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Hammerstein, Oscar (Greeley Clendenning), IIfree

  • Thomas S. Hischak

(b New York, July 12, 1895; d Doylestown, PA, Aug 23, 1960). American lyricist, librettist, producer and publisher. Born into a notable theatrical family, his grandfather and namesake was the flamboyant opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein (1847–1919), who created and lost a handful of opera houses and companies around the turn of the century. Oscar studied law at Columbia where he became involved in the Varsity shows and, after graduation, continued to write songs. By 1919 Hammerstein had left the legal profession and begun to write plays and lyrics full time. His first Broadway musical was Always You (1920) with composer Herbert Stothart and, as would be the pattern throughout his career, Hammerstein wrote both the libretto and lyrics. During the 1920s he contributed to a handful of operettas, most notably Rose-Marie (1924) with composer Rudolf Friml and The Desert Song (1926) with Sigmund Romberg. After some experimenting, he and composer Jerome Kern created the landmark Show Boat (1927), the first musical play of the American theatre. With the demise of operetta and the emphasis on frivolous musical comedies and revues during the Depression, Hammerstein’s career faltered and his Hollywood efforts were failures except for his song The Last Time I Saw Paris with Kern, which won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1941.

Hammerstein’s second and equally productive career began with his collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers. The team presented the finest musical plays of the 1940s and 50s, including Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959). The team also produced Broadway shows by others, most memorably Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946); wrote scores for Hollywood, such as State Fair (1945 and 1962); and for television they provided Cinderella (1957). Hammerstein had a solo hit with Carmen Jones (1943), his updating of Carmen using Bizet’s music.

Hammerstein’s heartfelt lyrics are distinguished by their simplicity and sincerity, often eschewing the clever rhymes and dazzling wordplay that was characteristic of his contemporaries. He brought an honesty to libretto and lyric writing that influenced all the major theatre songwriters of the postwar American theatre, and his works, particularly Show Boat and those with Rodgers, remain in the popular musical theatre repertory.

Works

(selective list)

composers in parentheses; dates those of the first New York performance unless otherwise stated

Stage

Wildflower (V. Youmans, H. Stothart), Casino, 7 Feb 1923

Rose-Marie (R. Friml), Imperial, 2 Sept 1924 [incl. Indian Love Call, Rose-Marie; films, 1936, 1954]

Sunny (J. Kern), New Amsterdam, 22 Sept 1925 [incl. Sunny, Who?; films, 1930, 1940]

The Desert Song (S. Romberg), Casino, 30 Nov 1926 [incl. The Desert Song, One Alone, The Riff Song; films, 1929, 1943, 1953]

Show Boat (Kern), Ziegfeld, 27 Dec 1927 [incl. Can’t help lovin’ dat man, Make Believe, Ol’ Man River, Why do I love you?, You are love; films, 1929, 1936, 1951]

The New Moon (Romberg), Imperial, 19 Sept 1928 [incl. Lover, come back to me, One Kiss, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, Stouthearted Men; film, 1940]

Sweet Adeline (Kern), Hammerstein’s, 3 Sept 1929 [incl. Don’t ever leave me, Why was I born?; film, 1935]

Music in the Air (Kern), Alvin, 8 Nov 1932 [incl. I’ve told ev’ry little star, There’s a hill beyond a hill; film, 1934]

Very Warm for May (Kern), Alvin, 17 Nov 1939 [incl. All the Things You Are]

Oklahoma! (R. Rodgers), St James, 31 March 1943 [incl. Oh, what a beautiful mornin’, Oklahoma, People will say we’re in love, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top; film, 1955]

Carmen Jones (G. Bizet), Broadway, 2 Dec 1943 [film, 1954]

Carousel (Rodgers), Majestic, 19 April 1945 [incl. If I Loved You, June is bustin’ out all over, Soliloquy, You’ll never walk alone; film, 1956]

Allegro (Rodgers), Majestic, 10 Oct 1947 [incl. The gentleman is a dope]

South Pacific (Rodgers), Majestic 7 April 1949 [incl. Bali Ha’i, Some Enchanted Evening, There is nothin’ like a dame, This nearly was mine, Younger than Springtime; film, 1958]

The King and I (Rodgers), St James, 29 March 1951 [incl. Getting to Know You, Hello, young lovers, I whistle a happy tune, Shall we dance?; film, 1956]

Me and Juliet (Rodgers), Majestic, 28 May 1953 [incl. No Other Love]

Flower Drum Song (Rodgers), St James, 1 Dec 1958 [incl. I enjoy being a girl, You are beautiful; film, 1961]

The Sound of Music (Rodgers), Lunt-Fontanne, 16 Nov 1959 [incl. Climb ev’ry mountain, Do-Re-Mi, My Favourite Things, The Sound of Music; film, 1965]

State Fair (Rodgers), St Louis, Municipal Opera, 2 June 1969

A Grand Night for Singing (Rodgers), Criterion Center, 17 Nov 1993

State Fair (Rodgers), Music Box, 27 March 1996 [rev. of film]

Films

those not already mentioned above

High, Wide and Handsome (J. Kern), 1937 [incl. The Folks who Live on the Hill]

The Great Waltz (J. Strauss jr), 1938

Lady Be Good! (Kern), 1941 [The Last Time I Saw Paris]

State Fair (R. Rodgers), 1945, 1962 [incl. It might as well be spring, It’s a grand night for singing, That’s for me]

Centennial Summer (Kern), 1946 [incl. All Through the Day]

Bibliography

  • D. Taylor: Some Enchanted Evenings: the Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein (New York, 1953)
  • H. Fordin: Getting to Know Him: a Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II (New York, 1977)
  • F. Nolan: The Sound of their Music: the Story of Rodgers and Hammerstein (New York, 1978)
  • O. Hammerstein: Lyrics (Milwaukee, 1985)
  • S. Green: Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book (Milwaukee, 1986)
  • E. Mordden: Rodgers and Hammerstein (New York, 1992)
  • S. Citron: The Wordsmiths: Oscar Hammerstein II and Alan Jay Lerner (New York, 1993)
  • G. Block: ‘Show Boat: In the Beginning’, ‘Carousel: the Invasion of the Integrated Musical’, Enchanted Evenings: the Broadway Musical from ‘Show Boat’ to Sondheim (New York, 1997), 19–40, 319–24; 159–78, 334–5