Oscar Hammerstein II

Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein II

Hammerstein watching hopefuls being auditioned on stage at the St. James Theatre
Background information
Birth name Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein
Born July 12, 1895(1895-07-12)
New York City, New York
Died August 23, 1960(1960-08-23) (aged 65)
Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Genres Musical theatre, popular
Occupations songwriter, producer, director

Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II (play /ˈhæmərstn/; July 12, 1895 – August 23, 1960) was an American librettist, theatrical producer, and (usually uncredited) theatre director of musicals for almost forty years. Hammerstein won eight Tony Awards and was twice awarded an Academy Award for "Best Original Song". Many of his songs are standard repertoire for singers and jazz musicians. He co-wrote 850 songs. Hammerstein was the lyricist and playwright in his partnerships; his collaborators wrote the music. Hammerstein collaborated with composers Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg, but his most famous collaboration was with Richard Rodgers.


Early life

Hammerstein was born Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein in New York City, the son of Alice (née Nimmo) and William Hammerstein.[1] His grandfather was German-born Jewish theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein I, and his mother was the daughter of Scottish and English parents.[2] Hammerstein was raised an Episcopalian.[citation needed]

Although Hammerstein's father managed the Victoria Theatre for Oscar Hammerstein I and was a producer of vaudeville shows (he is generally credited with inventing the "pie-in-the-face" routine), he was opposed to his son's desire to participate in the arts.[3] Hammerstein attended Columbia University from 1912–1916 and studied at Columbia Law School until 1917.[4] It was not until his father's death on June 10, 1914, that he participated in his first play with the Varsity Show, entitled On Your Way. Throughout the rest of his college career, Hammerstein wrote and performed in several Varsity Shows.

Early career

Hammerstein with his wife, photographed onboard a ship.

After quitting law school to pursue theatre, Hammerstein began his first professional collaboration, with Herbert Stothart, Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel.[5] He began as an apprentice and went on to form a 20-year collaboration with Harbach. Out of this collaboration came his first musical, Always You, for which he wrote the book and lyrics. It opened on Broadway in 1921.

Throughout the next forty years, Hammerstein teamed with many other composers, including Jerome Kern, with whom Hammerstein enjoyed a highly successful collaboration. In 1927, Kern and Hammerstein had their biggest hit, Show Boat, which is often revived and is still considered one of the masterpieces of the American musical theatre. "Here we come to a completely new genre – the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy. Now... the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. Now... came complete integration of song, humor and production numbers into a single and inextricable artistic entity."[6]

Other Kern-Hammerstein musicals include Sweet Adeline, Music In the Air, Three Sisters, and Very Warm for May. Hammerstein also collaborated with Vincent Youmans (Wildflower), Rudolf Friml (Rose-Marie), and Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song and The New Moon).[7]

Rodgers and Hammerstein

Hammerstein's most successful and sustained collaboration began when he teamed up with Richard Rodgers to write a musical adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs.[8] Rodgers' first partner, Lorenz Hart, was originally going to collaborate with Rodgers on this piece, but his alcoholism had become out of control, and he was unable to write. Hart was also not certain that the idea had much merit, and the two therefore went separate ways. The adaptation became the first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, entitled Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway in 1943. It furthered the revolution begun by Show Boat, by thoroughly integrating all the aspects of musical theatre, with the songs and dances arising out of and further developing the plot and characters. William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird wrote that this was a "show, that, like "Show Boat", became a milestone, so that later historians writing about important moments in twentieth-century theatre would begin to identify eras according to their relationship to "Oklahoma."[9] "After Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the most important contributors to the musical-play form – with such masterworks as Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific. The examples they set in creating vital plays, often rich with social thought, provided the necessary encouragement for other gifted writers to create musical plays of their own".[6]

The partnership went on to produce such Broadway musicals as Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, Me & Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music, as well as the musical film State Fair (and its stage adaptation of the same name), and the television musical Cinderella, all featured in the revue A Grand Night for Singing. Hammerstein also wrote the book and lyrics for Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen with an all-black cast that became a 1943 Broadway musical and a 1954 film.


Hammerstein died of stomach cancer at his home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, at 65,[10] shortly after the opening of The Sound of Music on Broadway. The final song he wrote was "Edelweiss", which was added during rehearsals near the end of the second act.[11][12] This was not an Austrian folk song but had been written specifically for the musical.[13] After his death, The Sound of Music was made into the hit 1965 film adaptation, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

The lights of Times Square[14] were turned off for one minute, and London's West End[15] lights were dimmed in recognition of his contribution to the musical. He was cremated, and his ashes were buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.[16] A memorial plaque was unveiled at Southwark Cathedral, England, on May 24, 1961.[17] He was survived by his second wife Dorothy (Blanchard) Jacobson (m. May 13, 1929) and his three children, William Hammerstein and Alice Hammerstein Mathias by first wife Myra Finn, and James Hammerstein by Blanchard. Dorothy, b. June 7, 1899, died Aug. 3, 1987 in New York.


He was probably the best "book writer" in Broadway history[18][19] – he made the story, not the songs or the stars, central to the musical and brought it to full maturity as an art form. According to Stephen Sondheim, "What few people understand is that Oscar's big contribution to the theater was as a theoretician, as a Peter Brook, as an innovator. People don't understand how experimental Show Boat and Oklahoma! felt at the time they were done. Oscar is not about the 'lark that is learning to pray' – that's easy to make fun of. He's about Allegro."[20]

His reputation for being sentimental is based largely on the movie versions of the musicals, especially The Sound of Music, in which a song sung by those in favour of reaching an accommodation with the Nazis, "No Way to Stop It", was cut. As recent revivals of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I in London and New York show, Hammerstein was one of the more tough-minded and socially conscious American musical theater artists. According to Richard Kislan, "The shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein were the product of sincerity. In the light of criticism directed against them and their universe of sweetness and light, it is important to understand that they believed sincerely in what they wrote."[21] According to Marc Bauch, "The Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are romantic musical plays. Love is important."[22] According to The Rogers and Hammerstein Story by Stanley Green, "For three minutes, on the night of September first, the entire Times Square area in New York City was blacked out in honor of the man who had done so much to light up that particular part of the world. From 8:57 to 9:00pm, every neon sign and every lightbulb was turned off and all traffic was halted between 42nd Street and 53rd Street, and between 8th Ave and the Avenue of the Americas. A crowd of 5,000 people, many with heads bowed, assembled at the base of the statue of Father Duffy on Times Square where two trumpeters blew taps. It was the most complete blackout on Broadway since World War II, and the greatest tribute of its kind ever paid to one man."


Hammerstein contributed the lyrics to 850 songs, according to The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II, edited by Amy Asch.[23] Some well-known songs are "Ol' Man River" from Show Boat, "Indian Love Call" from Rose-Marie, "People Will Say We're in Love" and "Oklahoma" (which has been the official state song of Oklahoma since 1953) from Oklahoma!, "Some Enchanted Evening", from South Pacific, "Getting to Know You" from The King and I, and the title song, "The Sound of Music" as well as "Climb Ev'ry Mountain".

Several albums of Hammerstein's musicals were named to the "Songs of the Century" list as compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Corporation:

  • The Sound of Music — # 36
  • Oklahoma! — # 66
  • South Pacific — # 224
  • The King and I — # 249
  • Show Boat — # 312

Awards and legacy

Hammerstein won two Oscars for best original song—in 1941 for "The Last Time I Saw Paris" in the film Lady Be Good, and in 1945 for "It Might as Well Be Spring" in State Fair. In 1950, the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein received The Hundred Year Association of New York's Gold Medal Award "in recognition of outstanding contributions to the City of New York."

Hammerstein won eight Tony Awards, six for lyrics or book, and two as producer of the Best Musical (South Pacific and The Sound of Music). Rodgers and Hammerstein began writing together before the era of the Tonys: Oklahoma! opened in 1943 and Carousel in 1945, and the Tony Awards were not awarded until 1947. Rodgers and Hammerstein received a special Pulitzer Prize for Oklahoma! in 1944.[24] The Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theater Studies at Columbia University was established in 1981 with a $1 million gift from his family.[25]

His advice and work influenced Sondheim, a friend of the Hammerstein family from childhood. Sondheim has attributed his success in theater directly to Hammerstein's influence and guidance.[26]

The Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre is presented annually. The York Theatre Company in New York City is the Administrator of the award.[27] The 2009 awardees are Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.[28] Past awardees are composers such as Stephen Sondheim and performers such as Carol Channing.[29] The 2010 award will go to Thomas Meehan.


  1. ^ ""MOVIES" FOR "NEWSIES."; Summer Camp for Street Merahants to be Aided by Films". The New York Times. June 19, 1914. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9C0DE1DD143AE633A2575AC1A9609C946596D6CF. 
  2. ^ Fordin, p. 11
  3. ^ Hischak, p. xxix
  4. ^ Hischak, p. 9
  5. ^ Fordin, p. 47
  6. ^ a b "American Musical Theatre: An Introduction", theatrehistory.com, republished from The Complete Book of Light Opera. Mark Lubbock. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. pp. 753–56, accessed December 3, 2008
  7. ^ Biography, Songwriters Hall of Fame songwritershalloffame.org
  8. ^ Fordin, p. 184
  9. ^ Everett, William A. and Laird, Paul R. (2002), The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, Cambridge University Press, p. 124, ISBN 0-521-79639-3
  10. ^ "Oscar Hammerstein II Is Dead", The New York Times, p. 1, August 23, 1960
  11. ^ Maslon, Lawrence. The Sound of Music Companion (2007), p. 177, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 1-4165-4954-4
  12. ^ "Oscar Hammerstein II" rnh.com, accessed November 2011
  13. ^ November 7, 2006. "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" BBC.
  14. ^ "Blackout on Broadway to Honor Hammerstein", The New York Times, p. 52, September 1, 1960
  15. ^ "London Honors Hammerstein", The New York Times, p. 14, August 26, 1960
  16. ^ "Rites for Hammerstein", The New York Times, p. 29, August 25, 1960.
  17. ^ "Hammerstein Honored", The New York Times, p. 32, May 24, 1961: "Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, widow of the lyricist, unveiled a plaque today to his memory in Southwark Cathedral.... Mr. Hammerstein's will provided ₤2000 to support two choir-boys at Southwark Cathedral."
  18. ^ "Hammerstein biography on PBS". PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/hammerstein_o.html. Retrieved 2010-05-08. 
  19. ^ "Interview: Stephen Sondheim". Academy of Achievement. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/printmember/son0int-1. Retrieved 2010-05-08. "People underestimate what [Hammerstein] did in the way of musical theater. He was primarily an experimental writer, and what he was doing was marrying the traditions of opera and American musical comedy, using songs to tell a story that was worth telling. The first real instance of that is Show Boat, which is a watershed show in the history of musical theater, and Oklahoma!, which is innovative in different ways . . . . Now, because of the success of Oklahoma!, and subsequent shows, most musical theater now tells stories through songs. But that was not true prior to 1943, the year of Oklahoma!" 
  20. ^ Rich, Frank. "Conversations with Sondheim", The New York Times Magazine, pp. 38ff, March 12, 2000
  21. ^ Kislan, p. 141
  22. ^ Bauch, p. 155
  23. ^ Jones, Kenneth. "Complete Lyrics" of Hammerstein, in Stores Now, Required Climbing Ev'ry Mountain", playbill.com, December 1, 2008
  24. ^ Special Awards and Citations, Pulitzer Prize pulitzer.org, accessed December 1, 2008
  25. ^ "Columbia Names Stein To Theater Post", The New York Times, February 13, 1983
  26. ^ Hammerstein biography on PBS, pbs.org, accessed November 29, 2008
  27. ^ York Theatre history yorktheatre.org, accessed December 8, 2008
  28. ^ Hetrick, Adam. "Bock and Harnick Receive Hammerstein Award Nov. 23; Cook, Kuhn, Kudisch and More Will Sing" playbill.com, November 23, 2009
  29. ^ Gans, Andrew."Rivera, Vereen, Hirsch, Huffman and More to Salute Walton June 6" playbill.com, May 31, 2005

Further reading

  • Bauch, Marc (2003), The American Musical, Tectum Verlag DE, ISBN 3-8288-8458-X
  • Fordin, Hugh (1995), Getting to Know Him:A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II, Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-80668-1
  • Hischak, Thomas s. (2007), The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0-313-34140-0
  • Kislan, Richard (1995), "The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater", Hal Leonard Corporation, ISBN 1-55783-217-X

External links

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