Recently, while perusing that beloved, long-lost Shakespearean epic, Prospero and the Sea Serpent, I came across an especially arresting quote: "The gods bestoweth to a special few that genius which delights all mankind's soul." This put me in a contemplative state of mind. What is this genius of which he speaketh? Not that utilitarian brilliance that led to air conditioning and a cure for halitosis, but the aesthetic genius that alters our very perception of the universe. We speak of the genius that led to Mozart's The Magic Flute, Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois and Richard Rodgers' waltzes. The latter bestowed an indelible musical radiance on Connecticut Yankees, cowboys, navy nurses, governesses and nuns. This wildly successful composer's career flourished from the gossamer flapper romps of the 1920s through the inspirational odes of wartime America to the jazzy integration of the 1960s.
It's human nature to take this sort of genius for granted. Fortunately, for our benefit and edification, there are those blessed historians and archivists who chronicle the pathways of our delights. Which brings us to Harbinger Records' Songwriters Showcase Series, which is masterminded by Cleveland's own musical-theater connoisseur extraordinaire (and host of WCLV's syndicated Footlight Parade), Bill Rudman, with New York theater writer Ken Bloom. The newest release in the series is Richard Rodgers Command Performance, a feast of mostly rare esoterica featuring the composer playing piano rolls (of tunes from Rodgers and Hart shows), singing, conducting and reminiscing.
Rodgers was an exceedingly guarded man who rarely let the public in on his creative process. Unlike Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Cy Coleman, he was willing to conduct but not to vocalize his own works. Rodgers was straitlaced and precise about how he wanted his creations presented to the public.
Revealed here are two elements to which we've rarely been privy: the exuberant keyboard virtuoso, rendering his music in the form of merry Charlestons and yearning ballads; and, even more surprising, the singer, who warbles Lorenz Hart's giddy and often risqué lyrics with subtle irony.The archaeological thrill of the Rodgers piano rolls on this disc is similar to hearing classical composers - such as Debussy, Mahler and Rachmaninoff -- interpreting their own music on the technology, which was designed for home enjoyment. In these crisply remastered recordings, Rodgers' playing resurrects the insouciant and vibrant sound of another era. The first selection, the title number from The Girl Friend, so evokes the madcap, syncopated whimsy of the '20s that it takes great willpower not to jump up and commence Charlestoning with hovering, ghostly flappers.
For this listener, the CD's most engaging surprise and demonstration of the breadth of Rodgers and Hart's gifts is a song composed for America's most beloved dummy, Charlie McCarthy (the alter ego of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen). If it's not delicious enough to hear Rodgers arguing royalties with said puppet, it reaches pure euphoria when the song "A Little of You on Toast" starts to rhapsodize about such Americana as W.C. Field's magnificent proboscis, which is "mighty like a rose."
Rodgers' second great partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, is not slighted. We hear a demo of an early version of "A Wonderful Guy" (from South Pacific) with significantly different lyrics from what we've grown up with. In a demonstration of the belief that Rodgers was the Johann Strauss of the 20th century, he plays piano and conducts his enchanting waltz from one of the team's most exquisite scores, the 1957 TV version of Cinderella.
The CD ends on a rueful note, with the aged Rodgers discussing the differences in his wordsmith partners. Most listeners who appreciate this disc likely have loved many of these songs for generations. But the disc is something wonderful for anyone who revels in the uncommon alchemy of genius.