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...
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