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Happy 121st Birthday Oscar Hammerstein II
Today, 12 July 2016, would have been Oscar Hammerstein II's 121st Birthday. Born in New York City in 1895 to a theatrical manager, it is perhaps not surprising that he went on to be one of the most influential and important creators of musical theatre to work in the twentieth century and one whose legacy is very much alive in 2016.
Hammerstein's work and footprint continues to be the staple ingredient of modern musical theatre. Whilst his work with composer Richard Rodgers is amongst his most famous, with titles such as The King and I, Oklahoma! and Carousel defining a new 'golden age' of musical theatre, his contribution to the form, content and dramaturgy of the genre is sometimes grievously overlooked. As creative teams for musicals get somewhat wider, less emphasis is placed on the role of the lyricist, and many modern musicals see the role of book writer and lyricist separated to encompass a wider team. Hammerstein's genius at combining both roles and firing on all cylinders is second to none, and his craft has gone on to inspire and influence countless artists across a variety of disciplines.
As mentor to Stephen Sondheim, Hammerstein is directly responsible for the career of another of America's most influential and game changing musical theatre artists. Sondheim has repeatedly commented that he was so enamored with Hammerstein that he would have followed him down any career path, but luckily for theatre, he encouraged the young Sondheim to hone his theatrical craft.
Wider afield, his legacy stands up within even the most modern form of theatre, referenced in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Pulitzer Prize winning musical Hamilton, which includes a direct reference to his lyric for "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught", the controversial number from South Pacific. It's very inclusion not only cements his legacy on modern musical theatre writers and self confessed fanatics such as Miranda, but shows how Oscar's way with words can rarely be bettered in a similar way that modern playwrights often turn to Shakespeare quotes both directly and indirectly.
Whilst Hammerstein's lyrics have provided some of the most memorable in the musical theatre canon, his contributions as book-writer have arguably become more important in the development and style of musical theatre over the twentieth century. Many are quick to point out the semi-formulaic nature of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, namely the two act structure that balances a main and a secondary couple alongside wider production numbers and a longer ballet or dream section, this recognizable form has dictated future musicals throughout the 40s, 50s and even 60s, before experimentation with the genre began to really set in on Broadway. It's possible to even point out that three of Hammerstein's biggest shows, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music even share the same fundamental story – an outsider female discovering feelings for an older exotic male whilst at the same time trying to come to terms with his children from a previous marriage – the very fact that this familiarity can spawn such different results is testimony to his skill with a pen.
Some 121 years since his birth, London theatre continues to be blessed with his work and legacy. Daniel Evans' glorious revival of Show Boat shows Hammerstein at his earliest collaboration with Jerome Kern, supplying an adapted book that went on to define a genre and be continually held up as a masterpiece and game changing piece of musical theatre. The integration of song, narrative, humour and production number came together to give the world one of it's first true book musicals,t the blueprint of which would be used for decades to come by writers from multiple disciplines.
Producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland are preparing to mount a brand new production of Hammerstein's 1947 musical Allegro, which is yet to be seen in the UK in a professional capacity. Despite coming hot off the success of the duo's earlier triumphs and boasting the biggest advance in contemporary history, the musical struggled to find an audience out of town and has since become one of Hammerstein's most forgotten titles. This new production will no doubt reinvigorate an interest in the show that includes many wonderful lyrics, as well as a book that Hammerstein admits he was never fully happy with.
It is estimated that Hammerstein contributed lyrics to around 850 songs throughout his lifetime, and it remains somewhat impossible to select a favourite lyric amongst the varied titles. Personally, I have always found myself more moved by his skill as a dramaturge and book writer, his ability to craft some of theatre's most dramatic and poignant scenes and work alongside his collaborators to guide their musicalisation. 'The Porch Scene' in Carousel remains one of my most loved moments in theatre, and is frequently studied by students and academics as being a significant dramatic construction. Carousel features not only a challenging book that has to juggle a death of a central character at the end of the first act, but also has to make a broken wife sympathetic towards her abusive husband – something that only the finest productions ever truly master.
Recently re-watching the Lincoln Center's revival of The King and I, lovingly directed by Bartlett Sher and delivered with intricate precision by a hugely talented cast, I was reminded how the characters of Mrs Anna and the King of Siam are two of musical theatre's strongest yet complex characters, and thanks to Hammerstein's well tempered book, momentum builds to the simplest yet most moving of climaxes, as the pair join hands in the second Act number “Shall We Dance”. Accentuated by a significant key changes by Rodgers, this moment not only cements their feelings towards each other, but also manages to represent the meeting of two distinct cultures coming together to accept each other's point of view - pure theatrical genius.
Modern standards can sometimes criticize these musicals and moments as being overly sentimental, and against rock musicals that deal with teenage angst and modern problems they can feel slightly old hat. In an age where every local amateur theatre company have produced a string of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows there can genuinely be no theatre fan who has gone untouched by one of their shows, no matter what the quality, and that legacy in itself is something to be celebrated.
I for one regard Oscar Hammerstein as being one of the most important cultural contributors of the twentieth century, and will raise a glass to his 121st Birthday, and I invite you to do the same.
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