The Kennedy Center

Oscar Hammerstein, II



Biography

Musical theater playwright and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II is probably best remembered for his collaboration with Richard Rogers during the 1940s and '50s, but his earlier work with Jerome Kern created one of the all-time most popular and respected productions of American musical drama. Showboat, first performed in 1927, opened to rave reviews and much controversy, as it touched on a theme rarely presented in a sympathetic light: a romantic relationship between a white man and a black woman.

Hammerstein was born July 12, 1895, in New York City, into a show business family. His grandfather Oscar was an opera conductor, and his father and uncle were producers and managers of Broadway theatrical productions. After two years at Columbia Law school he quit and went to work for his uncle Arthur as a stage manager. He wrote lyrics for his college stage productions at Columbia University (where he first met composer Richard Rogers) but his first play, produced by his uncle, closed after only four performances. Undaunted, he went on to write increasingly well-received plays, and books for musical theater productions, first collaborating with Otto Harbach, and then on his own.

Working throughout the 1920s and '30s with such famous and successful composers as Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Rudolph Friml, and Irving Berlin, Hammerstein won fame and popularity for shows such as Desert Song, Rose-Marie, and New Moon. The team of Kern and Hammerstein wrote several successful musicals over the next ten years, but they did have one Broadway flop, Very Warm For May. However, that show contained one of their loveliest and most enduring songs, "All The Things You Are," which continued to be performed for many years thereafter.

During the '30s and early '40s he lived in Hollywood much of the time, writing film scores, but returned to New York in 1942, dissatisfied with the inflexible pace of film production. Upon his return to New York he re-set Bizet's opera Carmen into modern times, with an all-black cast. Carmen Jones opened to enthusiastic reviews.

That year Hammerstein also joined Richard Rogers in what was to be an 18-year exclusive partnership, which resulted in such blockbuster hits as Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), Flower Drum Song (1958), and The Sound of Music (1959), their last show together before Hammerstein's death. Altogether they produced eight musical plays of their own, plus numerous productions by other composers, revivals of their own previous hits, and transferred most of their successful shows to Hollywood film productions. The partnership garnered 15 Oscars, 24 Tony's, two Pulitzer prizes, and two Grammy awards. Hammerstein also served as a mentor to Alan Jay Lerner, and to Steven Sondheim, who met Hammerstein when he was still very young. Sondheim credits his success with the lyrics to West Side Story to Hammerstein's influence and guidance.

Oscar Hammerstein II died of stomach cancer on August 23, 1960, at his home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He left a son and a daughter by his first wife, Myra, and a son by his second wife, Dorothy.
Oscar Hammerstein, II

Compositions

  • A Night at the Operetta
  • Showboat
  • Oklahoma