From a 21st-century perspective, the template Oscar Hammerstein II helped set for the Broadway musical, integrating story, song, and dance, can seem old-fashioned. So, too, his depiction of the social order, with critiques of prejudice embedded in narratives in which love conquers (almost) all.
Hammerstein’s successors made their bones by subverting him. His protégé Stephen Sondheim’s sardonic takes on marriage and U.S. history were radical departures in form and tone. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multiracial re-envisioning of America’s founders zoomed past Hammerstein’s careful polemics. Still, both men quoted Hammerstein slyly in their lyrics, acknowledging their debt.
In concert with his greatest collaborators, the composers Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein wielded an influence that remains potent, as two new books make clear. Cary Ginell’s Carefully Taught: American History Through Broadway Musicals borrows its title from Hammerstein’s once controversial South Pacific song about learned prejudice. And Laurie Winer’s quirkily entertaining biography, Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical, makes the case for Hammerstein as a progressive thinker whose musicals are more experimental and innovative than we may realize.
Ginell’s book, mainly a reference tool, goes broad rather than deep. Beginning with credits, run dates, and other details, each entry comments on a musical’s historical background, production history, and score. The subtitle notwithstanding, not all Ginell’s musicals deal in substantive ways with American history. And some never made it to Broadway. Two that didn’t—Adam Guettel’s haunting Floyd Collins, about a doomed cave explorer, and Michael Ogborn’s lively Baby Case, on the Lindbergh kidnapping—premiered in Philadelphia, where I was fortunate enough to have seen them. The darkness of their subject matter may well have hampered Broadway transfers.
Ginell covers the most obvious history-based musicals, including Hamilton, 1776, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Ragtime, and Assassins. Kern and Hammerstein’s landmark Show Boat earns inclusion for its depiction of showboats on the Mississippi River, as well its handling of racial prejudice. Rodgers and Hammerstein get two mentions: Oklahoma! for its examination of the territory on the brink of statehood, and South Pacific for dealing with race against the backdrop of World War II’s Pacific theatre.
Other choices are more idiosyncratic. Why include Newsies, about an 1899 newsboys strike, and not Bonnie and Clyde? Why Li’l Abner for Cold War politics but not Annie for the Great Depression? Why Gypsy, about the evolution of vaudeville into burlesque, but not Funny Girl, about the comic antics and travails of Fanny Brice?
Ginell’s cursory summaries work best for lesser shows. The Hamilton entry reveals the limitations of his approach. Not the most elegant of writers, Ginell uses the word “brilliant” three times in a single paragraph. He also credits Miranda, who was inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, with sticking closely to history, but fails to note that Hamilton’s mostly positive portrayal of its titular figure—a conservative defender of strong central government and the class status quo—has provoked heated debate.
Carefully Taught is particularly rewarding to read in connection with a music streaming service. Thanks to Ginell, I rediscovered John Cullum’s soulful, Tony-winning performance in the Civil War musical Shenandoah. I also revisited the cartoonish Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I liked no better than when I saw it on Broadway.
A useful addition to the Hammerstein biographical canon, Laurie Winer’s Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical indulges in periodic tangents at the expense of narrative coherence. But it does offer an instructive dive into the Hammerstein archives and fresh interviews with theatre practitioners who knew him well, notably Sondheim.
Broadway shows, Winer writes, “defined a progressive American ethos, one that says if we are not all interconnected in some fundamental way, we are lost.” To Winer, Hammerstein typified that ethos. She acknowledges his character flaws, including a tendency to be patronizing or even mean. She especially dislikes his failure to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. She also obtains evidence of an affair during his mostly happy second marriage. “But he never stopped pushing himself to be better, as a human and as a craftsman,” Winer writes.
Raised as a coddled son, Hammerstein was the grandson of theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I (to whom Winer devotes considerable attention mid-narrative). The younger Hammerstein lost his mother at 15, and “felt the necessity to steel” himself, he told an interviewer. While he handled his grief in a solitary way, Winer says he came to believe in “the need for community as a universal ideal.”
Winer probes the creation of his first masterpiece, Show Boat, for which Hammerstein wrote both book and lyrics and Kern composed the gorgeous score. Based on an Edna Ferber novel, it debuted in 1927, revolutionizing the form and content of the American musical. After Show Boat, Hammerstein endured what Winer calls a “decade-long cold streak” before vaulting to even greater success.
“The coming together of Rodgers and Hammerstein was a sweet relief for both men,” Winer writes. “They knew each other’s sensibilities well enough that their artistic connection was fully formed the moment it began.”
With Oklahoma!, their groundbreaking first collaboration, “the world broke open,” as Agnes de Mille, the show’s choreographer, later wrote to Rodgers. The show’s innovations included de Mille’s integration of dance into the storytelling. Winer admires director Daniel Fish’s recent blood-spattered reinterpretation of the show, calling it “a shift in emphasis” that underlined “how scapegoating helps cement communities.”
In the case of Carousel, Winer highlights the show’s problematic treatment of Billy Bigelow’s violent tendencies. She also discusses tussles over the authorship of South Pacific. Joshua Logan, the show’s director, helped Hammerstein with the book (based on James Michener’s short stories), but got less credit than he wanted, and none of the author’s royalties he felt he deserved. Winer argues that Rodgers likely overruled the more generous Hammerstein in the matter. As she points out, de Mille also nursed grievances against the duo, saying she felt “robbed for her work on Oklahoma!.”
Winer disapproves of what she regards as Hammerstein’s supine defense of his past associations in a letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee, a requirement for passport renewal. Hammerstein, for all his liberal sympathies, was no Communist. But Winer condemns him, perhaps too harshly, for failing to “protest the tenor and tone of the committee’s questions.”
She also pursues allegations of an affair, enterprisingly tracking down the son of the actress Dora Jane Temple (known as Temple Texas). He reveals that his mother was given a pinkie ring with the initials “OH” by Hammerstein.
Winer makes at least two minor factual errors. She references “Main Line, Philadelphia,” when the Main Line actually denotes a group of Philadelphia’s western suburbs, and misspells New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger’s name. A bigger issue is her discursiveness, which too often shifts the focus away from Hammerstein to such matters as the literary reputation of Harriet Beecher Stowe (whose antebellum novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin figures in The King and I).
In the end, her portrait of Hammerstein as a man who “found grace in every role” is unexpectedly moving. The lyricist’s bond with Kern was particularly strong and loving. And Sondheim suggests that without Hammerstein and his wife Dorothy, “I really don’t know where I would even be, if I’d even be alive.” In a letter to Hal Prince after his mentor’s death, Sondheim writes, “He had a marvelous life, mostly due to himself, and he shows the way to live if we look—and the way to die.”
Julia M. Klein (she/her), a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, reviews theatre for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Forward. Her work also has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Nation, Slate, and other publications.
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