Monday, July 23, 2018


Oscar Hammerstein died on this day in 1960.  He had quite a career--two, in fact.

Born into a show biz family, his parents would have preferred he become a lawyer, but he couldn't help himself. He became a top book writer and lyricist for Broadway musicals in the 1920s, creating, among other hits, the tremendously successful and influential Show Boat in 1927.

The 30s weren't nearly as successful, and for about a decade he couldn't buy a hit show.  Then in the early 40s composer Richard Rodgers, then at the height of his popularity, asked Hammerstein to collaborate since his regular partner, Lorenz Hart, was becoming unreliable due to alcoholism.  (Hart would die in 1943.)

The new team was a perfect fit.  They both loved the theatre (and, being canny businessmen, loved making money).  Hammerstein wanted to use all aspects of the musical--songs, book and dance--to tell a unified story, as was rarely done in those days.  He and Rodgers rang in the modern age of the integrated musical with their smash hit Oklahoma! in 1943.  They followed over the next 16 years with four major hits--Carousel, South Pacific, The King And I and The Sound Of Music--along with a few flops, a minor hit (Flower Drum Song) and some movie and TV work (State Fair and Cinderella).

I admit Hammerstein isn't always to my taste.  He can be quite sappy and cloying, overly solemn, and too folksy by half.  (If I'm going to play some songs, I'd probably rather hear Rodgers and Hart, even though Hart's work was sometimes slapdash, while Hammerstein labored over each lyric.) But Hammerstein was telling stories that mattered to him, and ending up mattering to millions.

There's a new book out about Rodgers and Hammerstein, Something Wonderful by Todd Purdum, which is a good starting point if you want to know more.  I wouldn't say Purdum has any startling revelations, but he does a solid job spelling out Hammerstein's career, giving him a chapter for his early work and then going into detail over every show with Rodgers.  Meanwhile, the best of R&H is sturdy enough that someone, somewhere is putting on one of their shows tonight.


Blogger brian said...

Whenever I think of these musical partnerships, I am always reminded of a comment I heard somewhere in which the Beatles fan expects that Lennon and McCartney will be the next Comden and Green. I am not too aware of Comden and Green. I am guessing they had a fabulous run of hits in the fifties.
What impressed me about this RH partnership is that they got going in the early 40s- after Rodgers already had a named partnership with Hart.

7:11 PM, July 23, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Lennon and McCartney themselves wanted to be the next Goffin and King, whose names kept appearing on records they liked. Goffin and King were contemporaries of theirs who'd gotten a few years jump on Lennon and McCartney, though the boys soon enough caught up as far as songwriting success goes.

Comden and Green (a man and woman team who weren't married to each other) are a bit different. For one thing, they didn't write music, just words, though they were capable of writing both lyrics and books for musicals. They were also accomplished performers, though they mostly gave that up along the way.

They were perhaps at their peak in the 1950s, though they enjoyed success on Broadway from the 40s through the 90s. They were also quite successful as screenwriters, particularly at writing musicals such as On The Town (adapted from their own Broadway show), Singin' In The Rain, The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather.

Comden and Green worked with a number of composers, though they're most closely associated with Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and Cy Coleman.

There have been a fair number of songwriting teams on Broadway that became well known, but nothing that compares to the case of Richard Rodgers. For over two decades, he wrote only with Lorenz Hart, followed by almost two decades solely with Oscar Hammerstein. If he'd only been in one of these collaborations he'd be remembered as one of the greatest Broadway songwriters ever, so having two of them is amazing.

He also spent his last couple decades--after Hammerstein died--working with various lyricists, such as Stephen Sondheim (who was taught by Hammerstein), Martin Charnin and Sheldon Harnick, though these shows failed to recapture the magic of his earlier work. The best of them is almost certainly No Strings, the first show he did post-Hammerstein and the only one where he wrote his own lyrics. It includes the last song he wrote that's considered a standard, "The Sweetest Sounds."

8:13 PM, July 23, 2018  

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