January 17, 2020

“Getting to Know” the Hammerstein Dynasty

Oscar Hammerstein III recalls his family’s theatrical legacy 

A smiling Oscar Hammerstein III entertained a large audience at RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison in early January (Photo by Rachel Berliner)

It was a cold night in early January yet the room at the delightful RJ Julia bookstore in Madison was filled with fans of musical theatre of all ages.  The draw was the name of the presenter – Oscar Hammerstein III.

Everyone has heard that name in the context of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the highly successful duo who wrote the words and music for some of the most famous musicals of all time … The Sound of Music, South Pacific, carousel … and so many more.

Here at RJ Julia’s was Oscar Hammerstein II’s grandson – Oscar Hammerstein III – talking about about his fascinating family based on his recent book “The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family.”  It was enough to attract even snow-birds back to Madison!

With a powerpoint presentation at hand, Hammerstein spoke passionately and proudly of his family’s theatrical history.  He mentioned that “not many people knew about his grandfather’s operatic roots.”

He recalled those roots as being, “deep in opera” since the first Oscar Hammerstein was a proud supporter and owner of many opera houses in New York City.  He created Hammerstein’s Ballroom, which is still standing today.

Before writing well-known works like “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma”, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote many operettas.  With Jerome Kern, he helped compose the popular, “Showboat,” (due to be revived at Goodspeed Opera House this summer) in 1927.

Richard Rodgers was “the man who invited himself to lunch” one day and that was the beginning of the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership.  Interestingly, Hammerstein III described Rodgers and Hammerstein’s partnership as professional, not a “friendship.”

The audience learned about many behind-the-scenes facts of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.  For example, after Yul Brynner’s audition, Rodgers and Hammerstein rewrote the musical “King and I” around him.

Cinderella was originally broadcast for television because there “wasn’t enough interest in the theatre.”

And amazingly, Rodgers and Hammerstein turned down many projects like “My Fair Lady”, “Peter Pan”, “Guys and Dolls”, and “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

Oscar Hammerstein II taught Stephen Sondheim about lyric-writing and playwriting and therefore, Sondheim became his “protégé.”  Sondheim was encouraged by Hammerstein II to be a composer.
Hammerstein also influenced Sondheim’s choice of projects like “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”, in which Sondheim only wrote the lyrics, despite wishing to be involved with musicals where could write both music and lyrics. 

These respective projects made Sondheim famous and Hammerstein III noted, “When (Stephen Sondheim) asked if Oscar Hammerstein II was his idol, Sondheim replied, “He’s not my idol, he’s my hero.”

When asked which of his grandfather’s musicals was his personal favorite, Hammerstein III answered, “Carousel.”  “Soliloquy” from “Carousel” is the most important [song] of them all.  It is what links Oscar back to all of the generations before him.  It is the sung story.  “Soliloquy” is like a beautiful oak tree. Admiring its robust height and heft, one may forget how deep its operatic roots go … or when that tree’s seed was planted. This book aims to remind.”

According to Oscar Hammerstein III, it was a “masterpiece.”

Even today, the Hammerstein family is still involved in theatre.  Oscar III is a professor of theatre history at Columbia University.  His late father, James, was a director and he also had an uncle who was a producer.

Hammerstein III said he wanted to keep his, “family’s history alive with the sound of music,” and without doubt, the impact of three Hammerstein generations continues. 

Hammerstein III cheerfully signed numerous books after his presentation at the bookstore (Photo by Rachel Berliner).