Oscar Hammerstein II Biography

Biography

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...

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