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SCOTT SIMON, host:

(Soundbite of song, "The Sound of Music")

Ms. MARY MARTIN (Actor): (Singing) The hills are alive with the sound of music...

SIMON: Oscar Hammerstein died 50 years ago. They dimmed the lights of Broadway and London's West End in his honor for writing the lyrics and libretto to some of the most famous and enduring songs and shows in history. From "Showboat" to "Oklahoma" to "South Pacific" and "The King and I" to "Flower Drum Song" and "The Sound of Music."

(Soundbite of song, "The Sound of Music")

Ms. MARTIN: (Singing) My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake to the trees...

SIMON: Mary Martin, by the way, from the original cast version. But Hammersteins didn't just build Broadway with hit shows, but the first theaters that made Times Square into a theater capital. A new book reveals how five generations of the Hammersteins have influenced musical theater. It's the first biography to be written by a member of the family and it's called "The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family" by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein. He joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. OSCAR ANDREW HAMMERSTEIN (Author, "The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family"): Thank you very much.

SIMON: Let's begin with Oscar Hammerstein I, your great-great grandfather, right?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Correct.

SIMON: And worked in a cigar factory.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yeah. He got here in 1864 and found work sweeping up at a cigar factory and moved up in the ranks until he was manager and then started inventing cigar machines and he made a fortune from inventing cigar machines before he even turned 30 years old. So he had money to spend on building theaters.

SIMON: And he loved opera. He had an idea that opera could be made more popular in New York City.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: That's correct. In fact, he spent most of his life and all of his money in the pursuit of that dream, and had he been a rational man, we would probably own much of what is now Times Square, but our legacy now is much more on the creative side. He left a legacy and an inspiration to his sons and his grandson, which has stood this family in pretty good stead.

SIMON: Your grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein II, he had knack for putting songs in the right places. How do you think your grandfather broke the mold of the American musical?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: I defer to Stephen Sondheim here. He makes a pretty cogent argument for what Oscar left in his wake. The three conventions that Oscar left behind was: to start your show off right away. Do not waste time with an opening number, a high-kicking chorus, but to tell your story from the first note out. A good example would be "Oklahoma" and "Oh What A Beautiful Morning." It tells the audience, sit down, we're telling a story here.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh What A Beautiful Morning")

Mr. GORDON MACRAE (Actor): (Singing) The corn is as high as an elephant's eye, and it looks like its climbing clear up to the sky. Oh what a beautiful morning...

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: That cues the audience that this is going to be something worth sitting down and listening to. And the second one was delayed love song, the coy love duet where you get to introduce the love between the boy meets girl, but you get to delay it until at least the second act when youve developed their characters and set up the conflict that they're going to face. And that's a great idea because you don't want to throw them at each other before we get to know them, because we won't care about their love if we don't care about them individually. And the third one, which is not so much a convention, but its a good example of musical theater at its best, would be the "Soliloquy" from "Carousel."

(Soundbite of song, "Soliloquy")

Mr. JOHN RAITT (Actor): (Singing) I wonder what he'll think of me. I guess he'll call me the old man.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: It tells a story and takes a plot around many different corners and drops you off very far from where the song starts. That is - that's an art form, to be able to do the sung story in such a way that you turn so many corners and deposit your audience in a new spot and reveal character and develop plot. That to me is the ideal of what he did.

SIMON: Had he ever been to Oklahoma?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: I dont think so. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: You know, he fancied himself a gentleman farmer but I think Bucks County was about as far as he ever got.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: And the corn was what grew...

SIMON: Well, they cattle stands like statues in Bucks County too, dont they?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Oh, well, the source material is "Green Grow the Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs. And he had written these lyrics, took him a couple of days, maybe a week to two, and he sends then off to Richard Rodgers, and Richard Rogers takes a cab home then calls him back and says...

(Singing) Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da.

(Speaking) And Oscar is livid. He goes, here I worked for weeks and this guy takes a cab ride and the music just comes right out of him. But I think Richard Rogers was quoted as saying the music just wrote itself. The words wrote the music for him. It made his job completely easy.

(Soundbite of song)

SIMON: 1947, "Allegro."

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) Our world is for the forceful and not for sentimental folk.

SIMON: I think it's safe to say not as successful.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: No.

SIMON: Although every now and then theres still productions that are mounted, and I gather your grandfather believed that if you learn something - well, you learn something from flops you dont learn from successes.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: He was quoted as saying you learn much more from a flop than a hit because it's hard to learn anything when everyone's praising you to the skies on those opening night where everything is going well. But "Allegro" is the first show that he wrote that was coming from him personally rather than from a source material other than himself, and that was tough because if you think about it, he was a melodramatic writer who had been adapting materials ever since the '20s, and this is a stretch I think for him. He couldn't bring to it the conventions that he had relied upon. It was just a little too raw, a little too dear, a little too close, and so I think he pulled back from making it as good as it could have been, Im not sure out of fear, but just being unable to.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman (Singer): (Singing) ...blamed him from wanting an allegro. Don't stop whatever you do. Do something dizzy and new.

SIMON: "South Pacific" and "The King and I," they - in the post-war era, they also broke some taboos, didn't they?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Oh, yeah. The fitting example is "You Got To Be Carefully Taught" from "South Pacific," which many people wanted Oscar to remove that from the show, and he actually, I think he went to James Michener and talked about it with him. And I believe James Michener said, you know, that is the show. That is the center of the show. Thats its heart. You can't take that out.

(Soundbite of song, "You Got To Be Carefully Taught")

Unidentified Man #2 (Singer): (Singing) You've got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made. And people whose skin is a different shade. You've got to be carefully taught.

SIMON: This is, we should explain, interracial romance.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yes. Yes.

SIMON: (Unintelligible) and of course the way bigotry is aggravated.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yes. And Oscar actually visits that theme throughout much of his work, from "Carmen Jones" through "Flower Drum Song." There's a lot of looking at cross-cultural and racial friction and trying to come to grips with it in some way or another.

SIMON: And finally this - why do these songs and these shows persist and endure?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: I think the reason why they're so popular is because the story is the organic center around which everything else revolves. There are a lot of great songs and a lot of flop musicals through history and we never hear them because no one puts those shows on anymore. Whereas I would ask you in all sincerity, do you really think "Real Nice Clambake" is a great song? Maybe not. But will you hear it from now until, you know, forever? Yes. Because it's in a platform, its in a show that will always be there. And I think that's the difference, that Oscar was very clear about the narrative being the most important thing and everything else follows from that. Hes a storyteller.

SIMON: Oscar Andrew Hammerstein, thanks so much.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Mr. Hammerstein, speaking from New York, of course. His book is "The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family."

(Soundbite of song, "Real Nice Clambake")

Unidentified People (Singers): (Singing) This was a real nice clambake and we all had a real good time. Remember when we raked them red hot lobsters out of the driftwood fire? They sizzled and crackled and sputtered a song. Fittin' for an angels' choir.

SIMON: And you can learn about how Oscar Hammerstein II almost became a lawyer. See images from his productions on our website at npr.org.

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