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 When a show closed, the libretto, orchestrations, and any unpublished songs were treated very casually, often tossed into the nearest file drawer and soon forgotten.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.”
By the end of the 1940s Rodgers and Hammerstein were the most powerful force on Broadway, and people who wanted to work with them took their terms or else. In his autobiography the director Joshua Logan wrote that “when [Richard Rodgers] teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein there were all kinds of remarks that the big one [Hammerstein, who was six-two] is a nice guy but the little one is a son of a bitch. To me, Dick and Oscar were both tough as nails.”
Toughest of all was their lawyer, Howard Reinheimer. As Rodgers and Hammerstein began to produce their own shows, Reinheimer saw to it that R&H only leased the rights and the backers participated only in the profits of the Broadway production. By that time, of course, R&H didn’t have to go looking for backers. Rather it was simply a matter of deciding whom they would allow to participate. It was largely due to Reinheimer’s careful legal work that the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization retains such complete control of R&H’s works.
In order to protect their carefully cultivated image, Rodgers and Hammerstein often let Reinheimer do the dirty work. When one high school’s production of Oklahoma! turned out very well, the school decided to cut a record and sent a copy to Richard Rodgers. The composer promptly wrote back saying how pleased he was they had sent it to him and how professional an effort he judged it to be. Nearly simultaneously, however, Reinheimer sent the school a letter telling them in no uncertain terms to cease the distribution of this unauthorized and illegal recording and curtly informing them of the very expensive consequences of any failure to comply.
The partners also worked hard to present themselves as a closely knit team. In fact, other than their mutual mastery of the musical theater, they had little in common and seldom saw each other socially. One has the impression they didn’t really like each other very much.
To be sure, neither of them fitted the stereotypical image of show-biz types. They both rose early, they didn’t drink much, and they always dressed like, well, businessmen. But Rodgers was methodical and punctual to the point of fussiness. Hammerstein was much more relaxed about life. He had known both artistic triumph and despair in his career and was a warm, sensitive, outgoing man who always had time for others. Rodgers, who had known nearly nothing but success, was often petty and always egocentric, even by the standards of genius.
Hammerstein loved his Pennsylvania farm and was a devoted family man, deeply in love with his wife from the moment he had first seen her, quite literally, “across a crowded room.” Rodgers loved New York City night life.
Still, whatever creative and business disagreements they may have had were thrashed out behind closed doors, and they invariably presented a wholly united front both to the world at large and to their collaborators in the theater, greatly increasing their leverage in negotiations.
Because they were the very tough, savvy businessmen they were, the corporate empire Rodgers and Hammerstein founded continues to flourish and, indeed, to grow today, thirty years after Hammerstein’s death brought the creative partnership to a close. Today the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization licenses the musical and dramatic rights to not only the works of R&H but also the earlier works by Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and by Hammerstein and other composers, as well as the musical plays of Kurt Weill and others. Just recently R&H began handling the music and musicals of Irving Berlin. Altogether, this is no small business. The corporation licenses more than three thousand theatrical productions a year just in the United States and Canada. It grosses well into eight figures annually.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein not only revolutionized the Broadway musical artistically, they revolutionized it financially as well. The major Broadway writers and composers who have come after were as quick to take the business lessons of R&H to heart as they were the artistic ones. Andrew Lloyd Webber ( Cats , Evita , The Phantom of the Opera ), for one, not only gratefully acknowledges his spiritual debt to Rodgers and Hammerstein but has followed their corporate lead as well. It is no coincidence that the Really Useful Group, a company owned by Lloyd Webber that produces his musicals, shares office space in New York City with, you guessed it, Rodgers and Hammerstein.