I've had much more of a liking for Rodgers & Hart than for Rodgers & Hammerstein. Richard Rodgers probably was the finest melodist of all the great Broadway composers. That is a given. Larry Hart was one of the cleverest lyricists, rivalled only by Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg. If you know anything about Larry Hart, an immensely talented man whose personal frustrations led him to drink himself to death, you can never listen to "My Funny Valentine" without thinking of how much of himself he threw into that song.
As for Oscar Hammerstein II, I found him, from my vantage point as a child of the '60s, a total cornball. We cringed at "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific. And it struck me early and often that every good thing in Showboat comes from Jerome Kern's fantastic music rather than the often pedestrian book and lyrics. That show did change what musicals were--something Hammerstein also accomplished 17 years later with Rodgers in Oklahoma!--but I've seen one great production a few years ago on Broadway which brought out the strengths of the show, and one locally which seemed to go on desultorily at best forever. It really does need a great, imaginative production to work today.
But listening to Robert Wyatt's wonderful presentation at the Smithsonian last week on Rodgers & Hammerstein, I did start to see some qualities in Hammerstein's words that I'd not noticed before. I'll never like "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" but even that doesn't ring as preachily as it used to do when I heard it. And South Pacific--beyond that one song--has no bad numbers, none. It is a fantastic musical.
This summer I was lucky enough to catch a fine production of Carousel at Glimmerglass. That too is an absolutely superb musical, almost operatic in many ways. It was fun at Wyatt's program to see clips of the original Julie, Jan Clayton (remember her as the original mom in Lassie?) singing "If I Loved You" and "When You Walk Through a Storm". Seriously, can you beat either of those two marvelous songs?
To me, The Sound of Music, their last show, was as it was parodied in a long-ago Broadway revue I saw starring Hermione Gingold--playing the Mary Martin/Julie Andrews leading role, of course--as she croaked out the lyrics in "The Sound of Schmaltz". I'll never hear "My Favorite Things" without thinking of her rhapsodizing about "oodles of noodles" and "cute little babies, with runny noses". Yet even that behemoth of what the late Dwight Macdonald would likely have blasted as total kitsch seemed in the clips, especially of Mary Martin, fabulous--both her and the show--even though she was getting on by then. And apparently Hammerstein had thought she was too old for South Pacific--the clips proved to me that she was absolutely perfect.
But in the end, I have to give Hammerstein his due. He wrote a lot more good than bad. Even The King & I holds up, much to my surprise. And I don't know if very many others enjoy hearing Yul Brynner sing "A Puzzlement"--Wyatt was good enough to play at least part of it. The capstone of the evening came early when Wyatt was telling the story of both Rodgers and Hammerstein before they were Rodgers & Hammerstein. It was the clip of Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River"--it just doesn't get better than that.