A Cockeyed Optimist: Oscar Hammerstein Was No Stephen Sondheim


When I read in Laurie Winer’s new book that she’d gone 22 times to the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” I wasn’t surprised. A charming, out-of-control passion animates her “Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical.” The book arrives as a handsome, sobersided production from Yale University Press, and it displays a reasoned and discerning tone throughout. Yet there’s no mistaking, underneath, an author drunk on Broadway’s blazonry.

The links between Hammerstein and Sondheim, though not immediately obvious, run deep. Hammerstein, who was born in 1895, remained a “cockeyed optimist” through a hectic career that spanned some painful near misses and a string of unparalleled triumphs. Sondheim, born in 1930, was the incendiary young man of a darkening new theater, creating musicals that crackled with topics like madness and cannibalism and political assassination. Yet Hammerstein was both mentor and spiritual godfather to Sondheim, and across a generation the two men revered each other. Sondheim looms large in Winer’s book, and in their paired, opposed careers the two men go a long way toward illuminating the evolution of the American musical in the 20th century.

Oscar Hammerstein II was born in New York into a buoyant theatrical family. His grandfather Oscar Hammerstein I was a boom-and-bust, opera-mad impresario, a builder of extravagant concert halls in Manhattan and Philadelphia and London. Both Hammerstein’s father, who died young, and his uncle, who lured young Oscar away from a proposed career in law, were theatrical managers and producers.

Hammerstein’s first notable triumph was a collaboration with Jerome Kern in which Kern composed the music and Hammerstein supplied song lyrics and much of the narrative. “Show Boat,” flexibly based on the novel by Edna Ferber, premiered on Broadway in 1927. It was not just ambitiously large and long. Winer, a founding editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books, calls it “the most revolutionary show in the history of the genre,” and points out a number of significant innovations: its complex narrative structure, its daring theme of miscegenation, its knitting together of Black and white choruses, “the first female protagonist in musical theater to age from ingénue to mature woman,” and so forth. Its songs — “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe” and, especially, “Ol’ Man River” — reverberate down the decades.

Rodgers and Hammerstein at work on “Me and Juliet” in Boston, 1953. The show was about a long-running musical — which, by R. and H. standards, “Me and Juliet” was not.Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images

From a financial standpoint, Hammerstein was just getting started. He began a collaboration with Richard Rodgers in 1942, and even today their marvelous run of blockbusters — “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music”— is alive with the sound of money. They were shrewd businessmen — at times perhaps too shrewd. As Winer poignantly details, the pair’s financial jettisoning of their director friend Josh Logan, who blocked out the shape and tone of “South Pacific,” was a victory of avarice over amity. At times Hammerstein crossed — perhaps allowed his business advisers to persuade him to cross — that wavery line distinguishing the cunning from the conniving.

In truth, there are only a few such blemishes in the personality Winer gives us. Hammerstein was a good-tempered, well-mannered, likable man; he was a devoted husband (the second time around), an enthusiastic teacher, a stalwart proponent of expanded civil rights. Winer does a commendable job of painting Hammerstein’s bustling milieu. She’s particularly good on the subject of early vaudeville, and how its modest, raffish expectations fostered the birth of solider and more serious musical entertainment. And she’s likewise good when enumerating how the protocols of racial segregation, in all their intricate insanity, marred the theatrical experiences of performers and audiences alike.

Part biography, part analysis of a genre, “Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical” offers much to admire, but I felt a serious qualm when coming upon this brief passage: “Audiences of 1926 were untroubled by such a fantasy, and ‘The Desert Song’ gave Hammerstein a third hit. He was now the father of two: Alice, born in 1921, and Billy, born three years earlier.” Eight years of family life are telescoped here. But what in the world was going on inside Hammerstein’s head? He must have been in a free-for-all tumult — supporting two kids in an unhappy marriage to a woman carrying on a long-term affair with one of his colleagues. Yet Winer’s portrait delineates few of these private intimacies and agonies.

In her defense, over the years I’ve read many depictions of Hammerstein and he invariably emerges as both affable and frustratingly opaque. Given the simplicity of his artistic tools — his pared vocabulary, his elementary monosyllabic rhymes, his unambivalent conclusions — this opacity has its ironies. One can imagine Hammerstein responding with surprise to accusations of elusiveness. Didn’t he plunge his soul into his writing, and wasn’t sincerity “the most important ingredient of a good song”? You can envision him saying, But there I am, right in front of you — there in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “My Favorite Things” and “Bali Ha’i” and “It Might as Well Be Spring.”

Not so long ago, I had occasion to attend a high school production of “Oklahoma!” some 1,400 miles from Oklahoma, in Amherst, Mass. The staged events seemed distant, temporally and temperamentally, yet all so familiar. It made for an enchanting and an interminable evening, and once again I was struck by the winsome magnitude of Hammerstein’s doings. In leisurely fashion, “Oklahoma!” waltzes us through two love stories, a box social, an auction, a wily Persian peddler, a drug dream, a killing, etc., as well as the conversion of the once-wild Oklahoma Territory into America’s 46th state.

Hammerstein embraced a typically American hunger for gigantism — an appetite that easily lends itself to complacency and empty bravado and an incuriosity toward foreigners and foreign countries. But in his case expansiveness meant freshness (“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”) and awed humility (“Ol’ Man River” — that flowing Mississippi wider and wiser than us all) and an unshakable conviction that what is bad in society can be made good, and what’s good can be made better.

Throughout his life Hammerstein disapproved of extended mourning. Yes, life’s losses should be duly, ceremonially acknowledged. But then move on: The goal of everyone on the planet is “to advance the life in this universe, the life that we all live.” Tomorrow is a new day, after all. Beginning with, surely, a beautiful morning.

Brad Leithauser’s most recent book is “Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry.”

OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II AND THE INVENTION OF THE MUSICAL | By Laurie Winer | Illustrated | 356 pp. | Yale University Press | $32.50

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