Oscar Hammerstein was the preeminent librettist and lyricist of the twentieth century. His career was only equaled in length and breadth by that of author, director, and producer George Abbott and by Hammerstein’s partner Richard Rodgers. The son of William Hammerstein, the manager of the Victoria Theatre, the grandson of the great theatre builder and impresario and the father of Times Square, and nephew of Arthur Hammerstein, a noted producer, He was among the first authors to attempt a true integration of songs and script in the new American form of musical theatre.
Oscar Hammerstein was born in New York City on July 12, 1895. He attended Columbia University and Law School. It was at Columbia that he began writing books and lyrics for his first musicals. In fact, his first collaboration with Richard Rodgers was for a Columbia University show, Up Stage and Down, in 1916. A year later Hammerstein had his first song, “Make Yourself at Home,” with music by Silvio Hein, interpolated into the Broadway show, Furs and Frills. His first full score was a collaboration with Herbert Stothart, Always You (1920). Reviewers were quick to note the young Mr. Hammerstein’s talents. The New York Times said the “lyrics are more clever than those of the average musical comedy.” Stohart and Hammerstein had a success with his next show, Tickle Me (1921). He wrote a play, Pop, but it closed in Atlantic City. A series of flops followed until Hammerstein teamed up with Stothart and Vincent Youmans on Wildflower (1923) and its hit song, “Bambalina.” The same team wrote Mary Jane McKane that same year and had another success.
But Hammerstein’s greatest successes early in his career would come through a series of now classic operettas usually with lyrics coauthored by Otto Harbach. These include Rose-Marie (1924) with its lush score by Rudolf Friml, Desert Song (1927) with Sigmund Romberg, and The New Moon (1928) with Romberg. In between Hammerstein collaborated with Jerome Kern on the Marilyn Miller musical comedy, Sunny (1925).
Hammerstein’s greatest achievement, including his later collaboration with Richard Rodgers, was 1927’s Show Boat. This legendary musical opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre to deserved acclaim. This was the first show to exhibit Hammerstein’s concern with human issues. The show’s plot dealt with miscegenation and the problems faced by blacks. The score is still considered by many to be the supreme musical theatre work. The show embarked on a long national tour and then returned to New York in 1932 for another successful engagement. It was presented in London to equal acclaim, especially for Paul Robeson in the role of Joe. Show Boat was revived on Broadway in 1946, 1954, 1961, 1966, 1976, 1983, and 1994. It was filmed in 1929, 1936, and 1951.
Hammerstein and Kern’s next show also featured Helen Morgan. Sweet Adeline (1929) had a lovely score and today is held in high regard by musical theatre aficionados. In 1931, Hammerstein had three shows produced on Broadway, but none played more than 23 performances. He collaborated again with Jerome Kern for Music in the Air in 1932, a major hit. After two London premieres, Ball at the Savoy and Three Sisters, Hammerstein ventured to Hollywood for the film, The Night Is Young. The Romberg score and the film got little attention and Hammerstein quickly returned to New York. His work in Hollywood was insignificant with titles such as Give Us This Night (music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold); Swing High, Swing Low; High, Wide and Handsome (with Jerome Kern); The Lady Objects (music by Ben Oakland); and The Great Waltz.
Hammerstein’s less than stellar achievements in Hollywood were mirrored at his return to Broadway. Though the Kern and Hammerstein musical satire Very Warm for May (1939) contained a fine score, including what many consider to be the greatest song ever written, “All the Things You Are,” the show was a failure. His show American Jubilee, that same year, was produced at the New York World’s Fair and had a score by Arthur Schwartz. The Romberg operetta Sunny River played only 36 performances in 1941, the last nail in the coffin of operetta.
Hammerstein was generally thought to be washed up. Aware of the talk along Broadway, he needed a hit to revive his career. Desperate as he felt for renewal, Hammerstein was nonetheless unprepared for the amazing turnaround he was to enjoy as the lyricist and librettist in the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the most successful songwriting partnership in the history of musical theatre. The Theatre Guild approached Hammersein to collaborate on a new show with Richard Rodgers. Rodgers’s longtime partner, Lorenz Hart, was having his own personal problems, and the composer was looking for a new collaborator. The new team’s first production changed the course of musical theatre and broke most of the commonly held conventions of the art form. Oklahoma! began a second chapter in Hammerstein’s career.
As a retort to all those who said he was washed up artistically, he took out an ad in Variety, that read:
SUNNY RIVER (6 weeks at the St. James)
VERY WARM FOR MAY (7 weeks at the Alvin)
THREE SISTERS (7 weeks at the Drury Lane)
FREE FOR ALL (3 weeks at the Manhattan)
“I’ve Done It Before And I Can Do It Again”
Rodgers and Hammerstein are considered to be among the greatest of all Broadway authors of all Broadway authors of musical theatre. Their formula consisted of well-integrated songs and book, with songs that reflect the characters’s personalities in both words and music. This formula or pattern for show construction and writing has been emulated since the years of their first big hit, Oklahoma!
The success of that show came at a crucial point in both their careers and at a crucial point in the history of the Theater Guild, its producer. Rodgers had already enjoyed a successful career with his longtime partner Lorenz Hart. The team of Rodgers and Hart were known for sophisticated, witty contributions to a series of mostly playful, lighthearted shows. When Hart’s personal problems stood in the way of further collaboration, Rodgers was forced to seek another partner. He turned to Oscar Hammerstein II, the scion of a great theatrical family.
The Theater Guild was also suffering. Their recent productions had proven unsuccessful at the box office, and the producing organization was close to bankruptcy. Theresa Helburn, co-director of the Guild, had recalled an earlier Guild-produced play, Green Grow the Lilacs, and thought that it might work as the basis for a successful musical. The Guild approached Rodgers, who in turn approached Hammerstein. Rodgers had previously helped the Guild when his early musical The Garrick Gaieties, written with Hart, proved to be a great success. The revue had put the early Guild on a firm financial footing.
In transforming Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein took many liberties with the musical comedy tradition. There was no opening chorus sung by a bevy of leggy chorines. Instead, the show opened with a lone figure singing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Furthermore, the villain, Jud, was a truly menacing figure, not just a two-dimensional moustache twirler. Another change was that Jud is killed at the end, and uncommon occurrence in musical comedy. Oklahoma! opened on May 31, 1943, in the midst of America’s look toward homespun values as a reaction to the war.
Any doubts as to the success of the songwriting team were immediately laid to rest as soon as the curtain rose. The show became a smash hit and the score was recorded by Decca Records, the first original cast recording to achieve popular success opening the door to the modern era of theatrical recordings.
For his next production, Hammerstein chose to adapt Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen (1943). The all-black show earned rave reviews and was a great success.
Questions as to whether Rodgers and Hammerstein could repeat their success were answered when Carousel opened in 1945. The Theater Guild repeated its role as producer. Again Rodgers and Hammerstein broke new ground. Their lead character, Billy Bigelow, a bully and crook, is killed reappears as a spirit. The show was also unique in that it dealt with serious subjects that the average musical comedy, meant mainly to entertain, rarely attempted. Many critics and audience members considered the score superior to that of Oklahoma!
The team then wrote the first and only original film musical, State Fair. The 20th Century-Fox film was a great success, adding to the cache of the songwriting team. With their next show, Allegro (1947), the team’s success hit a snag. It was not nearly as successful as their previous work. The team attempted to break more musical theatre conventions. One idea was to have the musical comedy chorus act as a Greek chorus, but this and other ideas simply did not work. The show did contain a minor hit, “The Gentlemen Is a Dope.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s previous two shows, Oklahoma! and Carousel, were recorded by Decca Records. RCA paid a lot for the rights to Allegro and guessed wrong; the show played less than a year.
The team redeemed themselves with South Pacific (1949), an immensely successful show. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza starred. The score contained more songs destined to become standards, in fact, one of the musical theatre’s finest scores. South Pacific ran until the beginning of 1954, earning its writers and producers (one and the same as Rodgers and Hammerstein opened their own production office) a good deal of money. Columbia Records recorded the original cast recording twice, once on vinyl and, in an early experiment, on magnetic tape.
Their next hit, The King and I (1951), made a star out of Yul Brynner and was the last show for Gertrude Lawrence. The score was up to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s high standards and was recorded by Decca Records. Hobe Morrison, writing in Variety, perfectly captured Hammerstein’s lyric contributions when he wrote, “Hammerstein’s lyrics are another of his characteristic blends of apparently effortless grace, pictorial beauty and irresistible sentiment.” The songs were perfectly suited to the demands of the script and exactly defined each character’s personality and point of view. Typically, the songs propelled the plot forward instead of merely commenting on the themes.
RCA took another stab at a Rodgers and Hammerstein cast album with their next show, Me and Juliet (1953). It too was not a success. The story concerned two backstage romances and the score, except for the hit “No Other Love” was not up to their usual standards. A milestone of sorts was reached on April 5, 1954, when, for the first time since March 31, 1943, no Rodgers and Hammerstein production was playing on Broadway. During the eleven years since the opening of Oklahoma!, sometimes as many as four attractions were playing on Broadway with the Rodgers and Hammerstein names associated as either authors or producers.
RCA came back with the team’s next show, Pipe Dream (1955). Again the critics were disappointed and the show folded after only 246 performances. The team turned to a new medium, television, for their next project, an original musical, Cinderella. The show was broadcast on March 31, 1957, with a young Julie Andrews starring. It was a great success.
Gene Kelly was the director of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s next outing, Flower Drum Song (1958). The show and score received modest praise, enabling a 600 performance run. The one hit was “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” Though not a smash it was better received than Allegro, Pipe Dream, or Me and Juliet. Columbia Records took charge of the cast album duties. John Chapman, in the Daily News, commented that the show was “thoroughly sentimental.” That sentimentality reached its zenith with The Sound of Music (1959), their last show as a team. The score was in the tradition of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein shows and yielded no less than five hit songs. The critics noted the show’s sweetness but audiences flocked to the Lunt-Fontanne theatre for 1,443 performances.
Oscar Hammerstein II died on August 23, 1960, leaving Richard Rodgers without a partner for the first time in his nearly fifty-year career. As a tribute, the lights were dimmed on Broadway and taps was played in Times Square.
Although the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein had their occasional failures, their great successes introduced a unique voice into the American theatre. Rodgers’s melodies to Hammerstein’s lyrics were more expansive and soaring than those written with Hart. Hammerstein’s lyrics and libretti were warm and humane and touched on themes of tolerance and understanding. Critics have accused Hammerstein of resorting to too much sweetness, but his accomplishments with Rodgers and with Kern, Friml, and Romberg should not be underestimated.
Oscar Hammerstein would often write lyrics to existing songs which he used as a metric pattern.
Occasionally a pop tune will find acceptance in the jazz world. Many times the jazz versions overshadow the original. A case in point is Friml, Harbach and Hammerstein’s “Indian Love Call.” Artie Shaw made the tune swing to the delight of bobby soxers in 1938, 14 years after the song premiered as part of the score of the operetta Rose-Marie. Another great swinging hit that was a stalwart ballad is “Lover Come Back to Me.” “Oh! Lady Be Good!” by the Gershwins is another example, as is Isham Jones and Gus Kahn’s “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else.” Irving Berlin’s “Marie” was written for the 1928 silent film The Awakening. In 1937, Tommy Dorsey’s band upped the tempo and the song was finally a hit. Porter’s 1929 hit, “You Do Something to Me” was also sped up to become a hit. Once in a great while the temp of a tune will be slowed down resulting in a successful song. A case in point is the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” and their “I”ve Got a Crush on You.”
“Indian Love Call” was the favorite song of President Eisenhower.
Oscar Hammerstein never wanted to write “I love you” in a lyric so he found ways around the phrase. Examples include the titles, “If I Loves You,” “Why Do I Love You,” and “You Are Love.” (KB)
“I Won’t Dance” was written by Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach, and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1934 London musical Three Sisters. The show was not a hit but Fred Astaire happened to see it and admired the song. When it came time to film Roberta at RKO, he suggested that the song be used in the film. Dorothy Fields amended the lyrics for the 1935 Hollywood version.I Won't Dance
Oscar Hammerstein was so distraught when the Germans entered Paris on June 14, 1940, that he wrote the lyric to “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Jerome Kern set it to music and it was introduced by Kate Smith. The song became so popular that MGM put it into the film Lady, Be Good. It went on to win the Academy Award although it wasn’t specifically written for the film. Hammerstein realized the injustice and insisted that the Academy change the rules for songs, which they did.The Last Time I Saw Paris
In this lyric Oscar Hammerstein emphasizes the sensory aspects of love. In the first verse he write about seeing a stranger, in the second about hearing her laughing, and in the third about feeling her call.Some Enchanted Evening
“Oscar Hammerstein was a rare man who wrote rare words and accomplished rare deeds. His legacy includes not only the hundreds of lyric words that are part of our lives but also the burning conviction that there can be a better future for us than the atomization of the world.”Dore Schary
“The most important ingredient of a good song is sincerity. Let the song be yours and yours alone. However important, however trivial, believe it. Mean it from the bottom of your heart, and say what is on your mind as carefully, as clearly, as beautifully as you can. Show it to no one until you are certain that you cannot make one change that would improve it. After that, however, be willing to make improvements if someone can convince you that they are needed.”Oscar Hammerstein