Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, ‘Oklahoma!’

Phil Gallo

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Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of Music”; the eight modern songwriters who created lyrics and other elements split the remaining 10%.

The approval from the Rodgers & Hammerstein camp, housed within Concord Music Publishing since 2017, proved prescient: “7 Rings” was streamed more than 570 million times in the U.S., making it the fourth-most-consumed song of the year.

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“When things come our way, like Ariana’s song, we talk about how great that can be for Rodgers & Hammerstein, for ‘My Favorite Things’ and for ‘The Sound of Music’ all wrapped into one,” says Bill Gaden, president for North America, Concord Music Publishing’s. “We think that there’s a halo effect around [the song] that goes back to ‘The Sound of Music.’ So maybe more high schools will do it, or [Grande’s fans] will go find the Carrie Underwood version. When things are done in a respectful, proper way — or even a crazy and new way — we’re very open to it.”

That openness has led to a bounty of recent successes for R&H, starting with the lauded Broadway production of “Oklahoma!” in April. The 1943 musical saw several unique interpretations in 2018 — its 75th year — including a gay version at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an African-American staging in Denver and Daniel Fish’s modernist interpretation that played St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn before transferring to Broadway’s Circle in the Square.

Eva Price, who produced the midtown Manhattan production, says: “What’s been really interesting, and frankly educational, has been the process of artistic influence and involvement from R&H since the Bard College production [in 2015]. It’s been not prescriptive but more advisory, [with] more historical context.”

The songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein have landed in multiple commercials, and been sampled in rap songs and synced in TV shows ranging from period pieces to sci-fi series. “I say we continue to spend half our day protecting the value of these amazing songs in musicals and half our day exploiting them when appropriate,” says Gaden, who has overseen the R&H Organization for 14 years with Ted Chapin, himself the president of R&H for nearly 40 years.

“It’s funny,” Gaden says. “We see a song’s popularity in advertising sort of come and go. When we got a lot of requests for ‘Getting to Know You’ maybe 18 months ago, we looked back and realized it hadn’t been in an ad for years and years. … When we see a trend in our sync business that says, ‘Oh, I think these are songs that can fit a singer-songwriter trend or a piano-heavy trend,’ we will proactively commission versions.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein created their organization in 1943 to publish their work and license the duo’s shows. They also acquired musicals and other songwriters’ material; the organization has almost 400 shows and the works of such writers as Irving Berlin and Lin-Manuel Miranda (now under Concord Music Publishing and Concord Theatricals).

Gaden, who works in a New York office chock-full of Rodgers & Hammerstein artwork and honors, notes that “the brilliance of Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hammerstein is that they never sold anything. So we’ve got control and approval — the ability to create new opportunities by having everything in-house. It’s really rare.”

Licensing Carousel

Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote a mere 11 shows between 1943 and 1959, but those songs live on in popular music, ads, on TV and the stage:

  • Oklahoma!,” which won the Tony for best musical revival, closed Jan. 19 on Broadway and will embark on a tour this fall.
  • David Ellison’s Skydance Television is developing a TV series set in the present day using the characters and music of “Oklahoma!” (“It will be a multigenerational drama using some of the characters — the conflict that’s part of ‘Oklahoma!’ — but sort of blowing it up in a new way,” Bill Gaden says.)
  • Two prominent rappers built songs around R&H material: 2 Chainz’s “I Said Me” uses a sample of “My Favorite Things,” and Chance the Rapper’s “Zanies and Fools” incorporates “Impossible/It’s Possible” from “Cinderella.”
  • R&H songs have appeared across recent seasons of “Watchmen,” “This Is Us,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “Younger,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” “The Orville” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
  • This year advertisers fell in love with “Getting to Know You” from “The King and I”: Toyota’s Supra ad used Julie Andrews’ version; office workers sang the song to promote Cisco’s computer solutions; and in October, Airbnb used Doris Day’s ballad rendition.

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