What are Oscar Hammerstein II's best lyrics? (or... your personal favorites)
Last Edit: GrumpyMorningBoy 07:17 am EDT 04/17/24
Posted by: GrumpyMorningBoy 07:12 am EDT 04/17/24

I'm on a Hammerstein binge.

Going back to these classics, many of which I simply hadn't dusted off and spun on my trusty whirring pocket player in far too long, I'm just struck by how inventive and economical this writer was.

What I LOVE about a Hammerstein lyric, the first time you hear it: as the words slowly unfold, he nearly dares you to imagine what the next rhyme will be. But even if you happen to guess correctly, he delivers the most delicious and surprising treats on your way there:

I flip when a fellow sends me flowers
I drool over dresses made of lace
I talk on the telephone for hours
With a pound and a half of cream upon my face!

He writes with such evocative images! And so often, he sparks and stimulates your imagination:

One of the gals was fat and pink and pretty
As round above as she was round below
I could swear that she was padded
From her shoulder to her heel
But later in the second act
When she began to peel
She proved that everything she had was absolutely real!

Look at how freaking brilliant that lyric is. There's not a single word there that couldn't be found in a second grade reading primer. He's talking about a stripper, while staying absolutely true to the character, the time, and the setting, and delivers a supremely economical lyric that's laugh-out-loud funny.

For those of us who went to college for musical theatre, it seems like Hammerstein II is primarily credited for being Broadway's first lyricist who truly wrote for characters, each of whom sing in their distinct voice. Between SHOW BOAT and OKLAHOMA!, we're all taught about what a pioneer he was, not to mention the absolute master class that CAROUSEL delivered during the bench scene: how to transition between spoken word and song. A masterpiece of musical theatre writing.

But I'm getting into the stanzas themselves, wishing we had a "Finishing the Hat" (the books) type dissection of Hammerstein II's lyrics.

Which are your favorites?

I know that Hammerstein II wrote alternate lyrics for many of his Broadway songs (both with Richard Rodgers and others) which were used by recording artists, so there are a whole lot of Hammerstein lyrics that I surely don't know. Other than SHOW BOAT, "All The Things You Are" and "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise," I really don't know many of his works before the R & H collaboration. I'm slowly working my way through the catalogue. It's huge.

So -- especially for those of you who are more familiar with his whole oeuvre -- what are Hammerstein II lyrics that you think deserve extra praise? And for those of you really know your musical theatre history, how did his writing seem to evolve or mature over the length of his career? What did other lyricists learn / borrow from his style?

For those of you who write or teach writing, what do you think today's lyricists could stand to learn from Oscar?

I'd love to expand my knowledge and appreciation of this titan!


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