How Oscar Hammerstein Remade the American Musical

Having fit, or tried to, just about the whole history of English rhyme into a recent essay, I nonetheless left out a section about perhaps the most influential of all American rhymesters—who, ironically, had no particular gift or even interest in sound or in language for its own shimmering sake, and who basically hid his rhyme away. I refer to the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein, the author of “South Pacific” and “The King and I” and so many other musicals, who is now the subject of a just published, and fascinating, collection of letters, “The Letters Of Oscar Hammerstein II,” edited by Mark Eden Horowitz, from Oxford University Press. (He was always the second, named after his grandfather, who, like most of his family, was a major figure in theatre, very much the family trade.)

Of all the great makers of the American song, none has undergone so drastic a change in educated—O.K., call it “élite”—opinion in the past twenty years as Hammerstein. The collaborator on “The Sound of Music”—the movie version of which was dismissed as mere “gigantic sniffles” by our own Pauline Kael—had been a figure to condescend to, the postwar suburban bard of ersatz Americana. In Wilfrid Sheed’s “The House That George Built,” his delightful amateur history of American song, the moment in the early nineteen-forties when the composer Richard Rodgers escapes from the dissolute and inspired lyricist Larry Hart to join up with the starchier Hammerstein, to collaborate on “Oklahoma!,” is the postwar settlement in a nutshell, all greeting-card sentiments and phony mythmaking. Alec Wilder’s epoch-marking and groundbreaking 1972 book, “American Popular Song: The Great Innovators,” treated the early Rodgers worshipfully, and post-Hart Rodgers disdainfully—Wilder hated the “South Pacific” song “Some Enchanted Evening” (“pale and pompous and bland”), and although he didn’t directly blame Hammerstein for the badness you could hardly miss the point.

But then both Wilder and Sheed were invested in American song because of its jazz affinities, invested in the “swinging” interpretations of a Mabel Mercer or a Peggy Lee or a Frank Sinatra, far more than in the original cast recordings. (Almost the only one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs to become a popular jazz standard was “My Favorite Things,” which was not so much swung as swept away in John Coltrane’s imagination.) In fact, the lovers of popular song tend to break into two schools without quite knowing it: a school of Hart, which loves theatre music for the songs that it makes and wants them swung, or at least illuminated; and a school of Hammerstein, which loves theatre music for its theatricality and is almost proud to sacrifice songfulness, let alone swing, for the sake of character and story. (Rodgers, the greatest genius of the musical theatre, pivots between these two kinds.)

In the years since Sheed and Wilder wrote, two things have altered in the theatre world. First, there have been many startlingly successful revivals of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, which may have dated in attitude but haven’t dated onstage: “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” and “Oklahoma!” all still live in ways that none of the Rodgers and Hart musicals quite do (“On Your Toes” somewhat and “Pal Joey” significantly excepted). The Hammerstein shows need “updating”—the famous slap-from-beyond-the-grave in “Carousel” reads very differently now than it did then—but that’s not the same as needing wholesale rewriting or being outright rejected. In fact, of all the great shows of the period from 1940 to 1965, when Broadway was still the place where hit songs came from, Hammerstein’s are perhaps the only shows that do reliably work in revival, and, though Rodgers was the genius of the pair, that the shows live on is Hammerstein’s doing. (Other great shows, as recent productions of “West Side Story” and “The Music Man” have shown, are harder to revive, more dependent on original circumstances and the original cast than one might have hoped.)

There is a central truth of American theatrical history—that, after “Show Boat,” Hammerstein’s integrated song-dance-and-story musical, which was written with Jerome Kern and opened in 1927, there had been a long desert of “sung through” shows, with Broadway dominated by revues and lighter productions. These kinds of shows produced so many great and swinging and American songs that it is hard to regret them, but they were, as attempts to revive them reveal, stuck together with tape and glue and glamour, rather more like variety shows on nineteen-sixties television than like achieved plays. Rodgers, turning to Hammerstein, was anticipating with his genius the demands of an audience, in mid-war, who needed something reassuringly “American.” “Oklahoma!”—the title arrived at the last moment, as good titles sometimes do—was both a completely reactionary, backward-looking show and a forward-looking one, which remains, in its integrated storytelling and dark turns, the template of nearly every successful musical since.

The other reason for the uplift of Hammerstein’s reputation is more serendipitous; as the mentor of Stephen Sondheim, whom he more or less adopted—taking him in as a lonely schoolboy and tutoring him in the art of musical-making—Hammerstein escaped Sondheim’s often ferocious strictures on other lyric writers, and, more important, left his imprint on Sondheim’s work, one that was much stronger than the superficial differences between the two artists might have made it seem. Though the younger was lexically rich and sarcastic and city-bound, while the older was given to pseudo-rural hymns to edelweiss and bluebirds, they shared a belief in the unified sung-through show, where all was sacrificed to scene and story, even if the musical touched the precarious edge of operetta. They also shared a faith in a certain kind of occasionally bromidic moral uplift: “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (from “The Sound of Music”) and “No One Is Alone” (from “Into the Woods”) are sister spirituals. The deserved scale of Sondheim’s reputation has produced at times something of a Sondheim cult, of a kind he never wanted—a breath of critical appraisal of his work, of the sort that Sondheim, that most cheerfully opinionated of men, savored in person, can cause undue alarm among his acolytes. This worked to Hammerstein’s advantage: challenge the father and you insult the son.

Yet Sondheim’s own bon mot still resonates: Hammerstein was a man of limited talent and unlimited soul; Rodgers a man of unlimited talent and limited soul. Limited and artisanal as Hammerstein’s talent may have been, what the collected letters reveal is what letters of any great artisan of any kind always reveal: that what seems like serendipity is the result of relentless work. Everything in a craftsman’s life is always earned. Hammerstein worked ridiculously hard to make shows work—the songs were secondary to them. Page after page in his letters is devoted to the inner mechanics of theatricality, with surprisingly few words devoted to the songs that one might think would superintend them. This is in part, an observer effect: the work that he did with Rodgers on the music and lyrics wasn’t accomplished in letters, so there is very little trace of it. But this is also partly a track of where Hammerstein’s passion lay. There is, for instance, a letter from Hammerstein asking Rodgers, apropos a number from “Cinderella,” if it is musically grammatical to start in the minor key and then go to its relative major—a practice frequent enough in Rodgers’s writing (cf. “My Funny Valentine,” from the Hart collaboration “Babes in Arms,” or the soon to be written “My Favorite Things”; for that matter, the great Kern and Hammerstein “All the Things You Are” is of the same kind) that not knowing this seems weirdly untuned, coming from his partner. But that wasn’t where Hammerstein lived.

In his letters, Hammerstein emerges as just as limited an artist as one had thought but far more interesting a man of the theatre than one had grasped. He understood play structure, play creation, and playmaking with near absolute authority, even if his prose is as plodgy as his lyrics can be. Hammerstein never discusses a song except in the context of the success of the show, and he obsesses over details of story construction. He writes a long letter to the producer of “State Fair,” after the movie had already been cut, begging him to make necessary trims and additions to enrich the story, which he fears “degenerates into musical comedy”—the worst thing he can say. (Of course, they mostly ignored the advice.) He writes to the producer Herman Levin about Levin’s show “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” in 1950, urging him to insert a blackout after Carol Channing sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”: “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. . . . Believe me, Herman, the show falls from one of its highest peaks to one of the lowest valleys in the space of a split second.” He is much more opinionated, and far firmer in his verdicts, than one had known or anticipated. Of the work done in Boston on “Carousel,” he itemizes crisply, “We injected more of Billy and Julie into Act One. We shortened and dove-tailed Act Two, integrated the ballet, and entirely changed our conception of God. In fact, we cut Him and Her out of the play and put in a little old man who is a keeper of Heaven’s back door—a sort of service entrance St. Peter who speaks New England dialect.” Cutting God out of the book in Boston must be one of the greatest of all out-of-town trims—but he’s right, and, though people have criticized it since, the change worked: the Starkeeper we have in “Carousel” may be corny; the Mr. and Mrs. God we lost would have been kitsch.

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