This winter, DC fell in love again with three Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, starting with the critically acclaimed and SOLD OUT production of Oklahoma! at Arena Stage, The National Tour of South Pacific which dropped anchor at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House, and Cinderella which is still entertaining young theatregoers and their families at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, MD.
I asked Oscar Andrew Hammerstein III (‘Andy’) – grandson of the beloved librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and author of “The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family” – to chime in on the continued popularity of his grandfather’s shows, and memories of growing up in his famous showbiz family.
Joel: You saw Arena Stage’s production of Oklahoma!. Your impression?
Andy: The Arena approach to the dream sequence was illuminating: Laurey was not the object of the fight but the cause of it, responsible for its genesis and its outcome. I liked that a lot. Here, she had to own up – in her dream – to her casually cruel decision…. that was an improvement…
After the show you met with members of the cast. What did you talk about?
I talked with Aaron Ramey who played Jud about all the ways to play Ado Annie. I also shared with him my view that theatre-in-the-round really brings the audience inside the show because the characters can’t play to the fourth wall when all the walls are fourth walls.
Why is Oklahoma! such a unique musical?
The unique distinction of Oklahoma! begins with its first note: It starts off almost quietly, off-stage. My father, a director of the first water, used to say that if you want people to pay attention – whisper! We, the audience, crane forward. We are not witnessing the mindless energy of high-kicking chorines on display – cuing us that we are in for a night of fast-paced legs and laughs, a drink in the middle and a cab home at the end. No sir. The authors are signifying! They are saying nothing less than “shut up and sit down! We are telling a story here!” And they are. From that first note the song puts character and destiny into motion. Here’s the deal: when the authors signify this, they are stating that they are taking seriously what they are doing. The audience follows suit. Their emotional remove has been lessened. They are “in it” with the authors and the characters on the stage. That’s theatre as magic – pure and simple.
Add to this: Oscar wrote the lyrics first. Very important. Rodgers had always written the songs first; his job had always been – write a catchy tune – find Larry [Hart]! Now he was working with a storyteller who revered the source material. In place of the catchy detachable tune, Rodgers now wrote to the story. It unlocked a level of creativity Rodgers probably didn’t know he had – but he had it in spades. He is hands down THE best composer for the musical stage. Oscar freed Dick to be a creative interpreter – an artist! The result was soaring. Here, I fundamentally disagree with Mary Rodgers: If you want another standard catalogue cabaret song, hire Rodgers & Hart. If you want transcendence, hire Rodgers & Hammerstein.
And then there’s Agnes [de Mille]. The apocryphal line attributed to her upon seeing the run-throughs was “Where’s the sex?” She brought in the sinister, Freudian subtext – the marry-the-doctor-but-fuck-the-porno-biker element that – let’s face it – resonates (!) Her dances illuminated the interior mental state of Laurey and brought the psychological gravitas of love and death to a simple box lunch love triangle. That was new. (Balanchine’s “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” was NOT her precedent – that was the precedent for the Jets and the Sharks – snap snap…)
There is talk about transferring Arena Stage’s Oklahoma! to New York. Is Broadway ready for another production of Oklahoma! this season, and why do you think this production could be successful, when a recent Broadway revival was not? I think the best theatre to move the show to is The Circle in the Square which is similar to the Fichandler Theatre where the Arena Stage was staged.
No. You are quite right. A young, fresh-faced, in-the-round “alt” production coming in under the radar might hit the spot. Go for the lower expectation and surpass it!
What about Cinderella?
I haven’t seen Toby’s DC Cinderella and can’t comment on it. I haven’t really much to say on the subject of Cinderella. It was not nearly as groundbreaking as R&H’s earlier efforts and sort of gave Oscar a chance to get all operatically, happy-ever-after-ly retro. It might be a sad comment to admit that towards the end of Oscar’s career, (the late 50s,) he was more suitable for grandma and the kiddies. Cinderella was originally a panto, after all. No sex, no death, just PG-13 love triumphant…
The National Tour of the Broadway revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center, which swept the Tony Awards in 2008, has drawn raves here. Why do you think NYC producers were so leery about producing a revival of South Pacific for five decades – before Bart Sher directed the Lincoln Theatre production?
It was hard to erase the memories of Mary [Martin] and Ezio [Pinza] from the collective theatrical unconscious. They were great, they owned it, but the way they owned it made it seem old-fashioned. Bart was able to get them out of the way and see it with fresh eyes. I also believe – like Oklahoma! and Carousel in their original incarnations – that this recent production of South Pacific resonates with today’s audience that has a war going on in the back of its collective mind and heart.
I interviewed David Pittsinger who is playing Emile de Becque in The National Tour, and was mesmerized by his beautiful singing of the role. Any idea why, before David, Latin men were always cast as the Frenchman Emile de Becque?
A touch of the Hidalgo, as Bertie might say…
You are a painter and a writer. Fortunately for us all, you have written the story of your family “The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family”, which DCTS columnist Brad Hathaway called, “a delightfully entertaining read and a source of solid information on the careers and personalities of the two Oscars and of Willie and Arthur who also made contributions to the history of the American theatre”. What did you learn about your grandfather, and great-grandfather, great-uncle and great-great-grandfather that you didn’t know before you wrote the book?
Oscar 2: I came to admire his creative courage and to understand his creative limitations. At his best he let the story drive the whole creative process. Oklahoma! and Carousel are as good as they are different from each other. Even Allegro showed immense courage for a boy-meets-girl writer of the oper-ettic mold. His lyrics, at their best, betray no hint of their author – Oscar completely disappears in a song like “Ol’ Man River”. At his worst he was preachy. He was uncomfortable with moral grays.
Pipe Dream soured because he couldn’t bring himself to write for the characters that were in front of him. He was a workaholic who preferred his emotional life to be confined to the stage. He feared emotional complications in real life. He couldn’t drive, was all thumbs and was truly awkward around small children. The moral conviction in his plays sprang organically from him – those were his convictions. Dare I say: The Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution was, in truth, the Hammerstein revolution.
Willy: Oscar the 2nd inherited his moral backbone from his father, Willy, whose life was the perfect example of a person succeeding beyond wildest dreams in a role to which he was ENTIRELY miscast. To his dying day, he thought what he did for a living was disreputable and mildly repugnant – yet he was absolutely brilliant at it.
Arthur: Oscar 2 owes his career to Arthur. Arthur backed Oscar’s first mostly awful decade, got truly screwed out of producing Show Boat, forgave Oscar, instilled in him the essence of theatrical optimism – “Don’t think about the last show, think about the next show!” Arthur produced in the day when a producer was a gambler who assembled teams and stepped back to watch the result. He was unable to change with the times, when producers branded their personal stamp a la Ziggy. (It would be R&H that would, later, shift that power from the producers to the creators themselves.)
Oscar 1: Oscar was often described as enigmatic – a word only used by lazy biographers. I made it my primary mission with this book to illuminate his character. I am not revealing a misunderstood man. He could be, and often was, a compete bastard. But he was the spark for the flame to follow.
The Hammersteins were Jewish German immigrants who built theatres, and were music impresarios. In the struggle to begin a family here, why was the risky business of music so important to them?
I have this theory about why so many post-Ottoman Empire (proto-German) Jews got into opera. First, you have to follow this logic: there are two kinds of opera lovers. (Not really – but go with me here.) The first follows the plot, is moved by the complications, feels emotional release at the climax, in short, hears with his head! The second hears the humanity in the voice itself, hears with the heart. Judaism is likewise a twin-pronged religion. If the Rabbi don’t get ya, then the cantor will! Story and Song!
My father was a Cantor and I agree with you on this one!
Oscar 1 came out of that little secular bubble that had been created in Germany-to-be in the 1850s – Jews could school with, and work with, non-Jews, provided they lost all the trappings. (Intermarriage? Not so much!) After a dozen centuries of getting pissed on, or worse, many a Jew jumped at the offer. Thus, Oscar’s family thought of themselves as proud Germans first, Jews second. (From this post or para-Judaic lineage was begat the Secular Humanists and the Ethical Culturists we have today.) Anyway… opera provided the moral-narrative-as-songshpiel – that Judaism once provided. Opera replaced Judaism as the official religion of many a passionate German Jew.
Sidebar: I was tasked to write 30,000 words for this illustrated history book. (I wrote 50,000.) I submitted my first draft of the first of twenty chapters – all this German Jewish stuff before Oscar even set foot on our shores – and it ran to 19,000 words. My publisher nixed it and told me to start with Oscar’s boot on American soil, alas!
You have said that the theatre business was so heartbreaking for his family that Oscar II promised his father he would not pursue a career in theatre. Tell us about that and about what happened.
Opera came before family ties, for the “old man” Oscar the first basically sold his son Willy’s rights (to an exclusivity deal with those vile vaude monopolists Keith & Albee) out from under him. It crippled the booking advantage the Victoria Vaudeville house had enjoyed for over a decade and it figuratively and literally killed Willy. He didn’t really like ‘the biz’ to begin with, but he liked being a sacrificed pawn in Oscar’s opera game even less. Put another way, had Willy lived and Arthur died, Oscar the 2nd probably would have ended up on the Supreme Court.
Of the Manhattan Opera House which Oscar I built on 34th Street in 1892, your book refers to Oscar’s ‘patented design depicting something of a modest prototype for today’s ubiquitous cantilevered balcony’ and there is even a diagram. What was it was that was patentable about the design?
Have you ever been to the Academy of Music in Philly? That’s what opera houses were like before this patent. It was an attempt to thrust at least some of the weight of the balcony forward and to recess those annoyingly necessary, load-bearing columns.
I have been there several times so I know what you mean. I’m interested in one specific story that I’ve heard is in your book – the story of Will Rogers walking his horse up the back stairs of the Victoria Theatre each night after his performance. Is that really true, or was it the invention of a publicist of the day?
Oscar had a working farm on the roof of the Victoria Theatre – with a stable. Where better to put your horse if you were booked for 6 summer weeks at a stretch doing lasso tricks and your horse was a part of the act? It sure beats walking him up and down the stairs every day or trying to shove him into on of the two 1898 Otis elevators…this tidbit didn’t come out of the publicity department.
In your recent interview with Diane Rehm on WAMU, you mentioned that your grandfather held deeply liberal views, which caused the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, to build an extensive file on him. Why did they track him so extensively?
He may have been the single biggest checkbook in opposition to Hoover’s efforts. His FBI file, which I obtained via a FOIA request, cites 19 organizations he generously supported that Hoover rather expansively described as Communist fronts or teeming with sympathizers. Moreover he was vocal in opposition to Atomic bomb proliferation, racism, Nazism, censorship, etc. In short, he was a small L, pre-counter-cultural LIBERAL who believed that what went on between a man’s ears was his own business and viewed Hoover’s efforts as totalitarian. This is the subject of my next book…
What are some of your favorite memories about your Grandfather?
I haven’t any, really. I wasn’t yet four when he died. I do vaguely remember him lying on the couch in his study at 10 East 63rd Street. My father parked me next to him so he could keep an eye on me. Later on, I realized that he was close to death and that his smile may have been partially due to the morphine. I do remember how everybody was flying around with a sense of anxiety, but I can’t say that I put all this together in my little head back then as to why this was so.
Since your grandfather was the librettist and lyricist, was it he who would say – “let’s write a musical about ..’ which turned into Show Boat, South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I, or any of his many musical collaborators? Or were they the ideas of a producer?
Those you listed were his ideas. Before his successful collaboration with (Richard) Rodgers, that was the exception rather than the rule. Every pre-1943 show (excepting Show Boat) was producer-driven. Mostly by Arthur.
Which is your favorite Oscar Hammerstein II musical and why?
Carousel. The soliloquy. That slap takes real balls!
What is your favorite Oscar Hammerstein II lyric and why?
“Soliloquy.” Also “Come Home” from Allegro for its quietly autobiographical plea. Also “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. Honestly? It changes all the time.
Are there any of your Grandfather’s shows that deserve a revival, either on Broadway with, perhaps, Bart Sher directing or here in DC?
Carmen Jones. It’s time for operatic Love and Death in da vernacular…
Are there trunk songs or works that were never completed or never released to the public that you know about and love?
Not a one. “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” found a home eventually; “The Last Time I saw Paris” brought home an Oscar as a stand-alone; and “Happy Christmas, Little Friend” is simply awful. There may be three or four left in the trunk, if that.
Stephen Sondheim claims Oscar Hammerstein II as one of his major influences in his career. Which one of Sondheim’s shows’ lyrics do you feel were most influenced by your Grandfather’s style of writing lyrics? Which one of Sondheim’s shows would your Grandfather have admired most?
Boy! This one has taken me all day! OK… I’m going to go with Sweeney Todd here. It has a straightforward plot; it is an unmitigated tragedy; it builds coherently and emotionally. Its cleverness doesn’t eclipse its power; characters don’t ooze Sondheim-ian cleverness; no second act problems that often plague his overtly conceptual shows. Most importantly Sweeney packs an emotional, rather than intellectual wallop.
Are there any recent musicals that you have thought the lyrics were Oscar Hammerstein II-like – or that he might have admired?
The Light in the Piazza. I think he would have been discomfited by the straitjacketing effect of popular music, i.e. rock, on the musicals of today. I think he would have been appalled by jukebox musicals and I think his patience would wear thin with regards to the meta-musicals.
What advice would he have given for lyricists writing for theatre today?
Let the story tell the show what it should be and do. Write the libretto first. Do not let characters fall in love until the audience can get to know them as individuals. Choose the emotional spots for songs. Vary the emotional order of those songs. Don’t write like a poet. Use words the characters would use – get your self out of the way. Choose music that best expresses the mood, rather than by genre, i.e. rock, rap, r&b, pop, etc. Stray from the powerful transformative redemptive themes of love and death at your peril. Write only what interests you – and not for the result of money or fame. Process. Process. Process.
The home where your grandfather spent the last 2 decades of his life is now the Highland Farm, a bed and breakfast in Doylestown, PA. Have you been back since it’s become a b&b?
I have been back, but have formed no opinion as to my favorite rooms. I was there as a tiny child, but I don’t remember him there.
His piano is there. Have you ever nudged up to that piano to play?
I played “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” rather sheepishly then thought better of it and closed the lid..
What was Oscar Hammerstein II’s major contribution to musical theatre, and why will his work be performed forever?
BOOK QUOTE: “Oscar Hammerstein II furthered the transformative power of the musical play by making the believability and truthfulness of the story – the show’s libretto – the organic center around which all the other elements orbited. Moreover, Oscar II’s lyrics were warm, humane, and touched on themes of tolerance and understanding. For these simple reasons, the man who consistently referred to himself as “a careful dreamer” was able to dream up shows like Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.
Oscar II’s contributions to the development of the musical–play form make him inarguably the most important lyricist and librettist in the history of the Broadway stage. His songs and shows are as popular today as when they were first written and remain the gold standard by which present-day shows are judged.
Most poignantly, like that of his grandfather, Oscar II’s one signal failure, his show Allegro, may have proved the most enduring part of his legacy. Allegro sparked a flame of fearlessness in his only student, Stephen Sondheim, who, along with other contemporary creators, has carried the torch and pushed the boundaries of musical realism into the twenty-first century”.
Your book ends with the death of Oscar II, but the story doesn’t end there. What of the next two generations – James’s and your’s?
Perhaps another book?
Oscar Andrew Hammerstein III is a painter, writer, lecturer, and family historian. He is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, teaching graduate level New York City theater history.
A special thanks to Lorraine Treanor and Brad Hathaway for their assistance with this interview.