What's New on the Rialto
Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical
by Laurie Winer
Book Review by Rob Lester
Admiring author Laurie Winer sees many sides to the icon, with her own eyes wide open rather than with myopic wide-eyed fandom, and with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight fueled by modern-day perspectives on stage representations of race, gender roles, class, and politics. In her book Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical she offers a well-considered, well-rounded look at the man who roundly rejected the notion that being branded an"idealist" was diminishing. He was too serious and practical to always be "A Cock-Eyed Optimist," but that South Pacific song describes his mindset of not dwelling on clouds "when the sky is a bright canary yellow." (There's that persistent golden glow again!)
In her 22-page introduction, Ms. Winer acknowledges that her chosen title implying crediting lyricist/librettist Hammerstein for the invention of the musical will strike some as a hyperbolic anointment, as if to suggest he can claim sole provenance for getting us beyond the frothiest ancient stage fare featuring featherweight tales with the most loosely connected musical interludes. But in this case, she's merely the latest in a long line of historians to hop on the bandwagon of those who point to the same two musicals–1927's Show Boat and 1943's Oklahoma!–as the most groundbreaking, influential models of integrating songs, dialog and dance and boasting more fully developed characters and plots. Laurie Winer expresses her own longtime love for musicals ("my religion") and states her conviction that Hammerstein is praise-worthy for his craft and his integrity, being socially progressive and a champion of civil rights, with the caveat that he was also a product of his time in some attitudes about cultures and relationships with wives and children. She takes it upon herself in these early pages to go to bat for her hero, taking on his critics, taking them to task for taking his contributions for granted.
Throughout the book, a tendency to restate things can be irksome. While the intro sets the tone and backs up key arguments effectively, it also sprinkles in facts and observations anticlimactically recycled later on as if they are new to the reader. Scattered black-and-white photos get captions that often unnecessarily repeat–sometimes verbatim–information stated in the text as close by as the same page. Harping on matters drags down the otherwise engaging reading experience. Most prominently, we're reminded how Agnes de Mille and Joshua Logan were deprived of royalties for, respectively, choreography and co-writing of dialog (for South Pacific, although his anger didn't prevent him from accepting the job to direct the movie version). We're told a couple of times that Stephen Sondheim taught Hammerstein how to play chess and that Agnes de Mille said that Rodgers used women "like toilet paper."
The ambitious Show Boat and the Rodgers & Hammerstein mega-hits get more time, as do the particular tension and attention spurred by how characters of color were presented. Early operettas and most film musicals get skimmed over. There is some fine, convincing analysis of why audiences didn't warm to Very Warm for May and why Allegro and Pipe Dream didn't catch fire. Throughout the tome, we note the dedicated research and reflections that return to the thesis that, in his more serious works, Oscar illuminated individuals' and society's kindest instincts and gave us some insight into our shortcomings. (The originally announced title for the very worthwhile volume was Song of Ourselves: Oscar Hammerstein II and the American Musical.)
After the introduction, things are presented chronologically, with some major and minor exceptions and detours. The first chapter covers Hammerstein's childhood (he was born in 1895), rather than starting as many bios do with the family's life before the subject was born. That material is mostly presented as the sixth of the 13 chapters, a momentum-breaking flashback to chronicle the ups and downs of grandfather/namesake Oscar Hammerstein I's building theatres and his love of opera, this segue cued by reportage of Oscar II's wordsmithing in transforming the opera Carmen into the Broadway entry Carmen Jones. To allow the last couple of pages to bring down the curtain with comments on the man's death, the year after The Sound of Music opened on Broadway, things that happened after that are discussed first, like that musical's movie version and Richard Rodgers' uneasy collaboration with Sondheim on Do I Hear a Waltz?.
Some tidbits new to readers may tantalize about what might have been: Did you know that John Steinbeck tried to interest Rodgers & Hammerstein in a musical about Abraham Lincoln? What would the musical version of Edna Ferber's novel Saratoga Trunk brought to Broadway as Saratoga with a Harold Arlen/ Johnny Mercer score with book and direction by Morton DaCosta have been like if the team she pitched it to first said OK: songs by Rodgers & Hart and book by Hammerstein? Ms. Winer devotes significant space to some recent revivals, including the controversial take on Oklahoma! by director Daniel Fish. While praising the new treatments of its songs and opining that audience reactions to its violent episode were informed by outrage over recent murders in the headlines, she evenhandedly quotes both delighted and derisive reviews. Comments on Carousel's 2018 revival include weighing in on the handling of physical abuse in the story and how spoken lines characterizing it were softened, deleted, and restored. Some of that is taken verbatim from her own published newspaper review of the production, although she doesn't present this as her own past writing or make a point of her past career.
While Winer wends her way, necessarily, through familiar ground, quotes and anecdotes, she also sought her own sources in her years of preparation. She managed to track down the son of the actress pointed to as Hammerstein's mistress. There are also brief quotes from directors of recent major revivals of Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. In theatre, one must be aware of the importance of timing and concerns about being upstaged–and the same issues are relevant to a book's publishing date. Eager readers who got their hands on recent releases covering some of the same subjects will have some symptoms of still-fresh déjà vu. The biographer's interviews with Richard Rodgers' daughter, Mary Rodgers Guettel, brought up no-holds-barred opinions and memories echoed in her own memoir, Shy, posthumously published six months ago. Interviews with Stephen Sondheim, who often spoke of Hammerstein's mentoring of him, yielded thoughts that read like similar shades of colors painted in the past.
Samples of the Library of Congress' vast depository of letters to and from Hammerstein, heavily quoted here, are dwarfed by the hundreds printed in a book of more than 1000 pages just last year, a project of Mark Eden Horowitz who is an archivist at the Library. Ms. Winer met him there and he assisted her, before he announced his own expansive set. One might fuel interest in the other as the Hammerstein-curious might find the Horowitz haul to be TMI. So, both can happily co-exist. The correspondence provides a lucrative window into many aspects of the public and private man, and Invention investigates and selects those which reinforce points made and fill gaps with facts and facets that can't be evidenced in other documentation. In the letters, we watch his hopes rise and fall with Hollywood and Broadway projects, and note both kindness and lecturing with limited tolerance in response to complaints of his first wife, children, brother, and others, plus his strong replies when he was accused of coming on too strong or having Communist sympathies.
Some things may raise an eyebrow or cause confusion; others may be unintentional errors. Why does this author who says beloved cast albums were her entry to musicals hardly mention any recordings? Why are some major revivals and TV versions and many stars ignored? (Yul Brynner is noted for his work in the movie of The King and I and doing the title role after that, without saying he did so in the original Broadway cast). Why are the four lines that Mary Martin sang as the beginning of the reprise of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" in the stage version quoted on two different pages, once as we've heard it sung and elsewhere with the order of the first two lines reversed? Is that a mistake or was it first written that way (but the change is not pointed out)? "I Have Confidence," the song Rodgers wrote on his own for the film version of that musical is consistently referred to as "I Have Confidence in Me" (a line in the lyric). A lead character in Pipe Dream is spelled alternatively as Suzy and Suzie. To be even pickier, in talking about Guys and Dolls, Jo Swerling is praised as co-writer of the book and indeed was co-billed due to his contract, but it's fairly well known that his script was discarded. And in quoting its title song, the word "probably" appears instead of the correct "probable"–probably a typo or a mishearing thought to be the correct word. The index is less than ideal: Many people, songs, etc. mentioned briefly don't show up and while shows discussed at length get their own alphabetical entries, others are crammed together under M: Musicals by... (with the writers' names listed first and then their show titles). There's a separate list of 19 lyrics that are excerpted, but it's not complete and the relevant page numbers aren't given.
Quibbles aside, this is a thoughtful and fond consideration of a major figure, humanized rather than canonized, telling of his dignity and devotion to craft, perseverance, and personal touch. If he is occasionally idealized, that feels somehow right for a man whose legacy lets us want to join him in reveling in the beauty of nature and the better nature of people.
Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical