Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) was the most important figure behind the creation of one of the twentieth century’s great art forms, the Broadway musical.
When he began his career in the early 1920s, musicals were usually either featherweight comedies with improbable plots or operettas set in far-off locales and featuring stories involving milkmaids and princes. It was not uncommon for a star to have a contractual right to do his or her vaudeville schtick, such as playing the ukelele, at a particular time in the evening—a bit of business that would just have to be shoehorned into the plot.
But by the time of Hammerstein’s death forty years later, the Broadway musical was in the midst of its golden age, with such masterpieces as Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and West Side Story opening nearly every year.
At the beginning of his career Hammerstein wrote conventional musical comedies and operettas. His first big hit, Wildflower (1923), about an irascible woman who had to keep her temper under control for six months or lose an inheritance, ran over a year. Rose-Marie (1924), which ran even longer, was an operetta set in the Canadian Rockies.
Hammerstein later recalled that he had at first planned to write musicals until he had enough money and would then write straight plays to say what he thought important. But as he wrote more musicals, he began to tinker with the form, making the plot and the characters central to the play, using the songs, dancing, and theatrics to deepen and advance the story.
In 1927, he and Jerome Kern created Show Boat. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. With real characters and set in a genuine American past, it dealt with serious issues, such as racism and miscegenation. With its glorious score, it became an instant classic, and today, at the age of ninety-five, it is the oldest Broadway musical that can hold the boards in it own right, not just as a charming antique with great songs.
In 1927, Hammerstein and Jerome Kern created Show Boat.
Sixteen years later, in Hammerstein’s first collaboration with Richard Rodgers, came Oklahoma!, the most influential musical in Broadway history. No musical written after it, from frothy comedies such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to tragedies such as West Side Story, was unaffected by it. The next seventeen years on Broadway are remembered as the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, when the partners created such enduring masterpieces as Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I.
So it should be noted that Hammerstein’s importance for theater history is owing not so much to the 850 songs for which he wrote the lyrics—some, to be sure, among the greatest in the Great American Songbook. Rather it is owing to his work as a highly innovative playwright. As his protégé Stephen Sondheim wrote, “What few people understand is that Oscar’s big contribution to the theater was as a theoretician, as a Peter Brook, as an innovator. People don’t understand how experimental Show Boat and Oklahoma! felt at the time they were done.”
There have been a number of books on Hammerstein’s life and work, as well as on the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership, including a book of his complete lyrics, compiled by Amy Asch, and a well-received biography by Hugh Fordin, Getting to Know Him, published in 1977. Now we have The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II, a 1,054-page compendium of his vast correspondence.
Letters, of course, are primary source material, allowing the reader to experience the author directly without the intervention of a historian. And in reading these letters you will get to know Oscar Hammerstein’s personality and thought very well indeed, and your appreciation of him as a human being, as well as an artist, will only deepen.
Many of the letters deal with the business that is show business. Shows, after all, have to make money. In one letter from 1952, Hammerstein replies to a man who has complained, politely, about the seats he and his wife had at The King and I, on the extreme left side of the orchestra so that a part of the stage could not be seen. Hammerstein wrote, in a remarkably long letter,
I am sorry that you did not like your seats in the St. James Theatre on May 28th. After receiving your letter I paid a visit to the theatre and sat in your seats, and it is true that on the same side of the stage on which you sat, there are details that must have been missed. This, however, is true of every theater in New York. . . .
Mindful of this we, in directing plays, always move important scenes toward the center of the stage. . . . I know of no way out of this except to reduce the number of seats in all the theaters in New York, and there are practical objections to this because, as it is, our capacities are too small to meet rising costs. . . .
I will admit, of course, that the narrator of the ballet, who is the character Tuptim, is important, but here we have a severe stage management problem. The center of the stage must be cleared for the ballet, and the narrator must of necessity stay on the extreme end of the proscenium. In closing let me thank you for the kind and tolerant tone of your letter, although it contained a complaint, and a justified one.
How many people of Hammerstein’s importance—not to mention how busy he was—would have gone to that much trouble?
Many letters are thank-you notes to friends and often show Hammerstein’s playful side. When Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild, which had produced the first three Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, sent him a Christmas present in 1952 with a verse she had written attached, Hammerstein replied,
Thank you for your verses, Terry.
And in answer may I say
Two can write in rhythm merry.
Every doggerel has his day.
When Jack Goodman, an editor at Simon & Schuster, gave him a set of chess pieces, Hammerstein replied,
I surely look forward to taking you on—but without the confidence you assume I have. I started chess late in life, and my teacher was an eleven year old boy. It took me three years to be able to beat him, and now we play pretty even. (Of course, he is much older now, and something of a genius—I hope.)
Hammerstein’s hope was fully justified. The boy was Stephen Sondheim.
Hammerstein could be touchy, although usually with good humor, about receiving credit where credit was due. Like many book and lyric writers in musical theater, he felt that the composers sometimes got too big a share of the applause.
In 1944 he wrote to Abel Green, the editor of Variety, about the “Bests” of the season that the paper had selected that year. (The Tony Awards weren’t founded until 1947.) He noted that while there were bests for musical score and scene designing, there was not one for best lyrics. “I have noted this omission in the past two seasons,” he wrote,
and wondered about it. Last year I had a long meeting with myself and awarded me the prize and this year I gave it to Ogden Nash [who had written the lyrics for Lady in the Dark] but maybe I am biased and next year you [might] want to let the critics decide. Love and kisses. . . .
Hammerstein was pleasantly surprised by just how titanic a hit South Pacific became, probably the toughest ticket in the history of Broadway. In July 1949, three months after it opened, he wrote to Josh Logan, who directed the show and co-wrote the book, about having taken in the first act:
I don’t know whether [the play] has improved. I certainly feel that the audiences have. That night, during the act, the audience behaved like a large group of people who had all met somewhere else and said, “let’s go over to the Majestic Theatre and get drunk.” . . . When Mary [Martin] reappeared . . . there were definite whistles and it sounded more like a football game than a show. I am not sure but what, in some way, we have combined all man’s emotions into that play so that the reactions are somewhat like the combination of a big football game and a bull fight and grand opera and tragedy and comedy. The thrills of first love, fireworks on the Fourth of July and a soupçon of that exaltation which the Wright Brothers must have felt when their first mechanical kite left the ground. Now I’m drunk!
Hammerstein was a master of stagecraft, and he was not above offering unsolicited advice. Shortly after the 1949 opening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the show that made Carol Channing a star, he wrote to Herman Levin, the show’s producer:
I saw the show for the second time last week and enjoyed it very much, but there is one blot on it so easy to remove that I don’t understand why you haven’t done something about it. After Channing finishes “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” there is only one possible thing to follow it with—a blackout. If Helen Hayes, Ezio Pinza and whatever stars you can think of made an entrance following that number, nobody would listen to what they had to say.
He also kept careful watch on his own shows after they opened to see that they stayed up to the standards of opening night. In 1953, he wrote the stage manager of The King and I, noting, among other minor problems,
When Chulalongkorn [the crown prince] says “Siam not so small” it is impossible to hear the word “Siam” because he says “Siam” while everybody else is making a noise. If he will just wait one beat his line will come out. “Not so small” is not very interesting for the audience to hear. What they should hear is “Siam not so small!”
Hammerstein also knew talent when he saw it. In a letter to an old friend in 1953, he mentioned a young actress, writing, “She is one of the most talented girls we have come across in a long time, Barbara Cook. Do you know her?” Cook, possessed of a glorious soprano voice, achieved stardom in Plain and Fancy two years later and was Broadway’s leading ingénue for the rest of the decade, starring most notably as Marian the librarian in The Music Man.
In 1953 the state of Oklahoma made the title song of Oklahoma! the official state song, which it still is. The Tulsa Tribune warned its readers that the song was under copyright and permission was needed to sing it at public events. Hammerstein wrote to the editor to set the record straight, saying only when the song was made part of a dramatic performance was permission needed:
So tell your readers, . . . that not only may they play it and sing it anywhere and everywhere to their hearts’ content, but that we want them and urge them to do so. Songwriters write songs for people to sing and nothing makes them happier than to know that their song is being sung. Mr. Rodgers and I are very proud that our song has been adopted by your state. Play it and sing it loud and long and often!”
Oscar Hammerstein II was not only a towering figure in American theatrical history, he was also a thoroughly decent, caring human being. His letters—as he tends to his craft, writes to his loved ones, defends his copyrights, jokes with his friends, responds to people who had written plays they hoped he might produce (his opinions were not sugarcoated)—bring this remarkable man to vivid life as no mere biography could. They are nothing less than a joy, and a revelation, to read.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 2, on page 62
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