Oscar Hammerstein II Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Working with such composers as Herbert Stothart, Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and especially Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein wrote books and lyrics which transformed the American musical into an integrated dramatic form and created a number of classics.

Early Life

Oscar Greeley Glendenning Hammerstein, named for his famous grandfather, Horace Greeley, and the minister who married his parents, was born in New York City on July 12, 1895, into a comfortable, middle-class environment. His father, William, was the son of the noted impresario Oscar Hammerstein and his first wife, Rose Blau. His mother, Alice Nimmo, was the daughter of Scottish immigrants, Janet and James Nimmo. Even though William Hammerstein managed the Victoria Theater, a leading vaudeville house, for his father, young Oscar saw very little of the flamboyant grandfather whose name he bore.

His interest in the theater began in 1902 when he made his debut in a Christmas entertainment at Public School No. 9; he began piano lessons at the age of nine. A happy childhood was marred by his mother’s death in 1910. In 1912, Hammerstein entered Columbia University to prepare for a law career in accordance with his father’s wishes. He joined the Pi Lamba Phi fraternity, played baseball, and maintained the grades he had always achieved. In 1914, his father died, but this bereavement did not affect him as deeply as the loss of his mother, to whom he had been devoted.

The following fall he joined the Columbia University Players, assuring his father’s brother Arthur that this involvement would be strictly extracurricular. That same year he made his acting debut as a song-and-dance comic in the annual Columbia University Varsity Show. In his fourth year, he dutifully enrolled in Columbia Law School, attaining his B.A. at the end of the year. In 1916, he met the then fourteen-year-old Richard Rodgers, who later described Hammerstein at this time as “a very tall, skinny fellow with a sweet smile, clear blue eyes and an unfortunately mottled complexion.”

Hammerstein’s involvement with the Columbia Players continued even after he left the university and law. The 1917 varsity show, Home James, was written by Hammerstein and Herman Axelrod, but the New York Herald reviewer singled out young Hammerstein for his acting ability. The year 1917 was truly momentous in Hammerstein’s life: He left law school, he was turned down by his draft board for being too thin, and he was able to persuade his uncle Arthur to give him employment as an assistant stagehand. In late summer, he married Myra Finn, and the following year their first child, William, was born. In 1919, he wrote two songs with Richard Rodgers for the Columbia Players and yet another in 1920. They were not to work together again for twenty-three years.

Life’s Work

Hammerstein’s career as a Broadway lyricist and librettist began, however, in 1920, when he wrote the book and lyrics for Always You (1920) to Herbert Stothart’s music. More important, that year marked the beginning of a collaboration with Otto Harbach, whom he described as “the best play analyst I have ever met . . . and [a] born teacher.” It was Harbach who taught him the importance of integrating all the elements of a show. Their musical, Tickle Me (1920), set to Stothart’s music, was soon followed by such shows as Daffy Dill (1922), Wildflower (1923), and MaryJane McKane (1923). Their 1924 show, Rose Marie, set to Rudolf Friml’s tuneful music, was in a number of ways a break from the standard musical comedy formula of the day: “song, cue, song, cue.” The songs now served to further the story, which even contained a murder, and the play ended with only two persons onstage instead of the usual assemblage of singers and dancers. It enjoyed a record-breaking run of one year, four months, and seven days. In 1925, Hammerstein and Harbach joined with composer Jerome Kern to create the first Hammerstein-Kern collaboration, Sunny (1925), which opened to good reviews. The following year, Hammerstein and Harbach wrote the lyrics to Sigmund Romberg’s Desert Song (1926). During these productive years, the Hammerstein-Harbach collaboration gave birth to a series of highly popular songs, including “Who?,” “The Desert Song,” “The Riff Song,” “One Alone,” and “The Indian Love Call.”

The Hammerstein-Kern collaboration attained its height in 1927 when they brought out Show Boat. Based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same title and set in the American South, it was the first really successful American musical play on a strictly American theme. The reviews were wildly enthusiastic, praising its “exceptionally tuneful score” and “gorgeous pictorial atmosphere.” Hammerstein had written a folk play with characters and dialogue true to life, social problems mixed with humor, and lyrics that advanced the story line. Considered by many to be his masterpiece, it featured such songs as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe,” “Why Do I Love You,” and notably “Ol Man River”—among the finest ever written for American musicals.

He followed it the...

(The entire section is 2167 words.)

Oscar Hammerstein II Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)
ph_0111206329-Hammerstein_O.jpg Oscar Hammerstein, II Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein was born into a theatrical family. The son of William and Alice (Nimmo) Hamerstein, his father managed Hamerstein’s Victoria Theatre, an important New York vaudeville house. An uncle, Arthur Hammerstein, was a theatrical producer. The young man, however, chose to drop his middle names and to name himself after his grandfather, afterward known as Oscar Hammerstein I, who built twelve theaters and idealistically tried to popularize opera in New York. While the grandfather eventually failed, the grandson was to revolutionize American musical theater.

His family discouraged his interest in the theater. Educated at Columbia University, Hammerstein obediently studied law, but he began contributing to Columbia varsity shows in 1915. Rejected for military service in World War I and bored with law, he convinced Arthur Hammerstein to find him work. Thus employed, he married Myra Finn in 1917; they had two children. (Divorced, he married Dorothy Blanchard Jacobson in 1929; they had one son.)

His first attempts at playwrighting failed. At that time, musical theater generally consisted of reviews, star vehicles, musical comedies, and operettas. Reviews were unrelated skits, songs, and acts. The typical musical comedy focused on music and spectacle, with attractive girls and, usually, a thin, almost irrelevant, plot. Operetta (light opera) featured sometimes improbable romances, often in exotic settings or among the upper classes. Hammerstein wanted to integrate serious plots into a coherent whole, in which the libretto or book dictated the nature of the music.

He first succeeded in 1927, when his collaboration with composer Jerome Kern created Show Boat, often described as the first integrated American musical. Its plot and songs illumined character, and Hammerstein’s libretto dealt with serious themes, including racial relations, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, and the abandonment of a wife and child.

Following Show Boat, Hammerstein’s work met with little success until he collaborated with Richard Rodgers to create Oklahoma! That production was the idea of Theresa Heilburn of the Theatre Guild, which was near bankruptcy when she suggested that Green Grow the Lilacs, a...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Oscar Hammerstein II Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Citron, Stephen. The Wordsmiths: Oscar Hammerstein 2nd and Alan Jay Lerner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Citron presents a thorough analysis of lives and works in arguing that Hammerstein and Lerner were the most influential forces in American musical theater.

Fordin, Hugh. Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II. New York: Da Capa, 1995. This biography makes extensive use of family archives and recollections.

Green, Stanley, ed. Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book: A Record of Their Works Together and with Other Collaborators. New York: Lynn Farnol, 1980. Green offers...

(The entire section is 131 words.)