Retrospectives show the power of Oscar Hammerstein's songwriting

Oscar Hammerstein II was the voice of mid-20th century America — a sentimental, cockeyed optimist. With his writing partner, composer Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein provided the soundtrack for a nation on the rise during and after World War II. Their astonishing string of hits from 1943 to 1959 define the golden age of musical theater: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music.

Rodgers and Hammerstein never really fade away — important revivals are always being staged, like the South Pacific now on Broadway — but a recently published book provides fascinating insight into how their shows came about. The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II includes everything from utterly familiar songs such as Younger Than Springtime and You'll Never Walk Alone to obscurities such as All in Fun, a nightclub ditty from Very Warm in May, one of Hammerstein's flops in the 1930s.

There's another new release that adds to the legacy, the first complete recording of Allegro, a 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that was highly innovative but never found an audience. "Of all the musicals I ever worked on that didn't quite succeed, Allegro is the one I think most worthy of a second chance,'' said Rodgers in his autobiography. Now his sumptuous score has been given a great performance by an all-star cast that includes Patrick Wilson, Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Nathan Gunn and Marni Nixon.

• • •

Hammerstein's body of work is so vast — lyrics to 850 songs are included in the book — that it covers virtually every possible human emotion and experience, but a few themes do predominate: Spring, mountains, birds, love and dreams.

"His positivity often resulted in using the word 'dream' in his lyrics,'' said his daughter, Alice Hammerstein Mathias, in the book's foreword. "In fact, he found it in so many songs that he decided he would avoid the word for his next show, which was South Pacific. But it appeared there in more songs than in any other show he had written lyrics for!''

Hammerstein, born in 1895 in Manhattan and raised in a prominent theater family, was a sophisticated man with the common touch. His lyrics juxtapose grandly romantic verse and down-to-earth images to brilliant effect, such as the "bright, golden haze on the meadow'' and "corn as high as a elephant's eye'' that Curly sings about to begin Oklahoma!

"His lyrics are passionate but not showy,'' said Amy Asch, editor of The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II, in an interview. "There are some tricky rhymes in places, but it's not about the rhyming. It's more about simple pleasures. There are stars and breezes and the promised kiss of springtime.''

Hammerstein was different from many other legendary lyricists, such as Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter or Rodgers' earlier writing partner, Lorenz Hart. Where their songs were full of cleverness and wit, his were sincere.

"There's this notion that Larry Hart was writing for an audience of three guys in the back room of Sardi's, but Hammerstein was writing for all the United States, and I think that's true,'' said Asch, whose annotations to the shows and songs constitute a virtual handbook on the making of musical theater.

Hammerstein, who wrote the books to most of his shows, was a great experimenter. To be sure, many of his 1920s musicals consisted of little more than gags and spectacle to entertain the proverbial tired businessman — a number in Rose-Marie of 1924 featured 50 chorus girls dressed as totem poles. But he also kept taking chances in telling the story through a blend of music, dance and dialogue. It was an approach that eventually led to breakthroughs like Show Boat and Oklahoma!

There was a sad note to the Hammerstein legacy in February, with the untimely death of conductor-musical theater archivist John McGlinn in New York. In 1988, McGlinn put out a recording of Show Boat that was exhaustive, three-and-a-half hours on three CDs of every piece of music ever written by Hammerstein and composer Jerome Kern for the many versions of the show on stage and film.

The recording features a wonderful cast of opera and musical theater singers, including Frederica Von Stade and Jerry Hadley as Magnolia and Ravenal, Teresa Stratas as Julie and Bruce Hubbard as Joe. There's even a cameo by Lillian Gish as the Lady on the Levee. McGlinn, who died at 55 of a heart attack, did as much as anyone to demonstrate that Hammerstein deserved to be taken seriously as an artist.

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In the Allegro recording, Patrick Wilson plays Joseph Taylor Jr., an everyman hero whom the musical follows from birth to middle age as he pursues a medical career that takes him from small-town doctor to big-city hospital administrator. Wilson, the St. Petersburg native who went from Broadway shows like The Full Monty and a revival of Oklahoma! to Hollywood blockbusters like Watchmen, has never sounded better in numbers such as A Darn Nice Campus and You Are Never Away, a love song with one of Hammerstein's most poetic lyrics:

You're a star in the lace

Of a wild willow tree

In the green, leafy lace

Of a wild willow tree.

Hammerstein moved on from Allegro to bigger things — South Pacific premiered two years later — but he identified with Taylor, who became less happy the more successful he was as a doctor. This is brought out in the CD booklet by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who was Hammerstein's protege and worked as a production assistant during rehearsals of Allegro on summer vacation from college.

"The show is autobiographical — Oscar wanted to show what had happened to himself,'' Sondheim said. "As a result of the success of Oklahoma! and Carousel, he had become so successful that he was an icon, and a useful one.''

Hammerstein served as president of the Authors League and vice president of the World Federalists and began to spend a lot of time on committees. "In Allegro, he was writing about the conflict between responsibility to your community and responsibility to yourself,'' Sondheim said. "He found that the more public appearances he made, the more speeches he gave, the more he traveled to support these causes, the less time he had for writing, the thing he was born to do.''

Hammerstein was working on a revision of Allegro for TV when he died in the summer of 1960.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

. IN PRINT & on DISC

The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II

Edited by Amy Asch

Alfred A. Knopf, 448 pages, $65

Allegro

Studio Cast, 2009 (Sony Masterworks Broadway,

2 CDs)

Show Boat

Studio Cast, 1988 (EMI,

3 CDs)

Lyrics

Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man

Fish got to swim,

birds got to fly,

I got to love one man

till I die —

Can't help lovin' dat man

of mine.

Show Boat, 1927

Lonely Feet

Lonely feet,

While others are gliding by

Here are my lonely feet

Waiting to dance.

Lonely waist,

Intended for arms to hold,

Lonely waist, unembraced,

Waits for a dance.

Three Sisters, 1934

A Wonderful Guy

I'm as corny as

Kansas in August

I'm as normal as

blueberry pie.

No more smart

Little girl with no heart,

I have found me

a wonderful guy.

South Pacific, 1949

My Favorite Things

Raindrops on roses and

whiskers on kittens,

Bright copper kettles and

warm woolen mittens,

Brown paper packages

tied up with strings —

These are a few of my

favorite things.

The Sound of Music, 1959

Retrospectives show the power of Oscar Hammerstein's songwriting 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 4:30am]

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