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Book Review: Oscar Hammerstein

Yale University Press

A biography of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II? He’s been dead for 63 years and, many say, so are the musicals he composed with Richard Rodgers -- saccharine, sentimental, dated.

Famous in their day on stage and, later, on film and on TV – Cinderella in 1957 attracted an audience of over 100 million – the blockbusters include Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and many more they wrote and produced. But notice him now?

Theater critic Laurie Winer however, is onto something timely and significant in her meticulously researched, adoring if quirky bio critique, Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical.

Of course, Hammerstein, his dates are 1895-1960, didn’t originate the musical, but, as Winer argues, he was ahead of his time with his innovative book adaptations and socially conscious songs – as far back as Show Boat in 1927, which he wrote with Jerome Kern.

She shows how his Golden Age musical dramas with Rodgers, seven years younger, with whom he started collaborating in 1942, led to darkened themes about humanity and, ironically, paved the way for Steven Sondheim whose cynical takes on the temper of later times, were nonetheless based on the teachings and examples of Hammerstein, his adored friend, and mentor.

Coming from a privileged family of entrepreneurs and impresarios (Grandfather Oscar was intimidating, aloof), Hammerstein moved into theatrical narrative in college and soaked up lore from his theatre-owning uncle Arthur.

Eventually, with Rodgers, his opposite in temperament, outlook, and behavior, they captured The American Dream at its most optimistic.

Winer’s prompt for writing the book seems to be a reassessment of Hammerstein’s humanity, affability, and “progressive vision” in using popular music to support a “reimagining” of our country at a critical time: then, and Winer adds, now. She quotes Sondheim as saying that Cole Porter was a songwriter but Oscar, a “playwright,” who among other features, invented the musical soliloquy. His verbal style, simple, concise, gently ironic is powerful. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, Winer suggests, is arguably the pair’s “most durable song” -- 71 words, all but five one-syllable and with a theme that still resonates today.”

Winer’s book, however, is a bit too much in its inclusiveness, particularly of personal details, some of them showing that Oscar was no saint, though far from the womanizing, alcoholic Richard Rodgers. She interjects “I” a lot and is proud of her obsessiveness - she saw Sondheim’s original Sweeny Todd 22 times.

But it’s as though she cannot decide at times (or easily integrate) biography and cultural history, including brief portraits of the lives of other prominent musicians. Gossip, secrets, ugly facts about the money side of show business, a confirmation of a long-time romance Hammerstein had with a showgirl - these intrigue but distract from the image she would shore up of Hammerstein’s persistent activism, particularly on civil rights and the dangers of nuclear war.

The conclusion, though, is that by the end, we admire Hammerstein, but we don’t know him any better than before.

He wanted America to pursue its promise to honor equality Corny as it sounds, his artistic vision is one rarely heard today. As he said many times, “Everybody was born to advance the life in this universe, the life that we all live.”

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.