Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2167

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.

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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 next year with The New Moon, perhaps best remembered for the beautiful “Lover Come Back to Me” and the stirring “Stouthearted Men,” set to Sigmund Romberg’s music. Sweet Adeline, written to Jerome Kern’s score in 1929, was virtually a family affair, produced by uncle Arthur Hammerstein, directed by brother Reginald, and played at Hammerstein’s Theater, a vast neo-Gothic structure recently built by Arthur.

While Hammerstein was becoming increasingly successful, his marriage to Myra was falling apart. Despite the birth in 1921 of a second child, Alice, the couple lived more or less separate lives, largely because of Myra’s numerous affairs. She finally consented to a divorce in 1928. On May 13, 1929, Hammerstein married Dorothy Blanchard Jacobson, whom he had met en route to England. The new household at first consisted of Hammerstein, Dorothy, and her daughter Susan, who in 1950 would marry the actor Henry Fonda; Myra in time relinquished custody of Alice and Billy. Hammerstein disliked young children, but as they grew older he gave them stability and love, and they came to adore him. In March, 1931, a son, James, named for James Nimmo and James Blanchard, Dorothy’s father, was born.

Generally speaking, the 1930’s were comparatively unproductive years for Hammerstein. With the exception of Music in the Air (1932), a collaboration with Kern which produced the charming “I’ve Told Every Little Star,” he spent most of this decade writing films. Very Warm for May (1939), written with Kern, was a Broadway failure, remembered only for one hit song, “All the Things You Are.” His foray into English stage production turned out to be a mistake; his adaptation of a play staged at the Drury Lane Theater in London was a failure. Forsaking London, a rich Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract in hand, Hammerstein moved his family to Hollywood. The song “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” set to Romberg’s music, was one of his very few lasting contributions as a Hollywood writer.

It was, however, during this period that Hammerstein’s social conscience became manifest. Events in Germany convinced him of the evil of Nazism and, in 1936, he was one of the founders of the Hollywood League Against Nazism, becoming chairman of its cultural commission, which evolved the following year into an interracial commission. Throughout his life, he maintained an active interest in promoting understanding among persons of different races. His broad sympathies appear in Show Boat, in Carmen Jones (1942), in which he transplanted Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen (1875) to the American South and substituted American blacks for Spanish Gypsies, in South Pacific (1949), in which he wrote against racial prejudice, and in The King and I (1951), set in nineteenth century Siam.

The fall of Paris in 1940 saddened him, recalling scenes of the city as he had known it as a small boy traveling with his family, as an adolescent, and as an adult living there for a few months in 1925. Now he composed a love poem to the captive city, which became the much-loved song “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” which received the Motion Picture Academy Award after it was incorporated in the film Lady Be Good (1941). Kern wrote the music to Hammerstein’s lyrics, one of the first times that the words preceded the composition of the music. In commenting on this practice later, however, Hammerstein said it seemed to make little sense. It had always been the other way around: score, then lyrics. Setting words to music was an almost infallible formula, and, when Hammerstein joined forces once more with Richard Rodgers in 1943, it became their regular mode of work.

The lean years ended in 1942 when Hammerstein’s adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen, retitled Carmen Jones and played by an all-black cast, was greeted enthusiastically by New York critics. Variety commented that “Hammerstein is now at the peak of his career.” Little could the critic know what was to follow: in 1943, Oklahoma!, with 2,212 performances that year, a record that lasted for fifteen years; in 1945, Carousel, of which there were 890 performances; in 1945, the film State Fair; in 1947, Allegro, of which there were 315 performances; in 1951, The King and I, with 1,246 performances; in 1953, Me and Juliet; in 1955, Pipe Dream; in 1958, Flower Drum Song, of which there were 600 performances; and finally, in 1959, The Sound of Music, with 1,443 performances. The song “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair also won an Academy Award (1945). From the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration came five musicals which are considered classics: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

Hammerstein died of cancer at the age of sixty-five on August 23, 1960, at his home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In tribute to him the lights on Broadway were blacked out for one minute at 9:00 P.M. the night of September 1. As taps were sounded in Duffy Square, a crowd of five thousand stood with bowed heads.

Summary

Hammerstein’s contribution to the American musical theater is almost legendary. As early as 1932, his effort to transform the musical was recognized. In reviewing Music in the Air, Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, “At last the musical drama has been emancipated. . . . Without falling back into the cliches of the trade, Hammerstein has written sentiment and comedy that are tender and touching.” Hammerstein was creating a new art form, removed from the trivial albeit melodious light opera or operetta, cohesive in form, no longer a parade of disconnected songs and dances interspersed with comedy routines but peopled with characters an audience could care about, expressing a concern for human beings of all races and persuasions, often tender, both sad and happy and never tasteless. The Pulitzer Prize committee in 1944 gave a special citation to Rodgers and Hammerstein for Oklahoma!

Hammerstein was expert in adapting the writings of others to the new form: Show Boat from the novel of the same title, Oklahoma! from Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), Carousel from Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom (1909), South Pacific from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (1947), The King and I from Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (1944), and The Sound of Music from a German film about the von Trapp family.

Even his critics acknowledged that Hammerstein was a consummate craftsman. He labored over his writing, usually working in a standing position at a portable, “stand-up” writing desk. Hammerstein changed the course of the musical, its content and its form, turning it from the revue and chorus into the musical play. His lyrics dwelt on themes of racial tolerance, human dignity, joy, suffering, love, and the fraternity of all mankind. They were warm, charming, human, poetic, and quintessentially American.

Bibliography

Fordin, Hugh. Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II. New York: Random House, 1977. The best available account, based in large part on interviews with Hammerstein’s widow, Dorothy, and children, this biography also has an introduction by Hammerstein’s protégé, Stephen Sondheim.

Green, Stanley, ed. Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book: A Record of Their Works Together and with Other Collaborators. New York: Lynn Farnol Group, 1980. An invaluable compendium of facts, including casts of both Broadway and other companies, numbers of performances, and excerpts from reviews.

Hammerstein, Oscar, II. Lyrics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949. This volume contains only lyrics which the author wrote alone. It has besides a preface by Richard Rodgers a valuable autobiographical note on lyrics by Hammerstein.

Rodgers, Richard. Musical Stages: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1975. This autobiography of Hammerstein’s most successful collaborator contains some reminiscences of note.

Rodgers, Richard, and Oscar Hammerstein II. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Song Book: The Stories of the Principal Musical Plays and Commentary by Newman Levy. New York: Simon and Schuster and Williamson Music, 1958. The title almost speaks for itself; this book is a mine of source material.

Sheean, Vincent. Oscar Hammerstein I: The Life and Exploits of an Impresario. Preface by Oscar Hammerstein II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956. The life of the grandfather of Hammerstein II with a note by the grandson. Written by a noted author, the book has a special value from interviews with the niece of Hammerstein I.

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