A Poet of the Anticipation of Joy: On Laurie Winer’s “Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical”
By Tim RileyJuly 6, 2023
Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer
Winer happily declares her musical bias up front: “I came to hear many of the songs I loved as a child as if from another plane—like I had polished a jewel and found the reflection of a much younger self who was somehow exactly the same.” Her depth of sympathy for this material leads her to make absorbing connections across Hammerstein’s work, not just from early to late but also from the most popular—such as Oklahoma! (1943)—to the long-forgotten, like State Fair (1945). At their height, during the postwar boom, Rodgers and Hammerstein presided over musicals like wizards, capturing some of America’s favorite stories. By 1959, with The Sound of Music, one of their biggest hits, you could already sense the crack between the arch understatement of “Edelweiss” and the younger generation’s squirming to get out from under all that sentimentality via rock ’n’ roll. In the LA Weekly, critic Tom Carson wondered why we had gone to all the trouble of defeating Hitler if we were just going to make the same kind of movies the Nazis would have if they’d won.
Like many of his peers, Hammerstein presented a public face at odds with his private behavior. He had internalized all the racism and class bias of his time, but he often tried to step outside these frames to embrace a larger humanism. While Rodgers chased skirts, Hammerstein chased ideas. Winer draws his personality as a complicated mixture of ambition, compromise, and innovation. He learned to work with the diffident Rodgers by keeping his distance and honing his skills.
To Winer’s ear, Hammerstein’s best lyrics “fetishized the state of being on the threshold of a relationship, a heightened condition whose delights he never tired of reliving. From ‘A Kiss to Build a Dream On’ to ‘All the Things You Are’ to ‘So Far’ to ‘I Have Dreamed,’ he was a poet of the anticipation of joy.”
Her book reminds us how much these scores suffer from their overcooked cinematic treatments, which differ glaringly from their original Broadway productions: the movies exaggerate the team’s sentimentality as they water down their characters. Even if you admire Deborah Kerr’s knowing, determined Anna Leonowens in the 1956 film version of The King and I (1951), urging the King toward monogamy, modern viewers find the King of Siam’s harem and unquestioned autocracy in both the stage and film productions redolent of how the West once framed the exotic East.
Winer’s self-awareness of a niche taste conveys a calm authority, marching through Hammerstein’s career while updating his legacy. Two key sidelights illuminate the theater business he dominated: the first through producer Josh Logan, who pitched South Pacific (1949) from a book by James Michener, complained about the size of the font on his poster credit, and backpedaled when the 1958 film version’s dreamy soft lens choice dated it almost instantly. The other stems from Stephen Sondheim, who at the age of only 12 taught the genial “Ockie” chess at Hammerstein’s Pennsylvania farm and became his most successful student, even working with Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz? in 1966. (Hammerstein died of cancer in 1960.)
The many bumps in Hammerstein’s career push back against his omnipotence. Eleven years after Hammerstein had created a new kind of “soliloquy” in the song of the same title from Carousel (1945), everybody forecast Oklahoma! as a bomb. It was a hit, however, and Winer notes the tension in “the space between the story and the audience’s feelings about their present moment”: in glorifying a version of Western expansionism in the years before Oklahoma became a state, the piece strengthened the audience’s resolve in its fight against German fascism.
The smash status of Oklahoma! made it a different sort of hit—the kind that even non-showbiz types admire. Its origins dodged disaster: during its debut in 1943, it expressed the solidarity and swelling patriotism people felt during the war even as it updated the country’s story of itself.
This unlikely songwriting team made an awkward pair even on the surface, having joined up in the middle of their respective careers. Lorenz Hart, Rodgers’s previous lyricist, was a huge talent afflicted by drink, and Rodgers seemed to echo his descent in slow motion. Some fans prefer Hart’s lyrics to Hammerstein’s, but Winer sums up the contrast this way: “Hart wrote about sex and Hammerstein wrote about love. And love is the deeper, if less sexy, subject.”
Along with the extant major biographies, Winer consults Hammerstein’s newly published letters (2022) and archived interviews, but her encounter with Sondheim before his 2021 death proves perhaps her most notable coup. She devotes a long section to Sondheim’s work near the end that seems to promise at least another book.
Tracing the twilight of Tin Pan Alley and the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, Winer outlines the cracks between generations. “The Vietnam War sliced a bitter divide between the left and the right, and for each side the other represented the death of reason,” she declares, without really taking sides in an argument usually favoring the young.
Just as Bob Dylan was penning “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1962), Hammerstein crafted a new idiom, “the magnanimous break-up song […] Burt Bacharach and Hal David were pioneers in the field, writing ‘Make It Easy on Yourself’ in 1962, and Sondheim himself supplied a wonderfully touching example, ‘With So Little to Be Sure Of,’ from his 1964 show Anyone Can Whistle.” As Winer puts it, “Oklahoma! prefigured Hamilton as surely as Woody Guthrie prefigured Bob Dylan.”
Winer has an alert ear for verbal echoes, careening through forgotten flops and overrated hits while turning Hammerstein’s lyrical messaging into a philosophy of song. She wisely waits until Hammerstein adapts Bizet’s Carmen (1875) into Carmen Jones (1943) to insert her history of Oscar Hammerstein I, the once-colorful grandfather, a theatrical man with a weak business sense. Especially strong passages cover the transition from vaudeville and blackface, George Gershwin’s sudden death at age 38 in 1937, and Hammerstein sitting by Jerome Kern’s hospital bed. By 1946, with I Remember Mama (1944), Carousel, and Oklahoma! all running on Broadway, a joke popular during that season’s trucker strike posed the dilemma of how Rodgers and Hammerstein would get all their money to the bank.
Winer also tracks her subject through later revivals, with attention to changing attitudes about race, class, representation, and how genres reflect cultural values. “Can you decolonize plots like The King and I or South Pacific?” she asks, while citing notable progressive treatments like Oscar’s son William (Billy) Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1979, and Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 National Theatre revival of Carousel (“a revelation”). Even if you’re not a musical fan, Winer’s observations persuasively demonstrate how influential this storytelling team proved in its time, and how these musicals repay discerning interpretations. In Daniel Fish’s 2015 Oklahoma! production, for example, “[t]he makeshift trial is neither reasonable nor fair; it is a clear railroading of justice,” Winer asserts. “Fish forces Oklahoma! into a tragic mold, ending it on a bleak and bitter note. […] In Fish’s Oklahoma! we are all part of a gun-crazed culture that scapegoats the disenfranchised and will overlook, in certain cases, those who take the law into their own hands.”
Winer shrewdly contextualizes the way we hear songs now compared to the way listeners heard them in their own time. “If Show Boat  finds itself today in the crosshairs of a debate about racist works of art,” she writes, “it is because Hammerstein and [his earlier partner Jerome] Kern were among the rare commercial writers moved to examine aspects of their own country they found shameful.” And she also includes some of the harsher treatments these musicals received even from contemporary critics. Kenneth Tynan, for example, pressed especially hard on South Pacific:
The authors’ attitudes toward exotic peoples in general seems to have changed hardly at all since they wrote South Pacific and The King and I. … It seems to have worried neither Mr. Rodgers nor Mr. Hammerstein very much that the behavior of war-torn Pacific Islanders and 19th-century Siamese might be slightly different from that of Chinese residents of present-day California.
Even so, the Rodgers and Hammerstein production took pride, as Winer puts it, in “the original cast of fifty-nine actors, only two [of whom] were non-Asians (one was white and the other Black).” She continues:
The debate on authenticity in casting will go on, pitting two salient points against each other: (1) artists should write and represent their own stories; and (2) the very nature of art is nonliteral, and the practice of making imaginative leaps is vital to our understanding of the world. In their commitment to representing other cultures, Rodgers and Hammerstein put themselves on a future generation’s firing line, even as they worked to expand their country’s view of who is an American.
Winer notes how Hammerstein’s offstage actions mitigated some of the consequences of his artistic stance: “In 1949, the Hammersteins joined with Pearl Buck to establish Welcome House, an adoption agency to find families for Asian and part-Asian children born in the United States whom other agencies could not or would not place.” And anybody hurling accusations of “colonialist” must acknowledge South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” Hammerstein’s number about “how racism [gets] passed from parent to child as surely as any gene.”
Often, precise aphorisms punctuate Winer’s narrative: “Few plays can recover from telling the audience what it already knows,” for example, and “This is describing why chocolate is delicious to a child from whom you withhold chocolate.”
By the end, Winer’s defense of Hammerstein’s essential place as a pivotal figure in American cultural history rings true, even if he occupies a very different place today compared to his own time. “Sondheim’s responses to Hammerstein’s work constitute the most productive Oedipal impulse in the history of musical theater,” she writes. A long exploration of Sondheim’s work follows, as an angular extension of his mentor’s and as sui generis a body of work. Hammerstein prodded Sondheim’s originality while emphasizing the collaborative nature of the medium, the necessity of strong storylines behind the songs, and the way the form could address complicated social issues while entertaining the audience. Sondheim learned enough of these principles to wind up something of a popular sophisticate, even when he leaned into Dickensian foundling tropes and cannibalism (in 1979’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). (Curiously, Sondheim chooses not to follow through on Hammerstein’s concern with colonialism, nationalism, or race. It’s intriguing to imagine how his intricate melodies might have joined better with someone else’s less artfully clever words.)
Facetiously, Hammerstein signed a copy of his own book for Sondheim with the extravagant praise: “For Stevie, my friend and teacher.”
Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. He recently launched the riley rock report audio newsletter. See his personal website for details.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.