“He’s a meticulously hard worker and yet he’ll roam the grass of his farm for hours and sometimes for days before he can bring himself to put a word on paper.” —Richard Rodgers on Oscar Hammerstein II.
“I think when a writer writes anything, about anything at all, he gives himself away, and what he has to say, comes out.” — OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II
Hammerstein, the grandson and namesake of an operatic impresario, like Rodgers and Hart, also participated in the Varsity Show during his undergraduate years at Columbia College. Afterwards he became the “American librettist, theatrical producer, and (usually uncredited) theatre director of musicals” for almost forty years. Hammerstein won eight Tony Awards and was twice awarded an Academy Award for “Best Original Song”. Many of his songs are standard repertoire for singers and jazz musicians. He co-wrote 850 songs.
Hammerstein was the lyricist and playwright in his partnerships and his collaborators wrote the music. He had a successful career before beginning his partnership with Rodgers. He collaborated with composers Jerome Kern on eight musicals, most notably Show Boat (1927) Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Friml (Rose Marie), and Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song), and George Gershwin (Song of the Flame), and wrote the book and lyrics for Carmen Jones, the 1943 all-black version of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen.
But his most famous collaboration was with Richard Rodgers.
Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the face of American musical theater by integrating the elements of drama, music and dance as never before. Their 17-year partnership began in 1943 with Oklahoma! and continued through ten other musicals, including one motion picture (State Fair, 1945) and one teleplay (Cinderella, 1957), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959). In all, the duo won 35 Tonys, 15 Oscars, two Grammys, two Pulitzers, and two Emmys.
Hammerstein died shortly after the opening of The Sound of Music on Broadway. The final song he wrote was “Edelweiss”, which was added during rehearsals near the end of the second act. After his death, The Sound of Music was made into the hit 1965 film adaptation, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
“Edelweiss” (Julie Andrews & Christopher Plummer) From: The Sound of Music:
The lights of Times Square were turned off for one minute, and London’s West End lights were dimmed in recognition of his contribution to the musical. A memorial plaque was unveiled at Southwark Cathedral, England, on May 24, 1961.
According to Stephen Sondheim, “What few people understand is that Oscar’s big contribution to the theater was as a theoretician, as a Peter Brook, as an innovator. People don’t understand how experimental Show Boat and Oklahoma! felt at the time they were done. Oscar is not about the ‘lark that is learning to pray’ – that’s easy to make fun of. He’s about Allegro.”
Hammerstein was one of the more tough-minded and socially conscious American musical theater artists. According to Richard Kislan, “The shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein were the product of sincerity. In the light of criticism directed against them and their universe of sweetness and light, it is important to understand that they believed sincerely in what they wrote.” According to Marc Bauch, “The Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are romantic musical plays. Love is important.”
- Marvin — About the way he composes in comparison with Rodgers-Hammerstein II duo:
“Though Hammerstein handed Rodgers all the words for a song and then Rodgers proceeded to write the Music, I just can’t compose that way. Once my lyricist gives me a title or once we agree on what the song is all about, I head for the piano and try to find the right “feel” for the song. Only then do I try out the melody. A full set of lyrics, without music, would constrain the rhythm of the song, and I find it hard to write a melody to a mandatory rhythm. I like to write the melody first.”
Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) — Lyricist and Librettist — Columbia College 1916.