Oscar Hammerstein - Getting to Know More About Him
Oscar Hammerstein, born Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein ll was named after both his grandfathers, and was born on July 12th 1895 into a show business family. Their life was the theatre: Oscar Hammerstein l (1846-1919) was an opera producer and his father, William, was a manager of a vaudeville theatre in Manhattan. Hammerstein’s mother, Alice Nimmo (daughter of Scottish immigrants) died when he was just 15 years old.
Hammerstein started law school at Columbia University, but before completing the degree, he managed to persuade his uncle, Broadway producer Arthur Hammerstein, to let him work as assistant stage manager for one of his shows.
From this beginning Oscar Hammerstein 2 became one of the most famous lyricist, playwright, director and producer Broadway has ever known.
The photo on the right shows fellow Broadway legends Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin with Hammerstein at auditions in 1948.
“The difference between Oscar and the rest of us lyricists, is that he is a poet” - Irving Berlin
In the early 1900’s Oscar wrote the lyrics for several songs and in 1917 he began writing plays. He worked alongside famous lyricist, Otto Harbech, and had their first success with Rose Marie in 1924.
On August 22nd 1917 Hammerstein married Myra Finn. They had two children William and Alice, but after only twelve years of marriage Oscar and Myra divorced and later Hammerstein met and married Dorothy Blanchard Jacobson, with whom he had one son, James. They married on May 14th 1929.
Oscar (or Ockie as he was fondly nicknamed) also worked with composer Jerome Kern and together they wrote eight musicals, one of which was Show Boat in 1927 which included the famous song ‘Ole Man River’. This song has been called the first protest song on Broadway. Hammerstein’s script through the whole of Show Boat is full of meaning and power about racism and social inequalities.
“The themes of Hammerstein’s script still are valid today, racism, spousal abandonment, bigotry and financial hardship. This is what makes this film a classic.” - anon
Oscar himself said that Paul Robeson, who sang ‘Ol Man River’, had taken the song away from him and had given it to the ages. One could not have higher praise than that.
It has been said that Hammerstein’s musicals represent America’s history, he wrote about racism in Show Boat, domestic violence in Carousel and slavery in The King and I. Hammerstein was always keen to ‘expose conflict rather than preach it’.
In all of Hammerstein’s work he favours hope over despair. This can be seen in The Sound of Music where amidst the Nazi takeover of Austria there is still hope that good will be triumphant.
“I know the world is full with troubles and many injustices, but reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about beautiful things as it is to talk about slums. I just couldn’t write anything without hope in it” - Oscar Hammerstein
Oscar Hammerstein did nearly all of his writing standing at a tall book keepers desk. He said that this stimulated his creativity. Whether this was the reason behind his momentous works of art or not, he certainly wrote some memorable songs with Richard Rodgers in the 1940’s. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Musicals List can be found on the Richard Rodgers page.
It’s been said that the most used word in all his lyrics is ‘dream’. Is it coincidental then that the last song in The Sound of Music is the orchestral version of ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, the last word in this song being ‘dream’? Oscar Hammerstein once said
“If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to make a dream come true?”
In 1941 Oscar Hammerstein 2nd moved with his wife and family to Highland Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This beautiful farm was the perfect setting for Hammerstein to write some of his most famous pieces such as South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music.
is a Bed and Breakfast owned and operated by Christine Cole. Each room is dedicated to one of Oscar Hammerstein’s musicals. There is of course a Sound of Music room, where you can sit and relax to the sound of the grand piano. If you decide to stay here, you will be able to wander around the property or sit on the beautiful wrap around porch and imagine this great man putting his words down on paper.
You never know, it might just inspire you………….
The photo above shows Rodgers and Hammerstein in a photo opportunity with the three leading actresses from the South Pacific show. They are mimmicking the shower scene from the musical!
Oscar Hammerstein is the only man named Oscar ever to win an Oscar award. He won Oscars for the songs ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ (Lady Be Good 1941) and ‘It might as Well be Spring’ (State Fair 1945).
Hammerstein was also a mentor to Alan Jay Lerner and to lyricist and composer Stephen Soundheim (lyricist for West Side Story). Stephen described him as a
‘highly intelligent, strongly principled and philosophical man’
The last piece of work that Hammerstein wrote was the song ‘Edelweiss’, which was performed by Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. He was at the time fighting stomach cancer, but later died on August 23rd 1960. In honor of a great man the lights on Broadway went out for ‘the man who owned Broadway’.
The Sound of Music turned out to be Oscar Hammerstein’s most lasting gift to the world.