Passing down the history of American musical theater...and looking ahead:
The legacy of both Oscar Hammersteins
Greenwich Post, 4/11/11
With a family legacy that spans four lifetimes, Andy Hammerstein is keeping his heritage alive, sharing that story with the next generation of actors, theater techs, set designers, stage managers and playwrights. Mr. Hammerstein gave a lecture to students last week speaking about his predecessors' storied contributions to American opera [and] musical comedy. [He] began not by introducing the more famous Oscar Hammerstein II, who collaborated with Richard Rodgers, but with the first Oscar Hammerstein, who introduced opera to New Yorkers. [He] went about the monumental task of making opera accessible to the people: "The theater was all they had. People would come to beer gardens to escape their tenement housing. This was before the days of air conditioning. For 40 weeks at 10 acts a week, that adds up to over 8,000 vaudeville acts throughout the time it was open." At one point, the Met paid him $1 million to refrain from producing opera for 10 years. They didn't know at the time that Mr. Hammerstein could no longer finance shows. "By 1914 the family was running on fumes," Mr. Hammerstein said, explaining the loss of the family fortune into the opera endeavors. This, however, is when the most famous Hammerstein, Oscar II, began to make musicals. "By the 1940s he had done 40 shows, had a few flops, and the phone had stopped ringing. So he went back to what he loved. Combining love and death. They are like the sugar and salt in your snack. They add ballast and depth to the musical." He then got a call from Richard Rodgers and would go on to produce "Oklahoma!" "Carousel" and "South Pacific," which had moral underpinnings that fit into the zeitgeist of the era, with themes of patriotism, putting aside differences and loss in the face of WWII. On one such production, a young Steven Sondheim worked as a production assistant and gofer. Steven Sondheim was acknowledged to be the only student of Oscar Hammerstein to have carried on the traditions.
A remembrance of my uncle, Oscar Hammerstein II
John Steele Gordon, April 2011 issue of Commentary Magazine
The young [Stephen] Sondheim was a frequent guest at The Farm, where Oscar became a father figure for him. One day, when Sondheim was about 15, he brought Oscar the script of a musical that he had written to be performed at the George School, which he and [Oscar's son] Jamie attended. The show, inevitably, was entitled By George. He asked Oscar to read it and tell him what he thought of it. A few days later, Oscar asked him if he really meant it when he said he wanted the script to be treated as though they were strangers. "Yes," said Sondheim. "In that case," Oscar said, "it's the worst thing I've ever read." Sondheim's lower lip began to quiver and Oscar quickly added, "I didn't say it doesn't show talent. But it's just terrible. If you want to know why it's terrible, I'll tell you." For the next several hours, Oscar went over every line, every lyric, every stage direction. Sondheim said that at the end of this crash course in musical theater by one of its masters, he knew how to write for himself. Oscar continued to mentor, advise, encourage, and caution Sondheim until his death 15 years later. By that time, Sondheim had written the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy and was on the cusp of one of the most extraordinary careers in musical-theater history, one that would be as theatrically daring as Oscar's own, and perhaps as significant. Shortly before Oscar died, Sondheim, at a lunch at The Farm, asked Oscar to autograph a photograph for him. At first, Oscar looked at him as though he were crazy, but then his blue eyes suddenly twinkled with inspiration and he took out a pen and wrote on the photograph, "To Steve, my friend and teacher." Sondheim, of course, immediately recognized the reference: "It's a very ancient saying, / But a true and honest thought, / That if you become a teacher / By your pupils you'll be taught" from "Getting to Know You." Like Oscar himself, the inscription was simple, elegant, and profound all at once.
An interview with Stephen Sondheim
Rob Weinert-Kendt, April 2011 issue of American Theater magazine
The career of Stephen Sondheim, like that of any path-breaking artist, has been sui generis. Indeed, his legacy may turn out to be his questing fearlessness as a theatrical innovator. His great contribution to the American musical is, paradoxically, not likely to be in the area of music or lyrics. It is instead in the way he's carried forward the form he inherited from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, who all but adopted Sondheim when he was a feisty young teen bruised by his parents' ugly divorce. If Sondheim found Hammerstein's lessons on integrating song and story invaluably instructive, he took something more important from this surrogate father: an abhorrence of rules and a restless interest in expanding the form.
Do you think that when Hammerstein assigned you to write four musicals-three adaptations, one original-he was trying to turn you into a playwright?
SONDHEIM: Well, that's what he did, and that's how he thought of lyrics-as a playwright. Then Burt Shevelove pointed out to me that there are other ways to write lyrics-the way Cole Porter did, or Irving Berlin did, the way many people did. You know, sometimes lyrics would tell little stories, but quite often they just played with an idea. And that's something...that Hammerstein sort of spoiled for the rest of us. After the success of Oklahoma!, nobody wanted to just come onstage and sing a song like "Let's Do It," and that whole kind of songwriting went out the window in the theatre. But you know, you can't be rigid about these things. There are things that Hammerstein wrote in Oklahoma!-"I Cain't Say No" doesn't go anywhere. So Hammerstein didn't entirely forswear that form. But you'd be hard put to stop a show with a real narrative to sing a delightful song-in something like Sweeney Todd, the audience would get impatient if "Adelaide's Lament" were in there.
Was Rodgers & Hammerstein's failed Allegro what gave you the taste for experimentation?
SONDHEIM: I'm not sure it's that specific. The first overtly experimental show that I wrote was Anyone Can Whistle, which you could say is in the tradition of Of Thee I Sing, only for its own time. It certainly told a story in a conventional way, but its tone-or its attempt to mix tones-I think that was in its way experimental...."Experimental" is one of those words that's tossed around a lot. Company is overtly experimental, in that it's an attempt to blend the revue and the book forms, although you could say that Weill and Lerner's Love Life had that in it, too. The whole point about experimental shows...is that they are only important if they are successful in some way and influence what goes on after. If they're failures, nobody picks up on them, because nobody gets a chance to see them. If Love Life or Allegro had been smash hits, the musical theatre might very well have accelerated in terms of experimentation.
Are you hopeful about the theatre?
SONDHEIM: If you're talking about the musical theatre, I don't think in terms of hopeful or not hopeful. I wish there were more variety. I mean, musicals are really falling into two or three categories these days: There are jukebox musicals; so-called meta-musicals-i.e., musicals that make references to the fact that they're musicals, or what a friend of mine refers to as "musicals that eat their young"; and musicals that take musicals seriously. That doesn't mean solemn musicals, just musicals that don't scavenge, like jukebox musicals, or hide behind anything, like the meta-musicals. It's hard to go to a musical these days and not have seen it before. That was not true 30 years ago, because there were so many places to explore. But as the economic situation gets worse, and producers are less willing to try new things, it's shrinking. In that sense, it's not a hopeful sign. But I know there's a lot of new work out there; it's just not getting heard very widely. Some of it I see through chairing the committee of the Richard Rodgers Production Award-stuff comes in that really is thinking in new ways. There are writers with ideas, fresh ways to look at things, or even in a conventional form interesting things to say. So I know the work is out there.