Oscar Hammerstein II

Oscar Hammerstein II

Like many people, I developed a love of musical theater by listening to my parents’ collection of original Broadway cast albums—My Fair LadyThe Music ManGuys and Dolls, and dozens of others.

In our house, the gold standard was music written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II: Oklahoma!CarouselSouth PacificFlower Drum SongThe King and IThe Sound of Music. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve explored these and other shows by reading the recently published book, The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II.   

The letters reminded me that Hammerstein was arguably the inventor of modern musical theater, when he wrote the book and lyrics for two groundbreaking musicals, Show Boat (with Jerome Kern) and Oklahoma! (with Richard Rodgers). These shows, rather than simply stringing songs together, used them to augment and enrich dramas, making use of appealing characters and important themes. Notably, Hammerstein always referred to his works as plays, not musicals.    

Oscar Hammerstein was one of our greatest songwriters, but because he wrote only the words, his efforts weren’t always recognized. Once at a party, a man was praising Jerome Kern for writing “Ol’ Man River.” Hammerstein’s wife Dorothy responded, “Jerome Kern wrote, ‘Dum, dum, dum-dum.’ My husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.”

Hammerstein’s qualities don’t always play well these days: simplicity, sincerity, bigheartedness, plainspokenness, honesty. Modern critics much prefer the great musicals by Stephen Sondheim, which deal in irony and alienation. But Sondheim, a close friend of Hammerstein’s son, loved Oscar and in fact was mentored by him.   

In reading the book, I was struck by the difference between a biography and a collection of letters. In a biography, the events are woven into a narrative that sometimes reveals as much about the author as about the person depicted. But in letters, there’s no narrator or interpreter between us and the subject. Instead, we are looking over the shoulder of a person as he or she goes about living, unaware that someone is watching.     

Letters, by their nature,  can be alternately fascinating and boring, and it's certainly true of these. In addition, though, since they were penned by a wonderful writer and great person, they are thrilling.


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