone.
The music rights under firm control, Rodgers and Hammerstein next set themselves up in business as Broadway and London producers, presenting numerous successful shows over the next few years, including Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun . But they did not, at first, produce their own shows. South Pacific was to be the first R&H show they produced, and from that point on they had 100 percent control of the dramatic rights to their own works as well. (A few years later the partners were able to buy all rights to their earlier musicals, thus gaining total control of everything they had written.)
In addition to practical business matters, Rodgers and Hammerstein paid close attention to public relations. They set out, quite deliberately, to portray themselves as a couple of ordinary all-American nice guys who had invented the modern musical play, a uniquely American art form, and used it to celebrate the simple American virtues of life and love. But if R&H’s philosophy of life, as presented in their plays, has seemed to some to be “as corny as Kansas in August,” the pair believed equally that making a buck and driving a hard business bargain were “as normal as blueberry pie.”