Hills are alive with the sound of money

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The Independent US

The hills are still alive with the sound of music. The back offices of Broadway, meanwhile, are alive with the sound of calculators being tapped, as the daughters of Rodgers and Hammerstein put the songwriting duo's vast back catalogue up for sale.

From The Sound of Music, through Oklahoma and the King and I, to South Pacific, songs from the pair's timeless musicals have become standards but a parade of potential new owners believe there is an untapped fortune to be made from licensing the music for films, video games and TV ads.

Mary Rodgers Guettel – daughter of the late Richard Rodgers – and Alice Hammerstein Mathias – whose father, Oscar Hammerstein II, died in 1960 – have put the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organisation up for sale with a $325m (£163m) price tag.

And the organisation's music catalogue alone, with 3,000 songs from the duo and from other writers that include Irving Berlin and Lorenz Hart, could be worth more than $200m, insiders say. The rest of the business licenses performance rights to musicals, including Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, plus more recent works by composers including Andrew Lloyd Webber and current Broadway box office hits including Title of Show, In The Heights and Avenue Q.

The sale means that music industry giants such as EMI, Sony and Universal Music are getting a once-in-a-generation chance to pick up classic songs ranging from "There's No Business Like Showbusiness" and "White Christmas", to "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'."

Even hedge funds and private equity bidders are rumoured to be circling, believing that the simple, stable cashflows from musical standards could prove a preferable investment to the esoteric debt instruments that have cost Wall Street billions of dollars in the credit crisis.

The music publishing part of the business, which contains the back catalogue, is called Williamson Music, because both Rodgers and Hammerstein were the sons of men called William. The pair began working together in 1943, after Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers' previous writing partner, sank into ill-health.

By the end of the decade, they had become Broadway's most bankable songwriting team, ushering in a golden era of musicals, and all of their major productions were remade for the cinema. Together they won 34 Tony awards, 15 Oscars, two Grammy's and a Pulitzer Prize.

As a testament to the enduring appeal of their work, South Pacific – which gave the world "Some Enchanted Evening", "Happy Talk" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" – is currently running again on Broadway, 59 years after its debut, in a production feted at this year's Tony awards as the best musical revival of the year. Across the Atlantic, The Sound of Music is selling out the London Palladium and a new production of Carousel is due at the Savoy theatre by the end of the year.

Music publishing companies can make new revenue from catalogue assets by licensing show tunes for use in a range of outlets such as advertising, video and television, in a process that the industry calls synchronisation. Although Rodgers and Hammerstein songs have been covered extensively – and even sampled by the likes of Dizzee Rascal – insiders say they have not been exploited to their full commercial potential for fear of undermining their reputation.

However, with the pair's daughters now into their old age, and with family control of the company likely to splinter among numerous grandchildren, they and other trustees decided to explore options for the organisation. Bert Fink, a spokesman for the organisation, declined to comment yesterday.