Great Broadway Musical Composers

Perfect Pairings: The Great Broadway Musical Composing Teams

We’ve heard the old adage “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and Broadway musical scores have proven to be no exception. Matching vibrant, emotion-inducing melodies to witty lyrics that define character and reveal a deeper understanding of the story is the goal of every Broadway composer. Since musical theater first started dazzling Broadway audiences, there have been some great writing teams — one a composer, the other a lyricist — who came together to create memorable scores, adding up to that “greater whole.” Today, we celebrate the composing teams who worked together regularly — and almost exclusively.

Kern and Hammerstein

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II were a significant influence on American musical theater, particularly with their groundbreaking production Show Boat (1927). In adapting Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel for the musical stage, they demonstrated that musical theater could more than entertain, that it could be thought-provoking and tackle social issues in frank and stirring ways. The song “Ol’ Man River” remains one of Broadway’s most powerfully charged songs, using the Mississippi River as a metaphor for the harsh relentlessness of life. The musical set the precedent for “serious” musical theater and endeavored to tie the score of a musical to its book, having the songs grow out of the plot and characters, opening the door for other musicals such as Porgy & Bess, Lady in the Dark, and Pal Joey to attempt such an integration. Other Kern-Hammerstein collaborations include Sweet Adeline, Music in the Air, Three Sisters, and Very Warm for May. Hammerstein was at Kern’s side when the composer died in 1945.

Gershwin and Gershwin

George and Ira Gershwin were brothers who produced some of the most enduring show tunes to ever grace the stage. Creators of early musical comedies, the duo would churn out a series of Broadway hits that included their first musical together, Lady, Be Good! (1924), and the first musical to ever win the Pulitzer Prize, the political satire Of Thee I Sing! (1931). Other shows included Oh, Kay!, Girl Crazy, Rosalie, Show Girl, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake!. The crowning achievement of their partnership came in 1935, collaborating with DuBose Heyward in bringing Porgy & Bess to the stage, though many debate whether this show belongs in the category of opera or musical theater. George died suddenly in 1937 from a brain tumor, but the brothers’ partnership continues to live on through their body of catchy melodies and witty (and sometimes poetic) lyrics, found in such songs as “I Got Rhythm,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “The Man I Love,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Summertime,” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.”

Rodgers and Hart

The unlikely team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart came together while attending Columbia University in 1919. The serious Rodgers and the unpredictable Hart brought out the best in each other. That introduction led to a partnership that would yield more than 28 stage musicals and upwards of 500 songs. From the Shakespeare-inspired The Boys From Syracuse through the “let’s put on a show” spirit of Babes in Arms, to the gritty boldness of Pal Joey, it was a prolific partnership that lasted 24 years. Such songs as “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Bewitched,” “Isn’t It Romantic?,” “Sing for Your Supper,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Blue Moon,” “To Keep My Love Alive,” and “Where or When” are just a handful of the songs that became standards of the American songbook. Working together, they had a knack for witty, wonderful, and romantic numbers that explored the hearts and minds of the characters they sought to bring to life. Their partnership came to an end in 1943 with Hart’s death, not long after Rodgers partnered with Oscar Hammerstein II on Oklahoma!.

Rodgers and Hammerstein

The most influential team in the history of the American musical theater was, without a doubt, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. They created, with their first collaboration on Oklahoma! in 1943, the standard by which musicals for decades would be modeled. They are credited for successfully solidifying the musical theater form into what is known as “the integrated musical,” a precedent established in 1927 with Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. The integrated musical suggests that a show’s score should grow out of the plot, support character development, and move the action forward. Rodgers and Hammerstein followed Oklahoma! with a string of hits, including Carousel, South Pacific (Pulitzer Prize), The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Other titles include Allegro, Pipe Dream, Me and Juliet, and Flower Drum Song. Both had enjoyed a long career writing for the Broadway stage prior to their collaboration, but together they created such classic show tunes as “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “If I Loved You,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Soliloquy,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There’s Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Carefully Taught,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Edelweiss,” among countless others.

Lerner and Loewe 

Taking the baton from Rodgers and Hammerstein and embracing their template for the integrated score established by Oklahoma!, the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe came together first to write new material for The Life of the Party, an adaptation of a farcical comedy for a Detroit stock company. Their first complete score together was for the short-lived 1945 Broadway musical The Day Before Spring. It would not be until 1947, with the musical fantasy Brigadoon, that the duo would have their first hit, a score that boasted such standards as “Almost Like Being in Love” and “There But for You Go I.” Next up was Paint Your Wagon, with a score shining with such Lerner and Loewe hits as “I Talk to the Trees” and “They Call the Wind Maria.” The crowning achievement of their partnership was writing the songs for the musical adaptation of Pygmalion, the now-classic My Fair Lady. That score included such beloved ditties as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” After My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s next big project would be Camelot, a musical that proved a struggle in its creation, but that produced such enchanting numbers as “I Loved You Once in Silence,” “The Lusty Month of May,” “If I Ever I Would Leave You,” and the iconic title song. The duo also wrote the Oscar-winning music for the film Gigi, which would ultimately be turned into a Broadway musical in 1973.

Adler and Ross

The team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross had two giant hits on Broadway in a span of two years. Protégés of Broadway composer Frank Loesser, the duo first had a No. 1 pop hit on the radio with “Rags to Riches.” Then their Broadway career began with writing the music for the revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, which then led to their back-to-back Tony-winning Best Musicals, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Their partnership created such standards as “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” “Steam Heat,” “Heart,” “Whatever Lola Wants,” and “Two Lost Souls.” Sadly, Ross came to an untimely death at the age of 29, bringing the promising partnership to an end. It is interesting to speculate what this young duo would have written if they had enjoyed the opportunity to continue working together.

Bock and Harnick

Arguably best known as the composers behind such Broadway classics as Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick painted words and music for many other musicals that lit up the Broadway stage, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Fiorello!. Bock and Harnick made their collaborative debut with the short-lived Broadway production The Body Beautiful, and though that show failed to resonate with critics and audiences, they continued to work together. Among their other collaborations were Tenderloin, The Apple Tree, and The Rothschilds. And thanks to their determination, we have been able to enjoy such songs as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “She Loves Me,” “Ice Cream,” “Dear Friend,” “Politics and Poker,” “Till Tomorrow,” and “Little Tin Box.”

Kander and Ebb

The composing team behind such astronomical hits as Cabaret and Chicago, such critically acclaimed shows as Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Happy Time, such divisive pieces such as The Scottsboro Boys, such beloved musical comedies as Curtains and Woman of the Year, as well as a string of flops with superior scores and compelling premises such as The Rink, Steel Pier, The Visit, and 70, Girls, 70. Kander and Ebb were always an adventurous pairing, unafraid to probe the darker side of humanity with stark honesty and humor. Other musicals included Flora, The Red Menace, Zorba, and The Act. The team came together in 1962 when they were introduced by their mutual music producer. As an experiment, they wrote the unproduced musical Golden Gate, just to test their new partnership. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ahrens and Flaherty 

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are one of the few composing teams consistently writing for Broadway in the last few decades. They first came to our attention in 1988 with the Off-Broadway musical farce Lucky Stiff. Two years later, their musical Once on This Island went from Playwrights Horizons to a Broadway run. Their collaboration on the stage adaptation of the film comedy My Favorite Year took them to Lincoln Center in 1992. The team won a Tony Award for Best Score in 1998 for the epic musical Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel about the American melting pot. Their music for the 1997 animated film Anastasia found its way to the Broadway stage in 2017, with songs added to augment the original score. Other Broadway outings include Seussical and Rocky, as well as Off-Broadway’s Dessa RoseA Man of No Importance, and The Glorious Ones.

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His latest book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America, was released on October 15. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.