An interview with Oscar Andrew Hammerstein, whose The Hammersteins was published by Black Dog & Leventhal.
PW: Your grandfather was Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame. Coming from such a notable theater lineage, why did you not pursue the “family business?"
AH: Early on I showed a talent for painting and drawing and so my parents encouraged me to pursue that. But I was always aware of the theatrical legacy that loomed so large over the family and, after college, I began to acquaint myself with my family's history. I created a family tree and tracked down all living members with an eye and ear to interviewing them - to capture their memories and stories for posterity. From that project, I became the default family historian, a position that, I am happy to say, changed the course of my life.
PW: How has the musical theater changed since your grandfather’s Oklahoma and South Pacific era?
AH: Economics. And technology. As theatre production, and especially, musical theatre production became more costly it became more risky. Songwriters who once wrote routinely and profitably for the stage no longer wanted to risk time and money when highly profitable, newfangled LPs could be cranked out like sausages with none of the risk. If the musical stage had remained an economic platform for musical creativity, everyone from the Beatles to Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa would have written for the stage. (It’s ironic—wwhen a reporter asked the Beatles, as they de-planed for their first American tour, whether they wanted to be the next Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney replied, “Oh, no. We want to be the next Rodgers and Hammerstein.” But by then, rock, or rhythm & blues, had already replaced theatre music at the top of the pops.)
PW: What do you imagine Oscar II would make of today’s Sondheim-esque musicals, with their ABBA tunes, rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, etc.—and what do you think of these shows?
AH: Sondheim replaced the happily-ever-after sentimental romanticism of Oscar’s time with a more realistic, uncertain modernism. His shows are uncomfortably closer to the way things really are. They pose knotty questions like – What happens after happily-ever-after? Why is the future so obvious in hindsight? Can unsympathetic characters evoke sympathy? Is the creative artist as dramatic as the art he produces? And on and on. While these shows might lack the emotionally satisfying quality of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, they provoke thought.
And for me rock is problematic. It is wedded to the plaintive or protest song tradition – it states an opinion, but rarely develops it. Also, the backbeat can drown out an important part of a thoughtful lyric. Rock is but one musical form among many. When a show limits itself to the one idiom, it is like an artist who limits his palette to one color rather than availing himself of the widest possible range. Why use rock where a lullaby or waltz might more easily suffice? I enjoy many forms of rock, but generally despise rock musicals.
PW: You devote a whole chapter of your book to Showboat, Oscar II’s celebrated collaboration with Jerome Kern about which much has been written. What’s the importance/significance of that work?
AH: Oscar and Jerry were intent on faithfully maintaining the novel’s atmosphere and the accuracy of the characters. Every song had to be an integral part of the characters’ development and the unfolding storyline. They labored to integrate all the elements—lyrics, music, setting—so that they flowed seamlessly and were fully integrated into the scene. Show Boat was more than a discomforting window on racial inequality. It was a meditation on the capriciousness of fate itself—some deserved theirs, others did not. Some characters lived and loved happily ever after, others did not. This was a realist melodrama—a hybrid—and it was a first. It remains inarguably the most important and influential play in the history of American musical theatre. By employing American themes, characters, and speech patterns, it broke the operetta and the musical comedy tradition that had come before it. It was the tipping point in the evolution of the “book musical.” Its story structure and realism stood in marked contrast to the complacent, redundant fairy-tale operettas and musical comedies then cluttering up Broadway and was a harbinger of the genre’s dynamic but still distant future. It pointed the way.
PW: What made Oscar II such an important theatrical figure of his era; what was his legacy to those who followed him?
AH: Oscar’s contributions to the development of the musical-play form make him inarguably the most important lyricist and librettist in the history of the Broadway stage. His songs and shows are as popular today as when they were written and remain the gold standard by which today’s shows are, or ought to be, judged. He furthered the transformative power of the musical play by making the believability and truthfulness of the story—the show’s libretto—the organic center around which all the other elements orbited. Moreover, Oscar II’s lyrics were warm, humane, and touched on themes of tolerance and understanding. Even his one signal failure, AIlegro, may have proved the most enduring part of his legacy, for it sparked a flame of fearlessness in his only student, Stephen Sondheim, who, along with other contemporary creators, has carried the torch and pushed the boundaries of musical realism into the 21st century.