2002 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America's greatest and most prolific theatrical composers, Richard Rodgers. To mark this banner occasion, the worldwide custodians of his work, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, are presiding over a centennial celebration that stretches from stage and television to CDs, books and exhibitions.

This week a major biography of Rodgers, Someone for Me, by British-born writer Meryle Secrest is published here (Bloomsbury). But given that most of the work by Rodgers, as opposed to about him, was for the theatre, it's appropriate that the lynchpins of the celebrations are indeed new theatrical productions of some of his most celebrated works. In Britain, these include a revival of South Pacific that begins previewing at the National's Olivier Theatre this week; while across the Atlantic, the NT's acclaimed 1998 revival of Oklahoma! finally transfers to Broadway in February. Trevor Nunn directs both of them.

Diving into the Text

It's intriguing therefore to note that instrumental to the reclamation of these beloved, quintessentially American musicals has been Britain's National Theatre. It was there, too, that the NT's now artistic director designate Nicholas Hytner in 1992 did something both startling and true with another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Carousel. He peered behind the soft-centred reputation of R&H and found a bruisingly hard-edged drama about a failed marriage and trying to come to terms with one's past.

Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, marvels at the results. "There is something about the British tradition of diving into the text without any preconceived notions about it that we have all benefited from in terms of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals," he says. "It turns out they were really good dramatists. What Trevor Nunn does that is extraordinary is that he looks at a text by two guys who wrote simple stories but in epic ways, and doesn't allow a line, a character or a situation go by without thorough examination."

The Musical Comes of Age

As former NT artistic director Richard Eyre, writing with playwright Nicholas Wright in their book Changing Stages, comments, "If we take for granted now that a musical can fuse dialogue, song and dance in the service of dramatic narrative, it is because Rodgers and Hammerstein made it seem as inevitable and necessary as the invention of television."

In essence, say the authors, the musical came of age with their collaborations. "An apparently endemically frivolous medium became a vehicle for serious situations and profound passions. The musical grew up. What had been fitfully attempted in Showboat became triumphantly achieved: a seamlessly unified depiction of narrative and character through dialogue, songs and dance."

That unique integration of form and content was revealed in Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration together on Oklahoma! in 1943. In the process, according to Eyre and Wright, they "changed the course of American musical theatre just as Chekhov and Ibsen changed the course of 20th-century drama: in both cases transforming existing forms by embracing real issues, and examining real characters and situations."

A Musical Factory

The dramatic content alone makes Rodgers and Hammerstein's shows fit for investigation by the National Theatre. As part of the process of rediscovery and reinterpretation that Nunn has duly undertaken, he was offered the opportunity to go back to earlier drafts and versions of both Oklahoma! and South Pacific by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. But it is also Rodgers' lush melodies to Hammerstein's lyrics that remain resoundingly fresh today.

When Ian Marshall Fisher - who, with his Lost Musicals seasons, has re-staged neglected Broadway musicals in concert versions in London for the last decade - was recently asked on this site to name his favourite composer, he cited Rodgers. "The thing about Rodgers that amazes me over everybody else was his output," he commented. "We're talking about a factory. For over 40 years, his output was huge. I don't think there's been a writer of the last century who has produced such a huge volume of work."

Centennial Celebrations

Some of that huge volume will be reflected in the course of 2002's centennial celebrations. In Britain, these will include a regional revival of Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes at Leicester Haymarket, scheduled to feature and be choreographed by former Royal Ballet and Adventures in Motion Pictures star Adam Cooper.

There will also be a concert performance of Carousel at the Royal Festival Hall next June. Ted Chapin, who points out that this was Rodgers' favourite score, comments, "Perhaps the one part of Carousel that was not spectacularly rendered at the National Theatre was the music; here we can focus on just that." Another concert performance of the same show will be given at New York's Carnegie Hall next year. New York will also see the first-ever Broadway revival of The Boys from Syracuse, the product of another long-running Rodgers collaboration, this time with Lorenz Hart. It is presented by the Roundabout Theatre next March, though the show was revived here, under the direction of Judi Dench, at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park a few years ago.

Further ahead, Andrew Lloyd Webber is looking to produce a major commercial revival of The Sound of Music in 2003; and the Theatre Museum are working on an exhibition about the original London productions of Rodgers' musicals here. All of which, in a sense, brings us back full circle to the composer's heyday.

"For nine straight years, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals owned the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane," notes Ted Chapin. In the 1950s, this famed stage was home in succession to the original West End productions of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. As a London revival of the last draws to the close of its run at the London Palladium, London now completes a set of revivals of each of those classics with South Pacific. Britons' special love for these musicals, and our apparent affinity for producing them afresh, is affirmed again.

South Pacific opens at the NT Olivier on 12 December 2001 (previews from 3 December). The King and I finishes its 18-month run at the London Palladium on 5 January 2002.