"You'll Never Walk Alone"
Rogers and Hammerstein
Here I am back with yet another piece by Richard Rogers for the week’s Sometimes a Song, this time with a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein, who joined Rogers just before the death of his decades-long collaborator Lorenz Hart. Unlike many of the great song composers of the 20th century, Richard Rogers didn’t work with a lot of lyricists in his career. As it happened, as a freshman at Columbia University in 1919, Rogers (with his friend Larry Hart) wrote the Varsity review, a musical called “Fly with Me,” to which Hammerstein contributed two songs. But he and Hammerstein went their separate and successful ways for the next twenty five years until necessity and I believe mutual admiration and respect and perhaps some great alignment of the stars brought them together at the peak of their musical powers.
In 1943, both Rogers and Hammerstein were — independent of each other — working on ideas for a musical adaptation of a play called, “Green Grow the Lilacs” (named for the folk song). Oscar Hammerstein had been collaborating with Jerome Kern for some 15 years at the time, but neither Kern nor Hart could be persuaded to take on the project. Having failed to pull his friend, Larry Hart, out of his emotional collapse, Richard Rogers approached Hammerstein to work with him — on the very project Hammerstein was already working on himself. The resulting partnership is legendary. Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s first project together turned a so-so play into a musical masterpiece which in turn transformed musical theater. “Oklahoma!” would be only the first of their many award-winning productions, in in a collaboration which continued through the 1940’s and 1950’s, until Oscar Hammerstein died, just after the premier of “The Sound of Music” in 1960.
I’ve said before that, teamed up, Rogers and Hammerstein completely took American musical theater by storm in many important ways, not least of which was by integrating the music with the libretto (what Tin Pan Alley composers of the day called “the book”), thus elevating American musicals beyond the Vaudeville-inspired musical review-style shows of the 1930’s and earlier. For the first time in the history of American musicals, songs were composed not just to entertain but also to advanced the plot, establish character, and set the mood; the plot became more important than it had ever been before to the show, and even such things as dance entered the production in an integral way that helped draw the parts of the show into a single work of art. In “Oklahoma!” a dream sequence done in ballet underscores the main tension of the plot, a love triangle that ultimately ends in a tragedy. And in “Oklahoma!” the music itself imparted the story to the audience, rather than merely being a stage vehicle through which famous actors or personalities performed with more or less connection to the overall production. In a thoroughly bold move, Rogers and Hammerstein decided to premiere “Oklahoma” without a single big star in the cast. And despite (or perhaps because of) not having a famous lead star, “Oklahoma!” was the first musical ever to produce a studio-recorded soundtrack with all original cast and orchestra. That recording itself made history by hitting the charts and staying there, and by setting cast-recordings as an industry standard for musicals thereafter.
So my readers may by now — rightly! — be scratching their heads and saying, “What has all this to do with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’?” The short answer is only that this week’s song comes from an early (in fact, the second) Rogers and Hammerstein production. The longer answer is that with so much to say about Rogers and Hammerstein I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to tell some of their story, even if it all did begin with a musical other than the one featuring our song this week. You see, some folks who thought themselves “in the know” in the early 1940’s opined that neither Rogers nor Hammerstein would never again to reach the musical heights that each had achieved with his first partner —without Hart, without Kern. But never missing a beat — if you will pardon my joke — the new team of Rogers and Hammerstein produced hit after hit after hit after hit. On the heels of “Oklahoma!” they brought out a second smashing success, “Carousel,” which no doubt took the nay out of any remaining nay-sayers on the topic of whether either could survive the loss of his talented partner. And from “Carousel” — for our week centered on the theme of hope at Word & Song — comes arguably Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s most performed and most known song to this day, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
To forestall any nay-sayers of my own, I will say here and now that I have a boatload of “favorite” Rogers and Hammerstein songs, and that this week’s Sometimes a Song is not in my top ten of those. That is not because “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a poor song, but because Rogers and Hammerstein wrote so many great ones. I will also say that I never promised that Sometimes a Song would be a schmaltz-free zone! But having listened to at least a dozen performances of the song before setting fingers to keyboard this week, I can attest to how beloved is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” not just in the United States but around the world. It is indeed a song of hope, written when the world was literally at war, when so many were suffering such great loss, and when optimism was not enough to win the day. Hope was needed then, and this timeless song still inspires it today.
So here is an imperfectly perfect singer for Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s song — a man who overcame great personal obstacles in his own life and himself rose from obscurity and loss to great achievement — Andrea Bocelli, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
When you walk through a storm Keep your head up high And don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm Is a golden sky And the sweet, silver song of a lark. Walk on through the wind, Walk on through the rain, Though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, And you’ll never walk alone! You’ll never walk alone.
I look forward to Sometimes a Song and you never disappoint! This has been one of my favorite songs for as long as I can remember. Thank you so much!
This is amazing.
I have that video bookmarked. Just your mentioning it nearly brings me to tears.
You use the word sublime.