Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical

Oscar Hammerstein II coverOscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical
Laurie Winer
Yale University Press (January 31, 2023), 505 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $29.25

After reading two fairly heavy-duty books, Culture: The Story of Us and Ways of Being, I decided I needed something lighter. In some respects this book filled the bill, but in another regard Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical burdened me with more detail than I really wanted.

Author Laurie Winer states she wanted to write a book about the best American musicals, but in her research she realized that the book she needed to write was about Oscar Hammerstein II. (Hammerstein was II not because of this father. It was his grandfather who was Oscar Hammerstein I.)

Winer tells us that Oscar Sr. was an opera producer who overextended himself, and that his son Willie was a theater manager who was not very good at what he did. She states that to understand the grandson we need to understand the grandfather. She then delves into a long and detailed account of his career, which to me did little to enhance my understanding of the life of Hammerstein II.

The author describes how Hammerstein met with financial success early on writing shows that weren’t exactly musicals. She goes into great detail recounting his collaboration with Jerome Kern in the creation of Show Boat, which can reasonably be called the first American musical. Winer explores how the show was innovative in that it had a multi-racial cast in an era before integration was the norm.

Obviously Winer devotes considerable space to the collaboration between Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. And although this is supposed to be a biography of Hammerstein, she writes in detail about the collaboration between Rogers and Lorenz (Larry) Hart, and how Hart had trouble staying available for the work to be done, and and staying sober to get his songs written.

Winer writes about Hammerstein’s basic optimism and how that is reflected in so many of his lyrics. She also details how unpleasant a person Richard Rogers was to work with, and how difficult it became for others to work with him when Hammerstein became ill and was no longer there as a buffer. Rogers was, in fact, terribly tight with money and refused to share royalties even when a collaborator was fully entitled to such sharing. Winer suggests he twisted Hammerstein’s arm to go along with this approach.

The author delves into the sources of the various musicals. She writes extensively about the sources for South Pacific and The King and I. The source for South Pacific was the James A. Michener short story collection, Tales of the South Pacific. Hammerstein struggled with converting the disparate stories into a coherent narrative. He received assistance from Josh Logan, who originally brought the idea to the attention of Rogers and Hammerstein. Logan was never compensated for that work. The basis for The King and I came from a novel based on the autobiographical writing of Anna Leonowens, who was an English tutor to the children of the King of Siam in the late nineteenth century. Though some of the material was interesting, there was more detail than I needed.

I cannot fail to mention Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim first became acquainted with Hammerstein as a youngster and admired him from the beginning. As Sondheim began writing his own pieces Hammerstein encouraged the work. How the lyricist with such a positive outlook became a mentor to a protégé with (often) such a dark vision is a question without a good answer.

If you enjoy the American musical, Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical is probably worth your time. Just be prepared for more background and history than you might be interested in.

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