Big birthdays call for big noise, and Oklahoma! is only the mostvisible of the revivals, recordings, and concerts marking thecentenary of composer Richard Rodgers (far right, with OscarHammerstein II). There’ll be two more Rodgers shows on Broadway;an April 14 gala in D.C.; another in L.A. in June; and so manyother events, it’s as if Americans feel a sudden urge to embracetheir sentimental past.

Or maybe not so sudden. Consider this: Last year, the Rodgers &Hammerstein Organization licensed 526 North American productionsof Oklahoma! alone — and 2,559 more of such Rodgers money pumps asThe Sound of Music and South Pacific.

Yet none of these includes Rodgers’ very best work, which largelyemerged in the first half of a career that makes as much sense assodbusters hoofing across a Broadway stage. The man whobequeathed us prairie farmers and singing Austrian nuns was theurbane product of a well-off Manhattan family. Often as sour as awrong note, he had bouts of severe depression, could bechillingly rude to performers, drank too much, and scowled evenmore. Working with lyricist Lorenz Hart from 1919 to 1943, theman who’d later give us ”doe, a deer…” wrote shows as worldlyas On Your Toes (1936) and as mordant as Pal Joey (1940), andsongs as swank and sexy as ”The Lady Is a Tramp” and ”Bewitched.”

But Hart was as tragic as he was gifted, and shortly before hisbooze-soaked death in 1943, Rodgers dropped him for thecolossally earnest Hammerstein. Rodgers’ partnership withHammerstein bears the taint of cynicism — having struck gold withOklahoma! he determined that a life of mining hits was prettyappealing. With Hammerstein he substituted solemnity for irony,corn on the cob for dry martinis. Taken as a whole, the songswith Hart are as different from those with Hammerstein asManhattan is different from…Oklahoma.

But on their own, separated from their often saccharine lyrics,the tunes are among the 20th century’s most exceptional. Rodgerscould write sharp, he could write sweet, and he was so prolific(and egotistical) that he once boasted, ”I could pee a melody.”Not a particularly nice man, Richard Rodgers was nonetheless asupremely gifted one. — Daniel Okrent

Stolen SummerSTARRINGAidan Quinn Bonnie Hunt MIRAMAX RATED PG92 MINUTES


Stolen SummerSTARRINGAidan Quinn Bonnie Hunt MIRAMAX RATED PG92 MINUTES