A new book of letters reveals the many sides lyricist Oscar Hammerstein A thousand pages of correspondence by Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist for such musicals as Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Sound of Music are available to a wide public for the first time.

Oh, what a beautiful archive: Oscar Hammerstein's letters reveal his many sides

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKLAHOMA!")

ALFRED DRAKE: (As Curly, singing) Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein helped revolutionize the American musical, arguably, twice; first with "Show Boat" in 1927 and then with "Oklahoma!," which he wrote with Richard Rodgers in 1943. When Hammerstein wasn't writing lyrics, he was still writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN: This has nothing to do with the "Flower Drum Song," but this is a letter I have to write, so will you...

SHAPIRO: He recorded this for his secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMMERSTEIN: ...Take it while I think of it, and it'll be off my mind. This is to Arthur B. Spingarn.

SHAPIRO: Hammerstein's papers are now housed at the Library of Congress. And critic Bob Mondello says the publishing on Friday of a volume called "The Letters Of Oscar Hammerstein II" will make his correspondence widely available for the first time.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Shortly after sending the thousand-page manuscript to the publisher, editor Mark Eden Horowitz, a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress, hosted an evening at the library called As Ever, Oscar. He had, he told the audience, read through virtually all of the 25,000 letters in the Oscar Hammerstein collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK EDEN HOROWITZ: And ended up transcribing over 4,600 of them. Those are the best ones.

MONDELLO: The best of the best that made it into the volume showcase not just the creative Hammerstein, but Hammerstein the businessman, the mentor and occasionally the corrector - as when a magazine asked permission to quote the lyrics of "Ol' Man River." Hammerstein's response read for the audience by actor Harry Winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY WINTER: (Reading) You may tell the Nash Airflight Magazine that it is OK to use the words fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly in the context they submitted. You may also inform them that these words are not from "Ol' Man River."

(LAUGHTER)

WINTER: (Reading) They are from a song called "Can't Help Lovin' That Man." In "Ol' Man River," there is nothing about either swimming or flying.

(LAUGHTER)

WINTER: (Reading) It is mostly rolling.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: He would later have to correct even his own lawyer about this particular song. In 1937, a Hollywood studio planned a film to be titled "Ol' Man River," and the lawyer said he'd investigate, but he didn't think he could stop it since Hammerstein hadn't originated the phrase; he'd just used an old expression that was in the public domain. Hammerstein took exception to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINTER: (Reading) The expression was originated by me, and if it was an old one and in the public domain, the public seemed blindly unconscious of it until 1926, when the song was introduced. I had never heard the expression before, and neither had you.

MONDELLO: Not that Hammerstein was always right. After a backer's audition for "Carousel," he got a note from a potential investor who was also a farmer praising his work but saying if accuracy mattered...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUNE IS BUSTIN' OUT ALL OVER")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) June is bustin' out all over.

MONDELLO: ...You might want to fact-check this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUNE IS BUSTIN' OUT ALL OVER")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) The sheep aren't sleeping anymore. All the rams that chase the ewe-sheep are determined there'll be new sheep, and the ewe-sheep aren't even keeping score.

MONDELLO: In June...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUNE IS BUSTIN' OUT ALL OVER")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Because it's June.

MONDELLO: ...He raised sheep, he said, and they mate just once a year in late autumn, hence spring lamb. Hammerstein replied, a bit sheepishly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINTER: (Reading) I was delighted with the parts of your letter praising my work and thrown into consternation by the unwelcome news about the eccentrically frigid behavior of ewes in June.

(LAUGHTER)

WINTER: (Reading) I have since checked your statement and found it to be true. It looks very much as if, in the interest of scientific honesty, I shall have to abandon the verse dealing with sheep.

MONDELLO: For the record, he did not. Also for the record, the reason we have this full exchange is that Hammerstein kept not just the letters sent to him, but carbon copies of his replies - detailed missives to directors who wanted to make changes after opening night, to movie censors who wanted to clean up "Carousel" lyrics, to other authors who asked him for advice and to the many folks who suggested source material they thought Rodgers and Hammerstein should musicalize.

In the late 1940s and early '50s, they were offered "Pygmalion" and "The Once And Future King." They passed on both, happily for the team of Lerner and Loewe, who turned them into "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." They also passed on "Don Quixote," "Peter Pan" and "Mary Poppins," and their lawyer actually optioned "Tevye's Daughters" before they decided they weren't the right fit for the material.

In fairness, during those years, they wrote "South Pacific," "State Fair," "The King and I," "Cinderella," "Flower Drum Song" and "The Sound Of Music." So it's not as if they didn't have some decent ideas themselves. They also had to bat away movie stars who wanted to be in their musicals. Imagine if they'd acquiesced...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")

DORIS DAY: (Singing) The hills are alive...

MONDELLO: ...When Doris Day wanted this part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")

DAY: (Singing) ...With the sound of music.

MONDELLO: Hammerstein noted that the movie version was still years away, by which time Day would be in her mid-40s, hardly the near-schoolgirl Maria they had in mind - worked out pretty well with a singer still in her 20s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Maria, singing) The hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years.

MONDELLO: Years before, Hammerstein had also rebuffed Jimmy Cagney's offer to produce the movie of "Oklahoma!" if they'd let him play Curly. As for public requests to use their work, he had to be careful as he wrote to Paul T. Hurt Jr., in February 1952. I cannot give you permission to use the album of "South Pacific" in the way that you describe, he wrote. Once we open the gates, our copyright will be generally abused all over the world. I suggest, however, that if you forget that you wrote me this letter, I will forget that I turned you down. Then you might go ahead and do it. And once it was done, I am quite sure I would not try to put you and the Cub Scouts in jail.

Theater wasn't Hammerstein's only interest. Many of his letters concern his involvement in the civil rights movement. He was on the board of the NAACP. Following World War II, he worked feverishly to promote peace in articles, letters and speeches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINTER: (Reading) Today, our title to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is heavily mortgaged. Foreclosure can come without notice, with the dropping of one bomb in the right place, and it doesn't have to fall right on your head, either. It can miss you by 20 miles and still kill you.

MONDELLO: He wrote this in 1952.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINTER: (Reading) Now, you would think that all men and women in the world would be uniting to defend themselves against this condition. You would think they would be applying all their energies and ingenuities to conceiving ways to stop it.

MONDELLO: His conception, articulated in earnest correspondence with the likes of General Douglas MacArthur, was that there ought to be a world power that could enforce sanctions when governments wage war. And if that seems to speak directly to us in this moment, imagine editor Horowitz's surprise...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOROWITZ: I felt like Oscar had actually written to me.

MONDELLO: ...When he read a 1942 letter from Hammerstein to composer Jerome Kern.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOROWITZ: (Reading) Knowing that you file your letters and I file copies of mine, it is quite possible that in a couple of thousand years, some archeologists might dig up either the original or the copy, and seeing the date will be completely puzzled that during the great war, so long a letter could be written without some reference to it. It will be hard enough for him to understand how people could be so dumb as to wage wars like this. But once in them, how could they possibly be interested in such things as I discussed so seriously in this letter? Well, Mr. Archaeologist, that's the way we were in those days.

MONDELLO: Thanks to the Library of Congress and archaeologist - or rather editor - Mark Eden Horowitz, it hasn't taken 2,000 years to discover the erudite, sometimes irascible "Letters Of Oscar Hammerstein" or to understand why their author took so many things so seriously. But, yeah, the puzzlement about war.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KING AND I")

YUL BRYNNER: (As King Mongkut) Is a puzzlement.

MONDELLO: Sure is. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KING AND I")

BRYNNER: (As King Mongkut, singing) When I was a boy, world was better spot. What was so was so. What was not was not. Now I am a man. World have changed a lot, some things nearly so.

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