Oscar Greeley Clendenning Ritter von Hammerstein II (1895-1960), lyricist, librettist, producer, “and humble humanitarian” (Harvey Granat) won eight Tony Awards and two Academy Awards for Best Song. Especially known for memorable collaborations with Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music) the artist had a productive musical life before that iconic partnership.
Hammerstein was born into theatrical tradition. His grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I, was a theater impresario, his father, William Hammerstein, a successful vaudeville manager, his uncle, Arthur, a prolific producer. The artist was raised on musicals and opera. William, however, made it very clear he did not want his son to go into the field. As a result, Oscar registered pre-law at New York’s Columbia University. Several studious years in, he was drawn to their Varsity Shows.
It was at Columbia that Hammerstein first met Richard Rodgers, then working with Larry Hart. When Rodgers and Hart had a song issue, they’d turn to Hammerstein, establishing the former’s lifelong admiration for his senior.
When Carl Van Doren, one of Oscar’s professors, asked the young man what he intended to do with his life, he received a reflex response referring to the law. “That’s too bad,” Van Doren said. “I thought you were going to be a writer.”
History shows this shortly came about. “He was the right genius in the right circumstances,” Granat’s guest, Oscar’s grandson Will comments. He quit school eventually teaming up with Vincent Youmans, Rudolph Friml, Richard A. Whiting, and Sigmund Romberg.
Rose Marie, was the longest running show of the 1920s. It was produced by Arthur Hammerstein, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and Otto Harbach. “People don’t realize how many shows he wrote the book for,” Will Hammerstein points out. Granat sings the title song. It’s genial, gentle, sentimental. Next came The Desert Song with book and lyrics by Hammerstein, Harbach, and Frank Mandel.
1927’s breakout musical Show Boat (with Jerome Kern) made Oscar’s reputation. The first operetta with serious themes – a direction Will credits to Harbach – the show was serially turned down by Florenz Ziegfeld, inadvertently giving its committed writers ample time to tweak. Granat notes Oscar’s continued interest in musicals with libertarian messages. “Who can forget South Pacific’s `You’ve Got to Be Taught’” (with Richard Rodgers).
Hammerstein notes that his grandfather devoted seven hours a day to writing and one to society. He turned his skills to causes (notably in cooperation with Eleanor Roosevelt), fundraising, and even ghost wrote presidential speeches.
Our host performs three songs from the splendid score of Showboat. “Make Believe” showcases the crooner. Shoulders rise and fall with octave changes. “Why Do I Love You?” is utterly charming. “Old Man River” arrives with fatigue and gravitas, longlined, deep, with just a touch of grit and no exaggeration. Granat then turns to ask Hammerstein a question. The latter seems shaken out of a trance. “I’m still getting over hearing `Old Man River,’” he explains.
With the 1930s came a string of flops. Out of wreckage, however, “I’ve Told Every Little Star” (collaborator Jerome Kern’s favorite) became a hit. Granat leads us in a sing-along. “There’s a beautiful story related to that song,” he says.
When Kern collapsed in New York with no ID on him but his ASCAP card, the organization telephoned. Oscar happened to be there at the time. He rushed to the hospital and held Kern’s hand until he passed, quietly singing the song. Evidently Will Hammerstein hadn’t heard the entirety of this. He’s visibly moved.
His grandson then relates the way Stephen Sondheim came into Oscar’s life. “Stephen and his mother had ingratiated themselves before he went to George School in Buck’s County (where the Hammerstein’s had their farm).” While at the academy, Sondheim wrote By George receiving enough praise to get a “swelled head.” He then ceremoniously gave the piece to Oscar for critique.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read…but I’m not saying it’s without talent,” his mentor replied. The two then went over Sondheim’s effort line by line, an invaluable experience for the young writer. “When my dad went home to the farm, he’d invariably ask, ‘Where’s Stephen?’ He was a member of the family,” Hammerstein recalls.
From 1937’s High, Wide and Handsome we hear “The Folks Who Live On The Hill.” Sung in the film by Irene Dunne, it was popularized by Peggy Lee. Granat’s lovely rendition is aided and abetted by David Lahm’s soulful piano. Of 1939’s Very Warm for May, critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Very Warm for May is not so hot for November.” (Both shows – Jerome Kern.)
With only Showboat a success, Hammerstein was delighted when, concerned about Hart’s depression and alcoholism, Rodgers asked him to step in and take over Oklahoma!. “Richard Rodgers was the last person in show business to believe in Oscar Hammerstein,” Will tells us. His grandfather agreed only if Hart didn’t want to continue.
Trying to raise backing on “the penthouse circuit” couldn’t have been easy. “While Rodgers was at the top of his game, Oscar sang and he was tone deaf.” On top of which it seems the composer was ambivalent about source material.
Like Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein had a love affair with Paris. 1940’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (with Jerome Kern) was, at least in part, response to effects of the War. Dropped into, but not written for Lady Be Good, it won the Academy Award. Hammerstein was selflessly disturbed it might happen again and lobbied the Academy to change the category to Best Original Song, i.e. written for the film. He thus potentially gave up awards that might follow when movies were made from his iconic collaborations with Rodgers.
Nine months later, Oscar Hammerstein II passed away. Lights were dimmed on both Broadway and The West End.
Another edifying, entertaining session with Harvey Granat.
In the course of today’s presentation, vocalist Pam Parker performed several light interpretations accompanied by David Lahm’s deft piano. And jazz pianist Lenore Raphael played a convoluted “All the Things You Are” (Jerome Kern) directly after saying she would perform the tune without undue trappings.
Will Hammerstein is the grandson of Oscar Hammerstein II. He’s a founding board member of Oscar Hammerstein’s Highland Farm, a non-profit dedicated to the purchase, restoration and preservation of Oscar Hammerstein’s former home and workplace in Pennsylvania and is currently trying to raise sufficient funds for full programming. Will Hammerstein serves as guest speaker at many events on his family history.
Photos Courtesy of Will Hammerstein
Harvey Granat’s 2020 Y Schedule:
March 26 Jerome Kern with Rex Reed and vocalist Marissa Mulder
April 23 George Gershwin with Robert Kimball and vocalist Natalie Douglas
May 21 Henry Mancini with Will Friedwald and vocalist Christine Andreas
June 18 Leonard Bernstein with Jamie Bernstein
Harvey Granat Songs & Stories: Hammerstein Before Rodgers
Special Guest: Will Hammerstein
Piano: David Lahm
December 12, 2019
92nd Street Y