Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II
The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein II
Knopf, 2008
448 pp., 65.00

Buy Now

John H. McWhorter

Broadway's Country Mouse

The lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein.

More than a few Broadway musical buffs eagerly awaited The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, which takes its place alongside Knopf's previously published lyric collections of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Frank Loesser. For my part, I wasn't counting the days. There, I said it.

In popular perception, musicals tend to be considered corny—never mind that so many classic ones are not. Kiss Me, Kate, Sweet Charity, and A Little Night Music are not saccharine stories. It is the titanic success of Hammerstein's shows with Richard Rodgers that have played a large part in branding musicals as apple-cheeked experiences: think of corn as high as an elephant's eye, or South Pacific's Nellie Forbush, a winsome hick from Arkansas, singing about a "bright canary yellow" sky. Hammerstein was born and bred as an affluent New Yorker, but his spiritual home base was the rural and the sentimental.

Asked why he didn't write the "sophisticated" kind of musical that the other golden age composers specialized in, Hammerstein answered, "You mean one that takes place in a New York penthouse? Mostly because it doesn't interest me." It really didn't: he was known to tear up at his lyric for "The Surrey with the Fringe On Top," the one about chicks and geese scurrying and a lark waking up in the meadow.

To be sure, Hammerstein was top-notch in terms of technique. Imagine being handed the melody for "Ol' Man River" and asked to compose a lyric that 1) is plausible from an unlettered black laborer; 2) thematically sums up Show Boat's protean story about the passage of time, thwarted ambition, and ill-starred love; and nevertheless 3) does not sound forced. Hammerstein came up with a lyric so true that many mistake the song for a genuine black spiritual.

The content is the rub. "Ol' Man River" was of a subsidiary civil rights vein in Hammerstein's work (also exemplified by South Pacific's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught"). The heart of his output had the wide-eyed take on life of the "My Favorite Things" lyric—"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens / Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens"—and it meant that overall his work engaged a smaller slice of what life is than we would prefer of someone with such central stature in musical theater history. (Scholar Ethan Mordden has suggested, in all seriousness, that the chorus of jolly shmoe workers in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream, a musicalization of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, be played by Muppets.)

Hammerstein could be taken as channeling an Americanness that would soon become extinct: the 1930 census was the first to record more Americans living in cities than in the country. Until then, The City was the debauched setting depicted in tragic novels by Theodore Dreiser. The Country was the real America, such that if Sherwood Anderson wrote about the underbelly of small-town America in Winesburg, Ohio, it was news. Today, the notion of the city as unhealthy for one's morals is antique. We pity urban residents dealt a bad hand but hardly suppose that they would be best off relocating to Winesburg—we assume that The City should be made a better place for them.

Hammerstein never internalized this change in sensibility, and the irony is that despite the rearguard ethos of his lyrics, he was the prime driver of the development of the American musical in terms of its narrative structure. His career had three phases, of which the partnership with Rodgers was the final one, the only one comprehensively accessible now because the original cast recording was invented just as it dawned. For most of the Twenties, Hammerstein wrote frothy confections, sharing lyric and script chores with Otto Harbach. But even then, he was already straining to make songs drive plot rather than decorate it.

In 1924, George and Ira Gershwin's Lady, Be Good score, despite establishing jazz as Broadway's new language, gave no idea what the plot was, because the songs merely underlined generic feelings: love, a desire to dance, lack of love, love again. But that same year, Hammerstein with Harbach deftly weaved music into the narrative of Rose-Marie. As they stated in the program, "the musical numbers in this play are such an integral part of the action that we do not think we should list them as separate episodes."

The melodramatic "action" in Rose-Marie—with the grand old "When I'm calling you-hoo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ooo" number—was too trivial to contribute to the maturation of an art form. Hammerstein's second phase began with the immortal Show Boat in 1927. Here was a multilayered behemoth of a story, covering vast swaths of time and space, two thwarted love affairs, race relations, alcoholism, and murder. Broadway had seen nothing like it: audiences at the first performance sat silently for a pregnant pause at the curtain before erupting into furious applause. It remains the earliest Broadway show revivable as a serious piece of theater.

Yet Show Boat did not revolutionize Broadway. This was partly because the Depression dried up funds for shows to the extent that the grand masters decamped to Hollywood until the mid-Thirties. Also, though, Show Boat as performed in 1927 was more status quo in places than legend admits. Queenie the black maid advertises the show on the boat with a song and dance: but how likely would a maid do this? The contrivance served merely to give the woman playing Queenie a "number"—and it was a white woman in blackface!

Oklahoma in 1943 made Broadway grow up for good. Every song drives plot. No one comes out and sings about how much they love dancing. No more of the sort of thing accepted in a bonbon like 1928's Whoopee, in which the plot, such as it was, could be interrupted by singer Ruth Etting presenting "Love Me or Leave Me" in the fashion nicely limned by Mordden: "Etting just comes out and does the number. She does not sneak in on a preposterous song cue. She does not stand around waiting for someone to ask her to sing at a party. She does not show up in a nightclub scene pretending to be a club performer. She comes out and does the number."

Hammerstein, then, wrote the scripts that pioneered the coherence we now take for granted in a Broadway musical. There is a line from him to musical plays such as Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story. Too bad that so much of what the characters in Hammerstein's scripts had to tell relied relentlessly on a "connection to music, birds, love, nature, mountains, and, of course, dreams," as Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, acknowledges in his introduction to the Knopf volume. The only modern resonance we can muster for this conglomeration is psychedelic or New Age. And even then, the particular affection for birds is out of place. It is redolent, rather, of the twee anthropomorphizing that remains a staple of picture books for children.

A new complete recording of 1947's Allegro, like Pipe Dream a rare R&H score that wasn't a hit, sheds light on Hammerstein's vision. Until now examinable only from the 39-minute abbreviation recorded while it ran, Allegro depicted archetypal American Joseph Taylor, Jr., born in a small town, training as a doctor, and working in a big city hospital only to decide that his place is back where he was born.

Critics assailed Hammerstein as reviling urbanity and ambition, but he insisted for the rest of his life that he had been misunderstood. Joseph Taylor's story, Hammerstein said, was intended to show the perils of fame—such as had showered upon Hammerstein himself after Oklahoma. In a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, he described "a conspiracy of the world to render you less effective by bestowing honors on you and taking you away from the job of curing people, or of pleading cases, or writing libretti, and putting you on committees. If you're a doctor, you're suddenly running a hospital instead of tending to the sick directly. You're better off if you remain a doctor."

Still, someone has to run the hospital. Plus, the lyric collection demonstrates, Hammerstein's output between Oklahoma and Allegro was as steady as before. The new Allegro recording shows that Hammerstein's problem was not with distraction but with the very nature of the dreaded city. One can imagine an Allegro where the big city folk are just busy or stressed—but with goals thoroughly respectable (today one thinks of Michelle Obama's erstwhile work in hospital administration).

But Hammerstein writes the city folk as shallow harpies. We meet them at a cocktail party chanting "Yatata" in tight, ominous repetition, summing themselves up as indulging in "Broccoli, hogwash, balderdash / phoney baloney, tripe and trash!" In a song soon thereafter, Joe's erstwhile roommate agrees: " 'Allegro,' a musician / would so describe the speed of it, / the clash and competition of counterpoint." When the sweet, savvy nurse in love with Joe interposes a question—"the need of it?"—Hammerstein digs the knife deeper: the roommate answers, "We cannot prove the need of it! / We know no other way." Then Joe chimes in: "We muffle all the undertones." And again: "The overtones are all we care to play!" Hammerstein hated these people.

A ballet follows the title number, with the insistent vacuity of the "Yatata" figure ever appearing underneath. Allegro ends with Joe's deceased mother reappearing to beseech him to "Come Home"—and home to Hammerstein here includes "brown birds." Birds as always, and apparently there is "no finer sight for a man to see." Never mind the Brooklyn Bridge. Or a Broadway show.

New Yorkers recently got another view of the essence of Hammerstein in the Encores! series revival of his 1932 Music in the Air, unheard since an early Fifties production. Here, Hammerstein pulled off the trick of making all of the music diegetic: that is, all of it entails the characters singing within the reality of a narrative—at performances, recalling numbers they once sang, doing summer camp-style marching songs, and so on. The story even includes two arch, urban lead characters, star stage performers. But typically of Hammerstein, the narrative depicts them as symptoms of the moral miasma of the city: we are to cherish, in contrast, the small-town essence of the lead couple.

And more to the point, even these witty urbanites only sing in Hammersteinese. The year Irving Berlin's characters in Face the Music were singing "You Must Be Born With It" (i.e., hoofing ability) and "I Don't Want to Be Married (I Just Want to Be Friends)," Hammerstein's couple sing to each other in quotation of a song the man uses to seduce chorus girls, "The Song is You": "I hear music when I touch your hand / a beautiful melody from some enchanted land," the lyric goes, now a classic—but what do we think of today as "some enchanted land"?

Whatever was going on in Hammerstein's books, when he sat down and wrote what his characters would sing, it was too often what we now classify as Hallmark. Yes, he could write "funny" when necessary—Celeste Holm's rendition of Oklahoma's "I Cain't Say No" in an early-Fifties television tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein is as funny today as an episode of 30 Rock. And fans are also fond of pointing out his more sour moments, such as The Sound of Music's "An Ordinary Couple."

These, however, are exceptions: Hammerstein's default mode was sentimental. There's a place for Hallmark, of course—I enjoy "If I Loved You" from Carousel as much as anyone else. But this new volume leaves me wishing that Hammerstein actually had essayed a musical about, say, people in a New York penthouse. They have feelings, too, after all, even without the succor of larks in canary yellow skies. The particular overall character of Hammerstein's work is especially clear when comparing this new volume to the earlier ones in the series. The Cole Porter collection is one long party. The Hammerstein volume feels more like a function.

John H. McWhorter is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English (Gotham).

Most ReadMost Shared