Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical

Image of Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical
Release Date: 
January 31, 2023
Yale University Press
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Does the world need another book on Oscar Hammerstein II? Hugh Fordin’s Getting to Know Him is a solid biography. Oxford University Press has recently published an 1100-page collection of Hammerstein’s letters. In addition, there are good books on the collaboration of Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers and an excellent portrait of Oscar Hammerstein, I, his sons and his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, written by his grandson, Oscar Andrew Hammerstein.

Moreover, there has been a critical reappraisal of Hammerstein, whose attitudes on race and gender no longer seem enlightened, nor do his often corny lyrics rank with those of his protégé Stephen Sondheim or his peers Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, or Yip Harburg. It is no surprise that Laurie Winer’s biography of the lyricist and librettist begins with a defense of her subject. Acknowledging the recent criticism of Hammerstein, she asserts that he is musical theater’s idealist (as opposed to cynics like Stephen Sondheim) who raised the musical to a spiritual plane, “carrying audiences to blissful absolution before sending them out into the night feeling reconnected to their own imperfect world.” This is quite a claim! Winer spends a few pages of her introduction comparing Hammerstein to American philosopher William James. Like many writers before her, Winer claims that Hammerstein is the creator of the character- and story-driven musical. That claim has also been questioned.

Winer’s book is more biography than analysis of Hammerstein’s work. The lyricist was born into a theatrical family. His grandfather and namesake, Oscar Hammerstein, was a theatrical and operatic impresario who had great ambition but wasn’t very good at making money. Oscar II’s father, Arthur Hammerstein, ran one of New York’s major vaudeville houses until he was bought out by the Keith-Albee circuit. Arthur did all he could to keep his son out of theater. He insisted that his son study law at Columbia and get a job as a lawyer. When he relented and took his son into his production office, he insisted that the young man work there a year before he followed his ambition as a playwright. When the year was up, Arthur teamed his son with Otto Harbach, a lyricist and book writer who was determined to turn the musical, then an incoherent mixture of song and comedy whose dialogue only existed to lead from one number to another, into a more integrated mixture of song and drama. Some scholars now see Harbach as the real revolutionary who taught young Oscar how to construct a coherent musical book.

Young Hammerstein had no success as a playwright, but made his first fortune co-writing with Harbach and a variety of composers the book and lyrics for the operettas that were popular in the mid-1920s—works like Rose Marie and The Desert Song. His breakthrough came when composer Jerome Kern and impresario Florenz Ziegfeld hired him to write the book and lyrics for Show Boat (1927), the first truly serious American musical. Winer explains how Ziegfeld was sure the work was going to be a flop (not enough gags and girls), and kept demanding cuts and changes. The first out-of-town tryout lasted five hours. Winer foregrounds the racial politics of the original stage version of Show Boat and the 1936 film. While Hammerstein and Kern made Black characters an integral part of the narrative, the Black man is presented as stereotypically lazy and shiftless.

After Show Boat, Hammerstein had 15 dark years of failures on Broadway and in Hollywood. He wrote some great songs with Jerome Kern, which provided a steady stream of royalties, but none of their musicals was a success. He challenged racial boundaries with Carmen Jones, his all-Black version of Bizet’s classic opera.

The bulk of the book is devoted to Hammerstein’s collaborations with Richard Rodgers. Winer highlights what a gamble Oklahoma! was. The musical was an adaptation of an unsuccessful play (Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs), produced by the Theatre Guild, which was trying to recover from 16 box office failures, with book and lyrics by a man who had not had a hit in 16 years. Only Richard Rodgers was a success at the time. Still, the show became the longest-running musical up to that time.

After their next hit, Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to become their own producers as well as producers of hits by others like Annie Get Your Gun. Winer shows how the partners fiercely, sometimes ruthlessly, held on to copyrights of their material in order to make as much money from their work as possible. Rodgers and Hammerstein became a successful business as well as iconic cultural figures. In the 1950s, they moved into television, becoming the personifications of classy popular entertainment. The hit film adaptations of their work that were produced in the 1950s and the enormously successful television special Cinderella, only solidified their reputation as the personifications of the Broadway musical.

At the same time, their theatrical fortunes had dipped. Winer tries to explain why a number of their musicals (Allegro, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song), did not match the success of their other creations. In fact, the failure of these shows can be credited to the weak books Hammerstein wrote for them. Their last hit, The Sound of Music, had a book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse. Hammerstein penned only the lyrics.

Winer spends a lot of time on Hammerstein’s two marriages. While Rodgers was a serial womanizer, Hammerstein was chosen by Time magazine to be father of the year, though his children found him remote. In the 1950s he had an affair with a chorus girl. While Winer discusses Hammerstein’s mentorship of Stephen Sondheim, who became and remains the most respected composer-lyricist, she is hard on Sondheim personally, as if she has to denigrate Hammerstein’s protégé in order to maintain her subject’s prominence.

A lot of the new material in Winer’s biography comes from Hammerstein’s papers in the Library of Congress and interviews with Mary Rodgers and Sondheim. Much of this material has since been published in the letters and Mary Rodgers’ autobiography. Winer has researched her subject thoroughly, but this is not the first book one should turn to for a comprehensive study of Hammerstein’s life and work.