There would be no American Musical Theater without Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) were an influential, innovative and successful American musical theatre writing team, usually referred to as Rodgers and Hammerstein. They created a string of popular Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, initiating what is considered the “golden age” of musical theatre. With Rodgers composing the music and Hammerstein writing the lyrics, five of their Broadway shows, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, were outstanding successes, as was the television broadcast of Cinderella. Among the many accolades their shows (and film versions) garnered were thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, and two Grammy Awards.
Their musical theatre writing partnership has been called the greatest of the 20th century.
Previous work and partnerships
Prior to their partnership, both Rodgers and Hammerstein achieved success independently. Rodgers had collaborated for more than two decades with Lorenz Hart. Among their many Broadway hits were the shows A Connecticut Yankee (1927), Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940), and By Jupiter (1942), as well as many successful film projects.
Hammerstein, a co-writer of the popular Rudolf Friml 1924 operetta Rose-Marie, and Sigmund Romberg operettas The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928), began a successful collaboration with composer Jerome Kern on Sunny (1925), which was a hit. Their 1927 musical Show Boat is considered to be one of the masterpieces of the American musical theatre. Other Hammerstein/Kern collaborations include Sweet Adeline (1929) and Very Warm for May (1939). Although the last of these was panned by critics, it contains one of Kern and Hammerstein’s best-loved songs, “All the Things You Are”.
By the early 1940s, Hart had sunk deeper into alcoholism and emotional turmoil, and he became unreliable, prompting Rodgers to approach Hammerstein to ask if he would consider working with him.
Independently of each other, Rodgers and Hammerstein had been attracted to making a musical based on Lynn Riggs’ stage play Green Grow the Lilacs. When Jerome Kern declined Hammerstein’s offer to work on such a project and Hart refused Rodgers’ offer to do the same, Rodgers and Hammerstein began their first collaboration. The result, Oklahoma! (1943), marked a revolution in musical drama. Although not the first musical to tell a story of emotional depth and psychological complexity, Oklahoma! introduced a number of new storytelling elements and techniques. These included its use of song and dance to convey plot and character rather than act as a diversion from the story and the firm integration of every song into the plot-line.
Oklahoma! was originally called Away We Go! and opened at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven in March 1943. Only a few changes were made before it opened on Broadway, but three would prove significant: the addition of a show-stopping number, “Oklahoma!”; the deletion of the musical number “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”, which would soon after be replaced with a reprise of “People Will Say We’re in Love”; and the decision to re-title the musical after the song.
The original Broadway production opened on March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theatre. Although the typical musical of the time was usually written around the talents of a specific performer, such as Ethel Merman or Fred Astaire, no stars were used in the production. Ultimately the original cast included Alfred Drake (Curly), Joan Roberts (Laurey), Celeste Holm (Ado Annie), Howard Da Silva (Jud Fry), Betty Garde (Aunt Eller), Lee Dixon (Will Parker) and Joseph Bulloff (Ali Hakim). Marc Platt danced the role of “Dream Curly”, and Katharine Sergava danced the part of “Dream Laurey”. In Oklahoma!, the story and the songs were considered more important than sheer star power. Nevertheless, the production ran for a then-unprecedented 2,212 performances, finally closing on May 29, 1948. Many enduring musical standards come from this show, among them “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “I Cain’t Say No”, the aforementioned “People Will Say We’re in Love”, and “Oklahoma!”.
In 1955 it was made into an Academy Award-winning musical film, the first feature shot with the Todd-AO 70 mm widescreen process. The film starred Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, and its soundtrack was #1 on the 1956 album charts.
Rodgers and Hammerstein re-worked the musical theatre genre. Early 20th-century musicals, except for the Princess Theatre musicals and a few important examples like Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, were usually whimsical or farcical, and usually built around a star. Because the efforts of Rodgers and Hammerstein were so successful, many musicals followed that contained thought-provoking plots with mature themes, and in which all the aspects of the play, dance, song, and drama, were combined in an integrated whole. Stephen Sondheim has cited Rodgers and Hammerstein as having had a crucial influence on his work. 
Rodgers and Hammerstein also use the technique of what some call the “formula musical”. While some hail this approach, others criticize it for its predictability. The term “formula musical” may refer to a musical with a predictable plot, but it also refers to the casting requirements of Rodgers & Hammerstein characters. Typically, any musical from this team will have the casting of a strong baritone lead, a dainty and light soprano lead, a supporting lead tenor, and a supporting alto lead. Although there are exceptions to this generalization, it simplifies the audition process, and gives audiences an idea of what to expect vocally from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. However, this formula had been used in Viennese operetta, such as The Merry Widow.
William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird wrote that Oklahoma!, “like Show Boat, became a milestone, so that later historians writing about important moments in twentieth-century theatre would begin to identify eras according to their relationship to Oklahoma!” In The Complete Book of Light Opera, Mark Lubbock adds, “After Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the most important contributors to the musical-play form – with such masterworks as Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific. The examples they set in creating vital plays, often rich with social thought, provided the necessary encouragement for other gifted writers to create musical plays of their own.”
In 1950, the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein received The Hundred Year Association of New York’s Gold Medal Award “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York.” In addition to their enduring work, Rodgers and Hammerstein were also honored in 1999 with a United States Postal Service stamp commemorating their partnership.
The Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City is named after Rodgers. Forbes named Rodgers and Hammerstein second on its list of top-earning dead celebrities in 2009 at $235 million.