“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens,” avows Selma (Björk) in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. No one proved this more than Richard Rodgers, who, in a career spanning 62 years, composed many of the genre’s most joyous scores. With lyricist Lorenz Hart, Rodgers worked from 1931 to 1935 in Hollywood, where they wrote for such films as Lewis Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), Al Jolson’s comeback vehicle. Exceptional not only for the extended use of rhymed dialogue segueing into song, Hallelujah is a sanguine yet socially aware tale of Central Park’s Depression-era homeless with an infectiously high-spirited Jolson. Brio also marks British musical star Jessie Matthews’s performance as a stage novice impersonating her dead, once famous mother in Victor Saville’s backstager Evergreen (1934).
During their 17-year collaboration, Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote only one original film musical, Walter Lang’s State Fair (1945), which balances its stickier moments with Dana Andrews’s wiseacre reporter. But perhaps the most inspired counteracting occurs in the call-and-response between Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965) and Dancer in the Dark. Deemed “the sugarcoated lie” by Pauline Kael, Sound finds a new emotional resonance as Björk wails “My Favorite Things” in her jail cell, allaying her unbearable solitude. It’s evidence of the transformative power of musicals—and Rodgers’s contribution to decades’ worth of altered states.