A revelatory portrait of the creative partnership that transformed musical theater and provided the soundtrack to the American Century
They stand at the apex of the great age of songwriting, the creators of the classic Broadway musicals Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, whose songs have never lost their popularity or emotional power. Even before they joined forces, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had written dozens of Broadway shows, but together they pioneered a new art form: the serious musical play. Their songs and dance numbers served to advance the drama and reveal character, a sharp break from the past and the template on which all future musicals would be built.
Though different in personality and often emotionally distant from each other, Rodgers and Hammerstein presented an unbroken front to the world and forged much more than a songwriting team; their partnership was also one of the most profitable and powerful entertainment businesses of their era. They were cultural powerhouses whose work came to define postwar America on stage, screen, television, and radio. But they also had their failures and flops, and more than once they feared they had lost their touch.
Todd S. Purdum’s portrait of these two men, their creative process, and their groundbreaking innovations will captivate lovers of musical theater, lovers of the classic American songbook, and young lovers wherever they are. He shows that what Rodgers and Hammerstein wrought was truly something wonderful.
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About the Author
Todd S. Purdum is the author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come and A Time of Our Choosing. He is a staff writer for The Atlantic, having previously worked for more than twenty years at The New York Times, where he covered beats from City Hall to the White House and served as Los Angeles bureau chief. He has also been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a senior writer at Politico. A native of Macomb, Illinois, and a graduate of Princeton University, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Dee Dee Myers, and their two children.
Read an Excerpt
The sophisticate is a man who thinks he can swim better than he can and sometimes drowns himself. He thinks he can drive better than he really can and sometimes causes great smashups. So, in my book, there's nothing wrong with sentiment because the things we're sentimental about are the fundamental things in life, the birth of a child, the death of a child or of anybody, falling in love. I couldn't be anything but sentimental about these basic things. I think to be anything but sentimental is being a "poseur."
Oscar Hammerstein II
There is some dispute about whether he saw his first play at the age of three or four or five — or even eight — but there is no dispute that Oscar Hammerstein II was born into the theater. He never had a chance to escape it — and he tried. His paternal grandfather and namesake, the first Oscar Hammerstein, was the most famous theatrical producer in America, if not the world, when his grandson was born in Harlem on July 12, 1895. The elder Hammerstein was the son of German Jewish parents from Stettin, Prussia, and he showed an early talent on the flute, piano, and violin. But his father wanted him to pursue more practical subjects. Hammerstein resisted, and one day after his father beat him for going skating in a park, the son sold his violin and lit out first for Liverpool and then New York, arriving in America at the age of eighteen.
He found work in a cigar factory on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, and eventually became a cigar manufacturer himself, ultimately owning patents for some eighty devices used in production. He used the proceeds to pursue his passion: the theater, where he made his money in vaudeville and lost several fortunes in pursuit of opera, his first love. At one point, his Manhattan Opera House rivaled the mighty Metropolitan Opera itself, which bought him out on the proviso that he not produce any opera in America for ten years. He fled to Europe, went broke, came home, and went broke again, saved only by his son Willie, the younger Oscar's father, who managed the family's legitimate theaters and, later, its variety houses. The old man was a romantic, but also a realist. One of his favorite maxims: "There is no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad show."
Oscar II had hardly any contact with his famous forebear while growing up (his own father wanted his offspring to avoid a theatrical career at all costs), but he would inherit his namesake's pragmatism: The composer Johnny Green called Oscar II "a businessman-poet," and his future partner Richard Rodgers would describe him as "a dreamer, but a very careful dreamer." The younger Oscar first met his grandfather, a gruff and forbidding figure in a black silk top hat, in the lobby of Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre, a vaudeville house at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square. Later, alone in the darkened theater, young Oscar watched transfixed as a bevy of women, costumed as water maidens, sought to untangle a large fishing net and sang a beguiling siren song. At intermission, his father took him backstage, where he promptly came face-to-face with a large lion in a cage. Suddenly, the cage started to roll toward him, and he feared he might be sick to his stomach. By one later account, he went home, slept fourteen hours, and "when he awoke, he announced that the theater would be his life work."
At the age of four, for reasons he himself would later be unable to explain, Oscar was sent to an apartment one flight below his own family's to live with his maternal grandparents, who were of Scots-Presbyterian stock, while his younger brother, Reginald, remained upstairs with their parents, Willie and Allie. Young Oscar started each day sharing a milk punch spiked with scotch with his grandfather, James Nimmo, and at bedtime they would split a bottle of Guinness stout. Every morning, the pair would troop to nearby Mount Morris Park shortly before seven, in time to see an attendant climb the winding staircase to a bell tower and sound the hour. His grandfather told him that it was the devil who rang the bell, a little old man whose heart was filled with kindness and his pockets with sourballs of the kind that Grandfather Nimmo himself dispensed. Oscar would later attribute his love of the theater to his Grandfather Hammerstein and his sunny, upbeat view of life to Grandfather Nimmo.
If Oscar and Reggie thrilled to all aspects of the theater (a special favorite was the Wild West show of "Buffalo Bill" Cody, which they managed to see over and over for free by volunteering to be two of the children in a stage coach chased by a tribe of wild Indians), Oscar's father fulfilled his role as the theatrical businessman of the family with more duty than joy. He didn't like the theater, didn't see plays except his own, and didn't even audition promising acts he'd heard about, on the theory that if they were good enough, they'd come to him. He trudged to the theater each morning, returning home for an early dinner before trooping back downtown again to count the nightly box- office receipts. Oscar would later recall, "Kissing him goodbye in the morning and hello in the evening was nearly the whole story of my experience with my father during my early youth. I didn't really get to know him. He didn't really become a force of any kind in my life until my mother died. I was fifteen then. Up until that time I had respect and affection for him merely because he was my father. He seldom scolded me and never punished me, I think the extent of his rebukes would be asking: 'Is that nice?' if he disapproved of something I had done or said."
By his own reckoning, "Ockie," as he would be known to his family and intimates for the rest of his life, was a cossetted mother's boy. "She was my friend, my confidante, obviously my worshipful admirer and also the firmest and strongest person I knew," he would remember late in life. "Without ever punishing me, and without ever seeming stern, she had a way of letting me know when she meant a thing to be done or not to be done." Allie's death from a botched abortion and the resulting peritonitis (she was an early advocate of birth control, but methods were unreliable then) affected him deeply. During her illness, he would recall, "I didn't believe she was going to die for the simple reason that I couldn't visualize a world without her, couldn't imagine living without her." After she died, he found he was able to carry on with his life, and noted that this early trauma "crystallized an attitude" he had had toward death ever since. "I never feel shaken by death, as I would have been if this had not happened to me when I was fifteen. I received the shock and took it, and sort of resisted as an enemy the grief that comes after death rather than giving way to it. I get stubborn about it and say it is not going to lick me, because it didn't then."
More than forty years after his mother's death, Oscar would write to his own eldest son, Bill, that "whatever order or form I have got out of life has been extracted from chaos," adding, "my strange disorderly unsystematic family may have developed in me a tolerance for disorder which makes it possible for me to live in a disorderly world, even though I crave another kind." Indeed, Stephen Sondheim, his protégé and surrogate son, would judge that "Oscar's point of view ... was both more hard-headed and more quirky than people who think of him as a naïve and dreamy idealist might expect."
* * *
After Allie's death, Willie Hammerstein remarried — to his wife's maiden sister, Anna, who was known as Mousie. She was a buxom, tattooed, somewhat blowsy woman, whose favorite greeting was "Hiya, Tootsie," but she became a loving stepmother, encouraging a warmer relationship between Willie and his sons. By their teenage years, both Oscar and Reggie were spending their summers at the Weingart Institute, a pioneering and renowned summer camp in Highmount, New York, where Oscar made enduring friendships with his fellow campers, including Harold Hyman, who became his longtime physician, Leighton Brill, who would work as his assistant for two decades (and would for a time run the Hollywood office of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with mixed results), and Myron and David O. Selznick, the brothers who would win fame as Hollywood's first talent agent and one of its legendary producers.
In 1912, at the age of seventeen, Oscar entered Columbia University, where his contemporaries included the future publisher Bennett Cerf, the future screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, the future lyricist and Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer publicist Howard Dietz, and an antic, elfin personality named Lorenz Hart, whose future would be interwoven with Hammerstein's own in ways he could scarcely have fathomed. In part to please his father, Oscar enrolled in a pre-law curriculum. But Willie Hammerstein died of kidney disease at age thirty-nine in 1914, and with him died any last obstacle to Oscar's pursuit of a theatrical career. From the beginning, the allure of Columbia lay less in its classrooms than in the Varsity Show, a musical comedy extravaganza staged each spring in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Astor in Times Square. Though the shows were amateur — performed by undergraduates and typically produced by recent alumni — they approached professional caliber and were routinely reviewed by the major New York newspapers. Hammerstein joined the University Players as both a performer and writer, and his first appearance was as a "consumptive poet" in the 1915 show, On Your Way. The critic of the New York Evening World wrote of his performance, "Oscar is a comedian and as a fun-maker he was a la carte, meaning all to the mustard."
The following year's show, The Peace Pirates, witnessed a bigger milestone for Oscar, who had written a few of the sketches for his friend Herman Mankiewicz and had made an impression as a black-face comedian. After one Saturday matinee he met a dark-eyed teenage boy, the younger brother of Oscar's fraternity brother Morty Rodgers. In later years, there would be lighthearted disagreements over whether young Dick Rodgers was wearing short pants or long, but the result of their first meeting is clear: that very afternoon, Richard Rodgers resolved to go to Columbia and write Varsity Shows himself.
For his part, Hammerstein transferred to the Columbia Law School after his junior year and continued to write for the Varsity Shows, but his work was juvenile, betraying few traces of the craft he would later hone so painstakingly. The 1917 show, written in partnership with Herman Axelrod, was called Home, James, and it featured an ethnic comedy number, of the sort typical at the time, called "Annie McGinnis Pavlova," about a shanty Irish girl who tries to pass as "the pride of the Ballet Russe." Another effort included this inelegant rhyme:
I want to be a star in moving pictures Like Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and the other fixtures.
Oscar spent time as a $5-a-week process server for a law firm called Blumenstiel and Blumenstiel, but he was a miserable failure and the job didn't last. So in the summer of 1917, he approached his uncle Arthur, who had taken over the family theatrical business from Willie, and begged for work in one of his shows. Arthur had promised his brother that he'd keep Oscar out of show business, but his nephew was adamant. "It's in my blood," Oscar insisted, "and furthermore I need the money."
Oscar needed the money, in part, because he had fallen in love with Myra Finn (as it happened, a distant cousin of Richard and Morty Rodgers), whom he had known for years but had recently reencountered at a weekend party at the New Jersey shore. Petite at four feet eleven inches, and two years younger than Oscar, she was known to her friends and family as "Mike" and had a quicksilver personality that was by turns attractive and off-putting. Her parents opposed the match, skeptical of Oscar's prospects, but the couple persisted, and they were married in the Finns' apartment on August 22, 1917.
Uncle Arthur had also finally relented, hiring Hammerstein as assistant stage manager for his long-running show You're in Love, at the princely salary of $20 a week. (Oscar was lucky: the chorus girls of the era earned $18 a week and had to supply their own shoes and stockings after the first pair wore out.) When the show closed that summer, Arthur rewarded Oscar with the permanent staff job of production stage manager, and the younger man quickly set about learning every facet of the trade, working as an office boy and play reader in the daytime and stage manager at night, and looking for any chance to contribute during the rehearsals of new shows. Though Arthur had made him promise not to try to write anything for at least a year, an opportunity arose that fall when the latest Hammerstein show, a bit of fluff called Furs and Frills, ran into trouble out of town. The overworked authors assigned Oscar to write lyrics for the second-act opening. In the end, he wrote only the opening chorus, intended to help the audience returning from intermission get seated as dancers hoofed across the stage at a house party:
Make yourselves at home,
"In those days, it was more of a free-for-all, slapdash kind of thing — the musical comedy," Hammerstein would recall. "Someone would find a theater un-booked, and someone else would try to whip up a book and music and lyrics and fill the theater if they could." There were rigid rules of composition: an opening chorus number to let late-arriving audience members be seated, followed by the "ice breaker," a not very important second number to get the show on its way. The second act of any show was usually written during rehearsals. In time, Hammerstein himself would break and rewrite all of these rules, but for now he was simply soaking up all he could.
"I don't think I had any high-minded notions that I was going to revolutionize the theater," he would say. "I think I just did my best with each play. Sometimes it was all right, and sometimes it wasn't any good at all."
The newly minted man of the theater stood six feet one and a half inches, quite tall for his day, and, weighing just under two hundred pounds, was slim enough that spring to have been turned down for army service in World War I for being underweight. He was built, as one writer put it, like a football coach, with a face deeply pockmarked and a small gold signet ring on his left little finger. In his prime, he favored English shoes from Peal & Co., and shirts from Turnbull & Asser, and when white dinner jackets were in vogue, he dared to wear a salmon pink one to a Hollywood party. But his principal touch of sartorial flash was a weakness for brightly colored bow ties, "not that he was a dandy," as his protégé Stephen Sondheim would put it, "he just always looked perfect, patrolling that delicate territory between the casual and the formal." He spoke in an accent that, to the modern ear, sounds almost dese, dems, and dosey (pronouncing "board" as "bawd," "working" as "woiking," and "fast" as "fay-ast"), but that was typical of his social class. He also had a slight speech impediment that tended to blur l's and r's.
By the spring of 1919, Oscar was at last at work on a play of his own. Uncle Arthur had read a melodramatic story about a young woman whose efforts to escape her tyrannical family and a drunken lover led her to an engagement to a man she didn't like and a job in a gambling house before an eventual happy ending with her now-sober true love. Titled The Light, it opened on May 19, 1919, in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the headline in the local paper proclaimed it was "not destined to shine very brilliantly," before moving on to New Haven, where it winked out altogether after just seven performances. But Oscar was undaunted. "When I went into the Saturday matinee, I knew I had a big flop," he would recall. "There must have been about twenty people in the Shubert Theatre that day. When the ingénue came on, one of her lines was, 'Everything is falling down around me ...' and at that precise moment her petticoat started falling down. I didn't wait for the yell that followed. I just ran out of the theater, went into the park, and sat on a bench. While I was sitting there, an idea came to me for a new show, so I started writing it." Oscar's determination proved fateful. Barely two months later, Oscar Hammerstein I died of complications from kidney problems at age seventy-three. Soon enough, the grandson's fame would rival the old man's.
* * *
The show that Oscar started writing on the park bench was a World War I romance about a veteran of the American Expeditionary Force torn between his love for a woman he'd met in France and his hometown sweetheart. Hammerstein was prepared to write the book and the lyrics, but he needed a a composer. He found one in Herbert Stothart, Uncle Arthur's staff music director. A veteran of the University of Wisconsin music faculty, Stothart was ten years older than Oscar and would go on to acclaim as a Hollywood composer and orchestrator. But the new team's first task was to persuade Arthur that their show, tentatively titled Joan of Arkansaw, was bankable. They did so by having Oscar read the script aloud, while Herb laughed uproariously on cue at the jokes. The gambit worked, and the pair was off and running, working in the standard method of the day, with the music coming first and the words following. This practice was partly a carryover from the widespread American importation of European operettas, in which English words had to be fitted to preexisting tunes, and Hammerstein would follow the pattern through all his collaborations over the next quarter century, until reversing the order with Rodgers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Something Wonderful"
Copyright © 2018 Todd S. Purdum.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: All They Cared About Was the Show,
1. The Sentimentalist,
2. A Quality of Yearning,
3. Away We Go,
4. Bustin' Out,
5. So Far,
6. Enchanted Evening,
7. Parallel Wives,
8. Catastrophic Success,
9. Beyond Broadway,
10. Auf Wiedersehen,
11. Walking Alone,
Epilogue: Bloom and Grow Forever,
Also by Todd S. Purdum,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Something Wonderful is, through my rose-tinged perspective, truly something darling. Purdum explores the relationship between the composer and lyricist, starting well before the two ever began collaborating and following their paths to the end. This work is an exhaustive look at the achievements (and failures) of the artists' lives, no mean feat, to be sure. Purdum takes readers on a tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's creative works, starting at the beginning and working his way -- albeit slowly -- to the bittersweet success of The Sound of Music, which surely remains one of the most widely-known and beloved musicals of all time. Although the work lacked the fluid telling I've come to love in narrative nonfiction (there was so. much. detail.), I was compelled by Purdum's telling, often chuckling or snorting in disbelief or shedding a tear or two at some tragedy or another. Of course, some of this emotional response is undoubtedly connected to my own attached memories; but I ultimately feel that Purdum captured an essence of life in his book. The thing about works such as Something Wonderful: I always pick up a nugget or two of historical import that come as an absolute surprise and charm me to bits. In this case, Purdum sprinkles in references about actors and actresses that tried for parts in the iconic duo's Broadway productions, but weren't selected -- names that stand out today as some of the best-known thespians of the 20th Century. (I won't spoil the fun for you, readers.) These little surprises managed to lighten some of the more tedious portions of the biography -- sections in which name-dropping is exhaustive but means nothing to the moderate theater-lover such as myself. Something Wonderful is a delightful history of two of the greatest theatrical contributors of all time. For readers with an interest in live productions or Broadway, I can't recommend this book enough. For the moderate enthusiast -- proceed for nostalgia's sake, but keep another book on hand to temper the reading
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