'America Salutes Richard Rodgers' is an enjoyable tribute to the work of that composer. One might suppose that the whole point of a special like this is to perform Richard Rodgers's songs, with no excuses necessary. Unfortunately, there's a half-hearted attempt to supply some sort of framework 'story' by bringing in two actors to portray Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers's two most notable collaborators. Hammerstein is played by Gene Kelly, who speaks his lines decently enough ... but why didn't the fools who produced this special give Kelly at least one number to perform? Also, in real life, Kelly had actually **worked** with Richard Rodgers (in the Broadway musical 'Pal Joey', in the MGM musical 'Words and Music', and as the Broadway director of 'Flower Drum Song'), so why didn't the producers of this special give Gene Kelly a chance to offer some of his own memories of working with Rodgers? Also on hand here is the beautiful and talented Diahann Carroll, who starred in the Broadway musical 'No Strings' (with music AND lyrics by Richard Rodgers): she sings splendidly, but why isn't she given a chance to share some of her memories of Rodgers?
Lorenz Hart is portrayed (if that's the proper word) by Henry Winkler, fresh from his triumph as Fonzie (and probably bunged in here solely for his name value). There's a rather pathetic attempt to have Winkler 'act' the role of Lorenz Hart. He sticks a cigar into his mouth and then asks: 'Where the devil are my matches?' The three most notable aspects of Lorenz Hart (his alcoholism, his sexual self-loathing and his physical grotesqueness) are not present here in Winkler's portrayal. Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Lorenz Hart in 'Words and Music', as bad and as inaccurate as it was, came much closer to the truth than Winkler's depiction here. Also, if we're going to have actors playing Hart and Hammerstein, then why not bring in another actor to play Richard Rodgers?
Despite those bad decisions, this is an excellent special. The first musical sequence, very interestingly, consists of songs that Rodgers composed in 3/4 time. Cloris Leachman enters, singing 'Do I Hear a Waltz?'. (After all the argle-bargle about Hart and Hammerstein, the first song performed on this show has lyrics by Stephen Sondheim!) Leachman, accompanied by a ballet dancer and a Beckettian tramp with glitter on their faces, segues into 'I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy' and other Rodgers waltzes.
John Wayne, of all people, gets a look-in ... and he actually presides over one of the better sequences in this special. The 'Duke' narrates a sequence devoted to Rodgers's music for the 1950s TV documentary series 'Victory at Sea'. I wish someone had pointed out that the most famous theme from 'Victory at Sea' ('Under the Southern Cross') was actually recycled from Rodgers and Hammerstein's short-lived Broadway musical 'Me and Juliet', in which it was originally the music for the ballad 'No Other Love Have I'.
There's also a sequence which could have been very embarrassing, but which is actually enjoyable, in which dozens of 'real' people all over America sing snatches of 'Oklahoma!' and 'June is Bustin' Out All Over'. Their enthusiasm emphasises that Richard Rodgers's songs are, indeed, the songs of America's people.
All of the musical performers in this special do an excellent job. At the end, Kelly and Winkler come back to announce 'Good night, Mr Rodgers ... and thanks.' I wish that someone in this large cast could have taken a few moments to quote Sir Noël Coward's envious tribute to Richard Rodgers: 'That man just PEES melody!' I'll rate this enjoyable special 8 out of 10.
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