Oh What a Beautiful Business : Entertainment: Broadway's winningest composer and lyricist may be dead but their licensing group lives on.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happens almost every time Bert Fink goes to a cocktail party. "When I say I work for Rodgers and Hammerstein, people invariably reply: 'I thought Rodgers and Hammerstein were dead,' " says Fink.

They are--but they aren't. Although composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein died years ago, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization lives on--50 years after the pair ushered in the era of modern musical theater with "Oklahoma!"

As director of special projects for the $15-million-a-year privately held company, Fink has the job to ensure that the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy--which also includes other classics such as "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music"--endures.

And endure it does. The 50th anniversary of "Oklahoma!" is being marked by the issuance of a stamp this week by the U.S. Postal Service--the first time a Broadway musical has been so honored--and by more than 850 theatrical productions this year.

Oh, what a beautiful business--and "Oklahoma!" is just a small part of it. All told, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization licenses 2,700 productions of its musicals annually, including a fresh and critically acclaimed revival of "Carousel" that opened in London last November and may come to Broadway next.

Then there's the music: The firm owns the copyrights to a huge catalogue of hummable tunes--everything from "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" to "Some Enchanted Evening" to "Edelweiss."

Over the years, Rodgers & Hammerstein has raked in millions by licensing such songs as "Getting To Know You," to General Motors' Geo division, and "Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," to Clairol. More revenues are chipped in by home-video, film and merchandising arms.

Although it's not unusual for companies to make big money by trading on old copyrights--Walt Disney Co. is a good example--the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization is unique in that it deals primarily with the works of its two founders.

Operating out of a Broadway skyscraper 38 stories above Manhattan's theater district, the firm is something of a living museum to the legacy of its founders. The 30 employees who populate its office are surrounded by old posters, costume sketches and other memorabilia. One corner office features a gleaming grand piano that once belonged to Rodgers.

While puny compared to music giants such as Time Warner and Sony, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization is highly profitable. "We may be a pygmy, but as long as we're the pygmy that represents Rodgers and Hammerstein, we'll survive and thrive," says Theodore S. Chapin, the company's president.

Unsolicited offers to buy the company and its music library are piled as high as, well, an elephant's eye, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein families aren't interested in selling. The children of the founders, who range in age from their 50s to their 70s, meet every two weeks to oversee the company's affairs but aren't involved in daily operations.

"What could a Sony or a Time Warner do for these people that they can't do for themselves?" asks Samuel Goldwyn, president of the Samuel Goldwyn Co., which distributes the company's films.

"They'd just throw them into a pot with everything else. These people are totally focused on what they are doing."

"We're not stupid," adds the 42-year-old Chapin. "Selling the business is something that has been spoken about. But it has not gotten to the point of: 'How much is the company worth?' We created this company together, and rather than have some corporate giant eviscerate it, we want to keep it together."

In that respect, the organization is following the course set by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who died in 1979 and 1960 respectively. "Their philosophy," says Chapin, "was, basically, to hold on to everything that they could."

As a result, their heirs are today reaping profits from sales of media, such as CDs and videocassettes, that were not even imagined when the shows were first produced. A $1,000 investment in the original production of "Oklahoma!" would have thrown off income of $2.5 million over the last 50 years.

Not bad for a show that producer Mike Todd walked out on during tryouts in New Haven with this devastating critique: "No legs, no jokes, no chance."

Fortunately for Rodgers and Hammerstein, the New York Times disagreed.

"Wonderful is the nearest adjective," wrote critic Lewis Nichols in 1943, adding that "Oklahoma!" combines "a fresh and infectious gaiety, a charm of manner, beautiful acting, singing and dancing and a score by Richard Rodgers which doesn't do any harm either, since it is one of his best."

"'Oklahoma!' was a remarkable departure from the old-time musical featuring leggy chorus girls," says independent producer Jack DePalma. "Rodgers and Hammerstein stretched the form, introducing classical dancing and opera-like music."

Of the 2,700 productions that Rodgers and Hammerstein expects to license this year, 850 alone are of "Oklahoma!" Licensees, who include everyone from high school dramatists to dinner theaters to top professionals, typically pay 6% of their gross ticket revenues to the organization: 2% each for the book, music and lyrics, with a minimum of $50 per performance.

Though the shows hold up, today's Broadway is a very different place than the Great White Way that Rodgers and Hammerstein took by storm five decades ago. Tastes have also changed, making it all the more remarkable that plays introduced as much as 50 years ago have become such a gold-plated annuity.

Not the least change has been economic: original musicals such as Cameron Mackintosh's "Miss Saigon" cost more than $10 million to produce, compared to the initial investment in "Oklahoma!" of less than $100,000. That's a huge jump, even after accounting for inflation.

"The whole process for marketing a show is different today," adds Mark Thibodeau, a publicist for Mackintosh. "Merchandising didn't exist back then. And the first television commercial for a show wasn't until the 1970s, for 'Pippin.' "

Today's mega-hit musicals also tend to run longer than shows did in Rodgers and Hammerstein's heyday. "The shows today become franchises," says Thibodeau.

"Cats," for example, just celebrated its 10th anniversary, "Les Miserables" is in its seventh year and "Phantom of the Opera" is in its sixth. "And none of them are showing any signs of letting up," Thibodeau notes.

By contrast, the hugely successful "Oklahoma!" ran just five years on Broadway to become, at the time, the longest running show in Broadway history--a record held until "My Fair Lady" surpassed it in 1961.

Of course, the role of Broadway musicals in popular culture is also quite different today. "Back in the time of 'Oklahoma!,' the most important and innovative popular music in America was written for the theater," says Jack Viertel, creative director for Jujamcyn Theaters, a big Broadway producer.

Broadway was the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were separately celebrated on the cover of Time magazine and appeared regularly on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Today, Hollywood has supplanted Broadway as a fount of popular culture, and "the music industry has carved out its own place in the entertainment world, with stars and albums and concert tours independent of Broadway," Viertel adds. "The theater represents a tiny part of the income stream for composers and lyricists."

"The modern-day equivalents of Rodgers and Hammerstein would be (the Beatles') John Lennon and Paul McCartney," he continues.

Chapin, on the other hand, argues that the modern-day equivalents of Rodgers and Hammerstein are . . . Rodgers and Hammerstein.

"As the new production of Carousel in London illustrates, it is possible to do lively and exciting versions of the classics," Chapin says. "Ditto with a recent 'King and I' production in Australia. Some people thought 'The King and I' was about Yul Brynner, but it's a much more universal story."

Chapin recalls that when he took over the company in 1981, he frequently encountered people who said: "That should be a piece of cake. You just sit back and watch the checks roll in."

But, observers say, Chapin has done much to enhance the value of the Rodgers & Hammerstein franchise, whose revenues have climbed from $6 million a year during his tenure.

"He's always watching out for the integrity of the productions," says Goldwyn. "He's turned down more than one production with, shall we say, veteran actors because he wanted to keep the image fresh."

"We're talking about extraordinary songs, with extraordinary melodies," Chapin says, adding that he soon hopes to do a recording of "Oklahoma!" with country and western singers.

A Few Notes About the Organization:

Headquarters: New York City

Annual revenues: $15 million

Licensing: 2700 shows annually

License fees: 6% of gross ticket sales, $50 minimum per performance

Biggest Musicals: "Oklahoma," "The Sound of Music," "The King and I"

Copyrighted songs: "Getting to Know You," "Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"

Returns: A $1,000 investment in the original production of "Oklahoma!" would have generated income of $2.5 million in past five decades

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