Edited by Amy Asch
|In 1983, Knopf published the first of a series of handsome oversized books dedicated to the collected lyrics of musical theater giants. Cole Porter won the first nod, followed at irregular intervals by Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Frank Loesser. These fascinating, exhaustive books are filled with the kind of historical detail, photos, and trivia that make aficionados swoon. (And if it weren’t already apparent, to those for whom musical theater is the cultural equivalent of a Happy Meal: move along, nothing to see here.) Now, a quarter of a century later, the Knopf spotlight shines on Oscar Hammerstein II.|
And high time, too.
While his work can’t claim the cleverness of Porter, the aching simplicity of Berlin, or the ingenuity of Gershwin, Hammerstein deserves recognition by virtue of his theatrical longevity, his rhetorical diversity, his dramatic skill, and his profound influence on his peers and acolytes, one of whom, Stephen Sondheim, reigns today as the musical theater’s premier composer/lyricist. For over four decades, Hammerstein worked prodigiously in the Broadway musical theater (with intermittent sojourns in Hollywood) at a time when the form held powerful sway over popular culture: most of the songs on the airwaves and turntables originated in shows and films. Twice, with Showboat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943), he transformed the genre, wresting the form from its banal complacencies and pushing it to greater seriousness and maturity. He collaborated with some of the supreme composers of the era, most notably Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, who supplied the sublime melodies that cushioned his words and made them truly, well, sing. And he was the controlling intelligence behind more shows still playable onstage (and still produced) than probably all of his peers combined could claim.
His lifelong devotion to the theater seemed preordained. The grandson of a famous opera impresario for whom he was named, and the son of a theatrical producer, Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein was born in 1895 and saw his first Broadway show produced at the age of 26. By the time of his relatively early death 40 years later, he had contributed to dozens of musical plays and written the 800+ lyrics that fill these pages. Additionally, he wrote or co-wrote many of the shows’ libretti, allowing him to create a vitally intimate relationship between song, story, and character.
|But Hammerstein can be something of a square, at least on the surface, with a sensibility that favors optimism and hope over despair. (In The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II, edited by Amy Asch, we’re told that the word that pops up most frequently in his lyrics is “dream.”) Having cut his teeth on operetta, his later work can regress into florid overstatement. (He, along with early co-writer Otto Harbach, was responsible for “Indian Love Call,” whose “when I’m calling you, oo-oo, oo-oo-oo…” must have been unintentionally funny, even in 1924.) Some of his most famous work – “Ol’ Man River,” “Do Re Mi,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” – invites easy parody. You might go into diabetic shock at the thought of a high school choir launching into “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” but Mahalia Jackson’s turn could well bring you back to consciousness.|
But to list even a fraction of his most popular songs is to recall some of the century’s most potent contributions to pop culture: “All the Things You Are,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “If I Loved You,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “It Might as Well Be Spring,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “Bali Hai,” “People Will Say we’re in Love,” and several dozens more. What is often overlooked is Hammerstein’s strong moral center, his dedication to social responsibility, and his consummate craftsmanship. Too often, charges of sentimentality come from the bowdlerized film versions of his best work, and not their original stage incarnations.
Any printed collection of lyrics begs the question: What about the music? And indeed, reading the words to a song without a melody is a bit like walking with one shoe. Or as John Updike wrote in his introduction to the Cole Porter collection, “…reading a book of song lyrics is a little like looking at an album of photographs of delicious food. The food looks good, but the proof is in the eating.” However, Updike goes on, “Verse, including light verse, makes its own music. The tone is elusive, but it requires no stage manager or electronic equipment; it hums and tingles up off the mute page.” Reading through the Hammerstein collection may compel you to rummage through your vintage recordings or perhaps start downloading its i-tune counterparts. Or it may frustrate you that the melodies of such songs as “Annie McGinnis Pavlova,” “Play a Little Hindoo, Little Hindoo Man” or “I Simply Can’t Do Without Boys,” are probably lost to history. Even on the printed page, the strength of his best lyrics shines through, offering enough proof to support Irving Berlin’s contention: “The difference between Oscar and the rest of us lyricists is that he is a poet.”
And a groundbreaker. Had Hammerstein’s legacy rested solely on his contributions to Showboat and Oklahoma! he would deserve a sizable niche in the pantheon. After a few false starts in his career, he collaborated with two of operetta’s major figures, as well as veteran lyricist Otto Harbach, to write huge successes, Rose-Marie, with Rudolph Friml, and The Desert Song, with Sigmund Romberg. In 1927, he took a gigantic leap forward. Working with the brilliant composer Jerome Kern, he adapted Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel Showboat and created an onstage milestone that kept one foot in operetta (in its lavish ballads) and the other in the future, incorporating a more contemporary sound as the story moves forward in time. More boldly still, the show daringly included themes – racism, miscegenation, alcoholism – unseen on the musical stage. Hammerstein’s leitmotif song “Ol’ Man River” seemed so authentic that many thought it a folk ballad. (A similar misapprehension happened years later with his “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.) Sung by a black dock worker as commentary to the intense onstage drama, and his people’s plight at the hands of their white bosses, the lyric is simplicity itself and yet deeply profound (here transcribed as in the book, vernacular intact):
Ol Man River
Dat Ol’ Man River
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along
He don’t plant taters
He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ’em
Is soon forgotten,
But Ol’ Man River
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.
You an’ me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin’ and racked wid pain –
“Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bail!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail…
Ah gets weary
An’ sick of tryin';
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.
In 1927, such sentiments expressed by a “Negro” entertainer was nothing short of revolutionary; it’s been called the first protest song to appear on Broadway. (There it was performed magnificently by Jules Bledsoe, but eventually took on heroic proportions in its rendition by political activist/actor/singer/legend Paul Robeson, in the show’s London production, its 1932 revival, and in the 1936 James Whale-directed film.) Showboat ran for several years in New York and has been successfully revived several times. Quaint as its sentiments may seem today, the power of the Kern-Hammerstein contribution is timeless.
Sixteen years later, Oklahoma! sparked another kind of revolution. After Showboat, Hammerstein returned to operetta, most notably The New Moon with Romberg, and continued his collaboration with Kern. He experimented nobly with form and content, but was involved with so many flops that many had written him off as a has-been.
It was fortuitous, then, that composer Richard Rodgers was searching for a new collaborator. The team of Rodgers and Larry Hart had been for two decades the premier songwriting team of the Broadway stage (Pal Joey, The Boys From Syracuse, Babes in Arms, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many others), creating heaping handfuls of great popular songs that continue to be revered today.
But Hart was deeply troubled, an alcoholic and self-loathing homosexual whose behavior was becoming increasingly erratic. Hammerstein’s gently calm demeanor was a welcome relief for Rodgers, and the pair chose for their first collaboration a minor play about the lives of Oklahoma settlers at the turn of the 20th century, Green Grow the Lilacs, by a minor playwright, Lynn Riggs.
|The musical theater at the time was largely brash, gaudy, superficial. A musicalization of a failed play whose major conflict involved a young girl’s choice of a beau to take her to a box social was given scant chance for success. But the R&H score, Hammerstein’s libretto, and Agnes de Mille’s historic choreography created an integral whole that cohered in ways no show ever had. Just as crucial were is homespun values, celebration of national pride, and patriotic optimism – a pure, comforting tonic to a country still in the throes of a world war.|
Where most musicals of the era began with a noisy, energetic opener to cover the racket of trendy latecomers, Oklahoma! raised its curtain on an old farm women quietly churning butter. When she’s joined by a young cowboy, his words are simple sentiments of unabashed joy:
Oh what a beautiful mornin’!
Oh what a beautiful day!
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s going my way.
Many lyricists might blush to put such simple sentiments on paper, but Hammerstein knew they would soar supported by the right melody (and with Rodgers and Hammerstein, the words almost always came first.) The result is a song perfectly suited to character and situation.
The rest of the score has scarcely a false step. A Hammerstein specialty, the “love song in denial” (see also “If I Loved You” and “Make Believe”) can be found in “People Will Say We’re in Love”:
Don’t throw bouquets at me
Don’t please my folks too much
Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
People will say we’re in love
And there are few more ingeniously seductive songs than “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” in which Curly the cowboy describes to his would-be girlfriend a ride in a surrey he later admits he doesn’t own. The last chorus is particularly apposite. (Asch recounts that this song was a favorite of its writer, because, as Rodgers recounted, “nothing moved [Oscar] more than the ‘naïve happiness’ implied in a couple looking forward to an evening together.”)
I can see the stars gettin’ blurry
When we ride back home in the surry,
Ridin’ slowly home in the surrey,
With the fringe on top.
I can feel the day gittin’ older,
Feel a sleepy head near my shoulder,
Noddin’, drooppin’ close to my shoulder till it falls kerplop!
The sun is swimmin’ on the rim of a hill,
The moon is takin’ a header,
And jist as I’m thinkin’ the earth is still,
A lark’ll wake up in the medder…
Hush! You bird, my baby’s a-sleepin’ –
Maybe got a dream worth a-keepin’.
Whoa! You team, and jist keep a-creepin’ at a slow clip-clop;
Don’t you hurry with the surrey with the fringe on top.
One of Hammerstein’s best but lesser known lyrics comes in Act I as the heroine, Laurey, shrugs off the idea that she is bothered by her beau’s apparent indifference to her. Hammerstein’s triumph here is diction that perfectly captures the character, but is intricately crafted to “hum and tingle” the Updike way.
Many a new face will please my eye,
Many a new love will find me.
Never’ve I once looked back to sigh,
Over the romance behind me.
Many a new day will dawn before I do.
Many a light lad may kiss and fly,
A kiss gone by is bygone;
Never’ve I asked an August sky
“Where has last July gone?”
Never’ve I wandered through the rye,
Wonderin’ where has some guy gone –
Many a new day will dawn before I do!
Oklahoma! became the longest-running musical in Broadway history (2,212 performances) until My Fair Lady came along, and it provided the template for the rest of the R&H canon over the next 16 years. With a few exceptions (the experimental Allegro, the theatrical valentine Me and Juliet, and the Steinbeck adaptation Pipe Dream, all of which were critical and popular failures), their greatest shows – Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music – were adapted from literary sources, and all were earnestly middlebrow, morally uplifting, magnificently produced – and veritable money trees. This was the model that most of the Broadway successes of the next two decades emulated. My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Gypsy, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, among many others followed what Sondheim calls the “scene-song, scene song” format perfect by Rodgers and Hammerstein during the period known as the Golden Age of the Broadway musical.
|The genre ultimately exhausted itself by the mid-60s, when the rock idiom clogged the airwaves and left no space for the well-made standard. Hammerstein got out just in time; had he lived longer, he might have met the same fate as Rodgers – increasingly irrelevant and seeing his powers wane and his shows fold quickly. The last show The Sound of Music, while in many ways as canny as anything they wrote, often found Hammerstein at his gooiest, reaching for raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, and a lark who is learning to pray.||
Despite mixed reviews from critics who found it too treacly by half, The Sound of Music was a huge audience favorite, and never more so than in its enduringly popular movie version (filmed five years after his death). It would be fascinating to discover what Hammerstein would have made of the Sing-Along Sound of Music, where audience members wear thematic costumes, join in on the songs, talk back to the screen, and seem to be there for derision and affection in equal measure. (One of the few missteps of this otherwise gorgeous book is the back cover of the dust jacket, a full-color photo of Julie Andrews in full Alpine twirl in The Sound of Music, an unnecessary sop to the movie’s fans. )
Wandering through the 422 pages of The Complete Lyrics allows us the discovery of details that either remind of felicitous moments or offer fresh revelations. Familiarity with many of these songs can dull our senses to how skilful they really are. It takes a musician to describe the intimacy and effectiveness of the relationship between words and music, but anyone who reads aloud the lyrics to “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” can see how the cadence of the horses clip clop comes through without any melody whatsoever.
Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in the surrey
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top.
Watch that fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high-steppin’ strutters –
Nosey-pokes’ll peek through their shutters and their eyes will pop!
Hammerstein’s end rhymes are rarely forced – flutters/strutters/shutters seem inevitable word choices, and his use of internal rhyme is equally natural:
The sun is swimmin’ on the rim of a hill
Two bright side lights winkin’ and blinkin’
Not to mention his expert alliterative skill:
The wind’ll whistle as we rattle along,
The cows’ll moo in the clover,
The river will ripple out a whispered song
And whisper it over and over.
And his graceful onomatopoetic touches. This, from Carousel:
When I marry Mr. Snow
The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees,
The birds’ll make a racket in the churchyard trees
The song “It Might As Well Be Spring,” from the film State Fair (1945, with Rodgers) explores the inchoate romantic and sexual feelings of an Iowa farm girl, and the lyric’s spine is a series of similes that attempt to describe what she cannot name:
I’m as restless as a willow in a windstorm,
I’m as jumpy as a puppet on a string,
I’d say that I had spring fever,
But it isn’t even spring.
I’m as busy as a spider spinning daydreams,
I’m as giddy as a baby on a swing.
I haven’t seen a crocus or a rosebud,
Or a robin on the wing.
But I feel so gay – in a melancholy way –
That it might as well be spring…
It might as well be spring.
Not only is the conceit of the song brilliant, but each of the similes comes from the girl’s everyday experience, and not one descends into cliché.
But lest it seem as if homespun is Hammerstein’s only flavor, the song “All the Things You Are” reveals him in full-throated emotion. In the 1939 show (Very Warm for May, with Kern), the song represents the inner feelings of two inarticulate would-be lovers and are never openly expressed.
You are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening that trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights a star,
The dearest things I know are what you are.
Someday my happy heart will hold you
And someday I’ll know that moment divine
When all the things you are are mine.
Hammerstein edges toward the overripe here, but wedded to Kern’s bounteously sweeping melody, the song is a masterpiece and often considered one of the best ever composed for the theater. The first couplet alone is lyric genius. (Hammerstein was reportedly forever unhappy with the word “divine” here, thinking it had “lost its power through overuse.” But with no other appropriate word at hand to rhyme with “mine,” he was stuck with it. This volume is awash in such detail, and is all the better for it.)
A survey of a life work must of necessity includes the failures, too. For someone of his racial sensitivities, Hammerstein must own up to such efforts as this 1922 doozie, called “Tom-Tom”:
Out in Africa lived a still darker man – When I say “darker,” I mean he was blacker than tan.
With an old tom-tom resting upon his knees,
He made the jungle jingle with melodies.
And now all white folks stamp their feet
To that black man’s tom-tom beat –
With his barbaric ways he
Has set us dancing crazy.
And for just tragic goofiness, here he is some 36 years later, from Flower Drum Song. In its attempt to paint Western culture through the eyes of Chinese immigrants, he wrote “Chop Suey,” a song critic Ethan Mordden considers the worst the esteemed pair ever wrote:
Ballpoint pens and filter tips!
Lipstick and potato chips!
In the dampest kind of heat wave
You can give your hair a neat wave!
Hear that lovely “La Paloma”
lullaby by Perry Coma!
Dreaming in my Maidenform bra,
Dreamed I danced the cha cha cha!
Mixed with all the hokum and ballyhooey
There’s the occasional cringe-worthy sexism (this, from Me and Juliet):
I’m your girl
It’s time you knew
All I am
Belongs to you.
With your arms around me,
I’ll be yours alone –
I’m the girl you own.
And this pop hit from Flower Drum Song:
When I have a brand new hairdo
And my eyelashes all in curls
I float as the clouds on air do!
I enjoy being a girl!
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!
What Hammerstein’s work lacks, and it’s a significant omission, is sex. When Oklahoma‘s Ado Annie says she “cain’t say no,” this little muffin seems to be talking about no more than heavy petting. In his and Rodgers’ adaptation of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as Pipe Dream, Hammerstein’s take on the novel’s whores was so maidenly that some audiences reportedly left the theater without knowing what the girls’ did for a living.
Cole Porter’s persistent playful horniness would have been foreign to Hammerstein, at least on the stage. Such smutty fun as this (from DuBarry Was a Lady) would probably make Oscar blush. It’s an extended duet between a man and a woman discussing their mutual dislike of morning activites.
She: D’you do double entry, dear?
Kindly tell me if so.
He: I do double entry, dear
But in the morning, no.
She: Do you do the breast stroke, dear?
Kindly tell me if so,
He: Yes, I do the breast stroke, dear.
But in the morning, no.
And to compare Hammerstein and Hart, Rodgers’ two major partners, is to see why Rodgers music turned from sprightly to stately over the years. Here’s Hart’s Pal Joey standard of a woman’s lust for a frustratingly attractive younger man, a “half-pint imitation,” perhaps, but sexually irresistible.
Lost my heart, but what of it?
My mistake, I agree.
He’s a laugh, but I love it.
Because the laugh’s on me.
When he talks, he is seeking
Words to get off his chest
He’s at his very best
I’ll sing to him
Each spring to him
And worship the trousers that cling to him
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
And here’s Hammerstein from Allegro, about another mismatch but without a sensual thought in its head:
The gentleman is a dope
A man of many faults
A clumsy Joe
Who doesn’t know
A rhumba from a waltz.
The gentleman is a dope
And not my cup of tea
Why do I get in a dither?
He doesn’t belong to me.
To witness Hammerstein in full flower, read the extended Bench Scene from what many consider the pair’s masterpiece, Carousel (1945). This combination of dialogue and song comes early in Act I in which an itinerant carnival barker, and a virginal factory girl try desperately to deny their burgeoning passion. (okay, here Hammerstein is pretty sexy) The tension between resistance and need creates a classic love song:
If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way.
Round in circles I’d go!
Longin’ to tell you, but afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by.
Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day.
Never never to know
How I loved you –
If I loved you.
Sung by itself, it’s merely a terrific song. Situated in context, its phrases and refrains scattered among Hammerstein’s poignant dialogue, it becomes a historic scene in musical theater, and one that seals Hammerstein’s bona fides as a great dramatist.
Hammerstein’s last complete lyric was “Edelweiss,” a gentle, simple song created for The Sound of Music and written as he was dying of stomach cancer. In the years that followed, the Rodgers and Hammerstein reputation would ebb and flow. Not the songs, most of which have ongoing and powerful potency, but the shows themselves, accused (often justifiably) of simplistic sentiment and moral naiveté.
South Pacific was the perfect example, one of the team’s most successfully commercial efforts and winner of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize. But time seemed to have passed it by. Despite a gooey but moneymaking film version, the show had never had a major Broadway revival, whereas Oklahoma!, The King and I, and Carousel had each had several. Was the show’s take on racism and war just too simplistic? It seemed so. Probably. Yes.
But last spring, at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, director Bartlett Sher thought otherwise. Gathering a splendid cast, led by Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot, and a host of topnotch theatrical collaborators, he shook the dust from a 50-year-old show and polished it to a fare-thee-well. It opened to near-unanimous praise and an adoring public that has filled nearly every seat. Rodgers and Hammerstein were cool again.
Sher and Co. accomplished this feat by respecting the integrity of the work, treating it without cynicism or po-mo irony, and embracing its natural, heartfelt warmth. When O’Hara as Nellie Forbush, a gawky, open-hearted Army nurse in the midst of a terrible war sings “A Cock-eyed Optimist,” she has every reason to be cynical. Instead:
I could say life is just a bowl of Jell-O
And appear more intelligent and smart.
But I’m stuck like a dope
With a thing called hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart!
Not this heart!
It’s Hammerstein at his most autobiographical.
Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.