In Hammerstein's Words, 'Something Wonderful' From Show Boat to The King and I, he and his partners wrote shows as substantive as they were entertaining. Hammerstein's lyrics — now collected in a single book — are a big part of why.

In Hammerstein's Words, 'Something Wonderful'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/98538331/98558169" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Oscar Hammerstein II authored such American musical theater classics as "Show Boat" and "Carousel," which were not only entertaining, but had substance. New coffee table book "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II" covers the master's career. Jeff Lunden met with Amy Asch, the book's editor, to look at how Mr. Hammerstein and his partner, Richard Rodgers, worked on one moment in "South Pacific."

JEFF LUNDEN: Amy Asch has spent the last seven years poking around archives and libraries, pouring through boxes of sheet music, and leafing through scripts to come up with the definitive collection of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics.

How many lyrics are actually in this book?

Ms. AMY ASCH (Music Archivist; Editor, "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II"): Eight hundred and fifty.

LUNDEN: And how many of those lyrics are lyrics that have never been published before?

Ms. ASCH: When I counted them up, it seemed as if about a quarter had never been published before.

LUNDEN: Among the treasures Amy Asch has uncovered are lyrics written for, but never used, in classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

Ms. ASCH: "Oklahoma," "South Pacific," "King and I," they wrote more than they needed. They would write something and then realize a more effective way to do that moment, so they'd write a new song for that character and that occasion.

LUNDEN: Like this occasion.

Ms. ASCH: One of the last songs to be written for "South Pacific" was the love song that Lieutenant Cable, the young Princeton-educated lieutenant, would sing to the local girl that he's just had sex with. And it took Hammerstein and Rodgers several attempts to come up with a song that was satisfactory for the occasion.

LUNDEN: The song they eventually came up with was this.

(Soundbite of song "Younger Than Springtime")

Unidentified Vocalist #1: (Singing) Younger than springtime are you. Softer than starlight are you. Warmer than winds of June, Are the gentle lips you gave me.

LUNDEN: But before that, they wrote "My Friend." Amy Asch reads a bit of the lyric.

(Soundbite of song "My Friend")

Ms. ASCH: (Reading) Well, my friend, our day is at an end. Our next kiss will have to be our last. Soon, my friend, I'll be around the bend, Alone with a dream already past.

LUNDEN: Joshua Logan, "South Pacific's" director and co-author, wrote in his memoirs that when he heard the song, quote, "I was so let down that I blurted out my first feelings. 'That's awful. That's the worst song I ever heard. Good God, that's terrible.' They looked at me in shock. No one had ever spoken to them like that before, I'm sure."

Ms. ASCH: So they made another attempt with a different melody. And that melody did not find a home in "South Pacific," but will be familiar to people who know the great musicals.

(Soundbite of song "Suddenly Lovely")

Mr. JEFF HARNAR: (Singing) Suddenly lovely, suddenly my life is lovely. Suddenly living, certainly looks good to me. Suddenly happy, suddenly my heart is happy. Is it a girl? Could be, could be...

LUNDEN: Recognize the tune? More on that later. Editor Amy Asch says "Suddenly Lovely" didn't exactly capture the dramatic moment.

Ms. ASCH: It's kind of a chipper melody. It's not passionate, I don't think. It's happy, it's bouncy, but it's maybe not what a man says to the girl that he just made love to.

LUNDEN: Still, Hammerstein went back to the drawing board and wrote a completely new lyric to the same tune.

(Soundbite of song "Suddenly Lucky")

Mr. HARNAR: (Singing) Suddenly lucky, suddenly our arms are lucky. Suddenly lucky, suddenly our lips have kissed...

LUNDEN: A better lyric. But is it appropriate for a Marine, after having made love to a young girl, to sing a song called "Suddenly Lucky"?

Ms. ASCH: I don't know how that would have gone over in 1949. It is unintentionally amusing to us, for sure.

LUNDEN: With time running out before the out-of-town tryout, Rodgers remembered an unused tune one of his daughters loved, and Hammerstein wrote a lyric to it.

Ms. ASCH: They needed to nail that song. And in the last burst of inspiration, they wrote together the beautiful "Younger Than Springtime."

(Soundbite of song "Younger Than Springtime")

Unidentified Vocalist #1: (Singing) And when your youth and joy invade my arms, And fill my heart as now they do, Then younger than springtime am I, Gayer than laughter am I, Angel and lover, heaven and earth, Am I with you.

LUNDEN: And "Suddenly Lovely," "Suddenly Lucky"? Well, a couple of years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein were in New Haven previewing a new show called "The King and I." And they realized that Anna, the teacher played by Gertrude Lawrence, needed to sing a song to the Siamese children in the first act. And one of the stars of "South Pacific" came to Rodgers and Hammerstein's rescue, says Amy Asch.

Ms. ASCH: Mary Martin said to them, you remember that little dance, that little music that we used for a warm up in "South Pacific"? You just did it for rehearsals. That would be a great tune. And so "Suddenly Lovely," "Suddenly Lucky" turned into "Getting To Know You."

(Soundbite of song "Getting To Know You")

Unidentified Vocalist #2: (Singing) Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Getting to like you. Getting to hope you like me...

LUNDEN: If you want to get to know Oscar Hammerstein better, there are more stories like this in "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II." For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIMON: Special thanks to singer Jeff Harnar and pianist Alex Rybeck for their renditions of "Suddenly Lovely" and "Suddenly Lucky." To hear full renditions of both songs and to read the lyrics, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Getting To Know You")

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Getting to know you. Getting to feel free and easy. When I am with you...

SIMON: Nice getting to know you here on Weekend Edition.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.