Oscar Hammerstein II

We recently published an article on the incredible legacy of Richard Rodgers, who was arguably the most influential composer in Broadway history, and thus one of the most important composers in the history of American Popular Song. We’ve been remiss in letting so much time pass before addressing one of Rodgers’ well-known collaborators, the great Oscar Hammerstein II. So here goes…

While the question of “most influential composer in Broadway history” is certainly subject to debate, if we turn the question to lyricist, it is much easier to answer — or at least much less debatable. When all is considered, including impact on the art, lasting popularity and memorability of lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein II stands alone at the top of Broadway lyricists. Were you to generate a list of the most beloved songs in the history of American Musical Theatre, one in ten would have lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

The most obvious trait of Hammerstein II lyrics is that rather than provide mere musical diversion or reinforcement of the story line, they overwhelmingly added to the story line. In the case of a song like “Do-Re-Mi,” the story simply continues through the lyrics, never missing a beat. But as Hammerstein II said so well in those lyrics, “let’s start at the very beginning…”

Born into a showbusiness family, young Oscar was generally discouraged from joining the family business. Grandfather Oscar Hammerstein I was a theatre impresario. Father William Hammerstein was a vaudevillian; legend has it he originated the classic “pie in the face” routine. In any case, Oscar II was encouraged to find a more prestigious career and was sent to Columbia University to study law. Fortunately for American Theatre, Columbia had its own campus theatre group, which Oscar naturally gravitated to. Dropping out of college to pursue a career in theatre, Hammerstein II settled into an apprenticeship with and eventually collaborated with the great Otto Harbach. Harbach was a master of the operetta, which is important in understanding why Hammerstein II’s lyrics were so effective in storytelling.

In writing for Harbach’s operettas, Hammerstein II created not only the lyrics but also the “book.” Together this is known as the libretto, which literally means “little book,” and refers to everything that is the story: Song lyrics and spoken word. It was nothing new or unusual for a lyricist to be a librettist, but there are few in history who excelled at both “lyrics” and “book.” Hammerstein II propelled meaning into the lyrics he wrote for Harbach’s operettas, and he did the same when he tried his hand at musical theatre in 1921. Hammerstein II’s first Broadway production was Always You, with music by Harbach. Key to Hammerstein II’s success was the influence of Otto Harbach, who was himself an accomplished librettist. Hammerstein II and Harbach worked together on lyrics and book with Jerome Kern in the mid 1920s, which led to a Kern/Hammerstein II collaboration that would change the world of musical theatre.

Show Boat debuted in 1927 and was the first Broadway production to really — really — weave a story. Prior to this, American Musical Theatre had largely been the domain of songs loosely strung together with dialogue that provided a sort-of story line, thematic more than anything else. As Kern and Hammerstein II were working on Showboat, Oscar decided he needed another song to close out the first scene. He suggested that Kern use the melodic theme from the first number (“Cotton Blossom”) but to change it around and slow it down a bit. Hammerstein II then decided to use the Mississippi River to tell part of the story, and came up with “Ol’ Man River,” which to this day will spellbind an audience. At this point it should be noted that we do not mean to diminish Kern’s role in this song; the rolling tempo changes convey the relentless motion of the river and complement the lyrics perfectly. It is simply an incredible song.

Scene II opens with “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” which is integral in telling the story of one of the character’s mixed origins. Hot on the heels of “Ol’ Man River,” one almost wonders how many breakthrough songs an audience could handle in 1927. Critics quickly realized that this was new ground.

“Ol’ Man River” became such an integral part of Americana that it took but just one generation for it to be mistaken as an old “negro spiritual,” or perhaps something from the Stephen Foster era. Its influence was simply that profound.

Through the years Hammerstein’s lyrics for Show Boat have taken a rap for being racially offensive and demeaning to blacks. Hammerstein had a knack for painting a picture of life, warts and all. If anything, the meaning and depth he provided for African-Americans on stage broke new ground, providing a showcase for talent that was previously limited. This “political correctness” dates so far back, and the lyrics have been changed for so long that few people are aware that the “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man” we know differ slightly from the originals. Of course, the original lyrics — even when interpreted as racially slanted — are quite tame compared to some of the unspeakable lyrics found in today’s “rap music.” Hammerstein II, who incidentally wrote the widely lauded and acclaimed Carmen Jones — a Carmen for black performance — may have written work that was sensitive, perhaps even alarming, but should not be judged as racially offensive. Some of his characterizations in Oklahoma and other shows could be construed as equally alarming, but for the fact that caucasion caricatures don’t usually trip any political correctness alarms.

Back to our story.

A few more notable musicals followed from Kern and Hammerstein II, the last of which was Very Warm for May in 1939. Kern suffered a heart attack shortly afterward, and was ordered by his doctors to tone down his work schedule. Having worked in the less stressful atmosphere of Hollywood, Kern returned to motion pictures, effectively ending his collaborative efforts with both Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach.

At the time, the Kern & Hammerstein combination was a Broadway brand, carrying as much weight as any duo including the venerable Rodgers & Hart. Richard Rodgers had hit a bit of a bump in the early 1940s. Faced with Lorenz Hart’s declining health due to alcoholism, Rodgers turned to a friend of Hart’s, Oscar Hammerstein II, to work on his next production.

What Kern and Hammerstein had started in 1927 with Show Boat, Hammerstein perfected with Rodgers on their first show together, called Oklahoma. The show was a runaway hit, combining musical numbers, story and song in a roller-coaster ride of entertainment and escape from a war-torn world. Hammerstein II had redefined the musical in 1927, and had done it again. Oklahoma set the tone for Broadway musicals for the next half-century. (We’re sorry to say that as of 2008 the Broadway musical is being redefined as a sort of multi-sensory experience springboarding on late-model Disney cartoons. Today’s “Ol’ Man River” is “Hakunah Matata.”)

After Oklahoma, Lorenz Hart’s physical and emotional health was in a dreadful state, so Richard Rodgers agreed to resume their partnership. Rodgers and Hammerstein was put on hold while the original duo worked on a revival of A Connecticut Yankee. This new effort resulted in the pair’s last great number for the American Songbook: “To Keep My Love Alive.” Hart died five days after the show opened, and Rodgers and Hammerstein resumed their newfound partnership. Although Oklahoma would be impossibly hard to follow, their next effort was the immensely successful Carousel. This show delivered the incredibly powerful “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which would have to be on anybody’s short list of “standards.”

Carousel was followed by a film, State Fair, which yielded the hit “It Might As Well Be Spring,” which vocalist Dick Haymes took to #5 on the charts and landed Rodgers and Hammerstein an Academy Award for Best Original Song. (To date, Oscar Hammerstein II is the only person named “Oscar” to win an “Oscar.”) 1949 saw the debut of South Pacific, and we could thus go on and on with the roster of important songs. Our purpose in this brief essay was not so much to provide a refresher course on Oscar Hammerstein II’s work; that’s hardly needed. Our purpose was to establish him as the foremost librettist in the history of American Musical Theatre, and by now you should have no doubt about that. If you do, we’ll have to raise the ante with The King and I and of course, The Sound of Music.

As mentioned previously, “Ol’ Man River” and to a lesser extent, “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man” would come to be regarded as “traditionals.” They sounded so much like 19th century “negro” songs or spirituals that even some public school music teachers thought they were traditional songs. Ongoing recognition of Show Boat and the information age have lessened this to some extent. In a similar vein, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” would eventually be sung across America as church hymn! But it was another Hammerstein II lyric that has created the most musical confusion in the past 50 years, and fittingly enough, it was the final song he would write with Richard Rodgers before succumbing to stomach cancer.

“Edelweiss” was to be a brief, sad song, intended by Hammerstein to paint a picture of Captain Von Trapp yearning for the Austria he knew in his youth — before the Nazi Anschluss. Rodgers’ melody was flawless, as were Hammerstein’s lyric. Too perfect, in fact. After the overwhelming success of the film version of The Sound of Music, persons of Austrian, Swiss, and oddly enough, German heritage soon began to “recall” this song from their youth! And why not, it hearkens to a simple time, alpine scenes, innocence. And the line, “Bless my homeland forever” does nothing to dispel the confusion. Fifty years later it is routinely performed at German-American dinners and festivals as a rousing anthem. Elderly folk are often brought to tears during these sing-alongs, never mind the fact that the words were written by Hammerstein, probably in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In discussions of the Great American Songbook, people will argue that “Edelweiss” doesn’t belong, as it is an “Austrian” song!

And that, folks, shows the amazing power Oscar Hammerstein II had when he took pen in hand.