The Wisdom of Oscar Hammerstein II: A Conversation with Laurie Winer
By Joy HorowitzNovember 22, 2023
Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer
In effect, Winer asks: what’s so bad about sentiment, anyway? Not the cloying or cornball kind but the stuff of our souls. What does it mean, she asks, when a song from childhood that offers the gift of ordinary things becomes “unbearably moving” in adulthood? For Winer, that powerful feeling—and her 10-year obsession with Hammerstein that involved digging through his letters at the Library of Congress—was as if she “had polished a jewel and found the reflection of a much younger self who was somehow exactly the same.” It’s not nostalgia she returns to, in other words, but a painful reconsideration of our past and the cost of hope.
If that sounds like a tall order, it is. But in Winer’s able hands, the details of Hammerstein’s life provide a lens through which to perceive present-day traumas, from his commitment to social justice to his belief in a multicultural American dream. In some ways, the timing of the book’s publication seems propitious: after George Floyd’s murder spurred searing debates about race, justice, and social hierarchy in the theater business, the historical underpinnings of the Broadway musical may be more important to remember now than ever before. But above all, there are the magnificent songs: “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Edelweiss,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Ol’ Man River,” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” perhaps the theater’s first explicitly anti-racist song.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Laurie Winer professionally for more than 30 years. She’s been my editor, from her days at Harper’s Bazaar to her stint at the Los Angeles Review of Books, which she co-founded with her husband, Tom Lutz. We later discovered that she was also a dear friend of my cousin Stacy Title and played in a poker game with my sister, Shari. “Does anyone know we were lovers?” she asks me with her deadpan humor, mocking my need for journalistic transparency.
I caught up with Winer last month over Zoom. She spoke to me from her new home—a renovated farmhouse in the south of France that she plans on turning into a writers’ retreat. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
JOY HOROWITZ: What compelled you to write this book?
LAURIE WINER: There weren’t a lot of books about Oscar—only one biography, for instance—while there are a lot of books about Rodgers and Hammerstein and the whole gestalt of the musical. With the kind of arrogance of a first-time author, I was looking for something that no one else had been looking for, even though I didn’t know necessarily what that was. I felt that I could find something that hadn’t been found, and I did.
I wanted to know what made him who he was, because as I get older I find that there’s wisdom in those very simple lyrics, and they become more moving. He’s a wonderful guide to living and how to live, which you wouldn’t necessarily say about Sondheim, as brilliant as he was. Oscar offered a way to get through hard things, and a way to get along with other people. He has a way of looking at the world that I find wise and delightful—and I wanted to know how he got that way.
He had a strong imprint on the musical and the values of the form, its humanism. He was a great example of what was wonderful about 20th-century cultural liberalism, which doesn’t get a lot of respect, but should: one of its tenets is the idea that we’re all linked together, that we’re all fundamentally the same underneath our differences. Human beings need to be recognized. They need dignity. The idea that we’re all the same is at odds with what’s going on in this very transitional time, which prizes stories that haven’t been told. You have to hear our stories because we are not like you. There are things you haven’t even considered that we’ve gone through and you have to know about our differences. I think that’s a natural progression, and it’s as it should be, but I also think it’s a transitional stage.
So, Hammerstein’s progressive vision for the United States has been upended by identity politics?
I think some of the ideas from his musicals are the things that define democracy and tell us how we can all live together. And one of the chief components of that idea is that we have more in common than we do not have in common. I find that very moving, and I think it works in the theater so beautifully because the theater is a communal experience where you’re in the breathing presence of other human beings.
I think of his era as a golden age of American thought and feeling and about what it is to be an American, which also includes a responsibility to get better, to be better than we are, and also to understand other cultures. One of the reasons that Rodgers and Oscar get raked over the coals these days is because they actually were interested in other cultures, cared about other cultures, and dared to write about other cultures. So, the very things that made them progressive now seem problematic.
Can you give an example of what you mean?
For instance, with Show Boat (1927). He and Jerome Kern cared about what was wrong in this country racially, and so now they are attacked because they dared to write about other races, other cultures.
Like the use of the N-word in that show?
The idea of softening the language that was actually used seems to me to be an insult to history and to what people went through rather than an insult in and of itself.
And yet, as you point out in the book, the chorus that had been hired to sing in the revival production in the late 1980s walked off during the recording rather than be required to sing the N-word.
Did you see Nicholas Hytner’s production of Carousel (1945) in 1994 at Lincoln Center? It was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I’ve had. At the very end of the musical, it’s at a high school graduation, and there’s this town pediatrician, a beloved man, who is obviously a stand-in for Oscar because Oscar was really loved and respected and cherished. Part of his secret is what he says in that scene, which sounds really hokey. But it’s in the context of the story and the music and the dialogue. It’s the consummation of story and music. What he says to the graduating class is, Don’t worry about whether people like you or don’t like you. Just try liking them. It’s very simple, but it’s something to live by and it’s very beautiful. It’s part of what made him so beautiful. At the beginning of his career, he worked with much older composers and lyricists, and at the end he was very close to Sondheim and was helping him write.
When Rodgers and Sondheim got together, since they’re both kind of nasty people, their nastiness came out at each other. They’d been used to working with someone who was generous, empathetic, and kind. They were neither of those things. Oscar really loved people. He could get along with anyone.
Why do you think Hammerstein was the creator of the musical as an art form?
In his letters, he writes about his search for how to elevate the story—how to combine song and dialogue and story in such a way that, when you’re really overwhelmed by what you’re listening to, you don’t even know whether you’re hearing story or dialogue or music. It’s the consummation of those things. I really feel that he was the pioneer of that. It’s a glorious consummation.
And then, on the personal side, it was like watching how he became better at being the person he was. And then, when I found the letters that he had written to his first wife, Myra, in the Library of Congress, which nobody else had really paid any attention to, I saw that he was trying to guide her to be a more generous person and have a better attitude towards life. And he was trying hard to do that; of course, you never can make somebody do anything, but he was always trying to help her live life in a better way.
The great artist and the great human being—just following the breadcrumbs of those two trails was what I was after.
How was Show Boat “the most revolutionary show in the history of the genre”?
When the audience comes in, they’re expecting a musical comedy. Ziegfeld had never produced a show with a story in it before. They were used to what Ziegfeld had been producing, and they were expecting a comedy. And you come in, and the first thing you see are workers sweating in the sun working, and on the levee, and with huge bundles on their back. Only then do you see the white chorus, and they’re chattering in their shallow way about what pleasures they’re going to have. But by starting the way he did, it cast a shadow over everything, because you saw that these two realities could not exist without each other. No one had done anything like that in a musical before.
Also, the music of one group bleeds into the music of another chorus, connecting everyone in a way that’s more powerful than you can make happen with just words in a play. But there’s something about the way that music seeps into all these parts of you that you just have absolutely no control over. Something about presenting the reality of America with that kind of clarity in 1927, I believe, set the musical on its path to become something important and not just frivolous—to address everyone and everything that could be addressed under the sun.
I loved your discussion in the book about Paul Robeson’s objections to Hammerstein’s lyrics in “Ol’ Man River” and the song’s connection to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” in the sixties.
When we think about what it means to be an American, it’s very, very confusing today. I’m sure it was always confusing. I mean, I kind of left the country because of a national selfishness I found just appalling. But my point about Sam Cooke was to connect that song to the sixties and the social change going on in the sixties. All that groundwork was laid in the twenties. A lot of it was done by artists in Harlem. But Oscar was very much in sync with that, that feeling of things won’t be right until we understand each other better and have a fairer world. People just weren’t doing that in musicals before. And I think people forget about all of the struggles that came before their struggles.
Another thing Oscar is famous for is gratitude, an absolute keynote in having a happy life. And part of that means understanding the artists that came before you and the fights they were fighting and how they connect to your own fights. So, it does pain me when I see young people in the theater showing less than a full awareness of the struggles of the past. Obviously, we didn’t change it enough and there’s a lot of reason to be angry. I totally get that. But I also think that it’s important to be able to read history in such a way that you understand the context of the times people are living in—that they didn’t necessarily have your enlightenment, but paved the way for it.
To focus on our commonality rather than identity is a central theme of your book.
Last year, Diana Paulus directed 1776 with a diverse cast of women, nonbinary, and transgender actors playing the white men who signed the Declaration of Independence, as a way of highlighting those whose perspectives were not considered. The director had asked all of the Black actors for permission to rehearse a scene that had slaves in it, but she didn’t ask the non-Black, non-white actors for permission. One of the Filipino actors felt she also should have been asked for permission. So, the way that we’re kind of dividing our differences—I was kind of writing against that. I was hoping the theater world might hear that and talk about that a little bit
I do think it’s a very tricky and transitional state that we’re in, and I think it’s a necessary transition to something better. But to make sure that we are going to something better, I think it makes sense to try to honor the people that came before and what they were doing and in what kind of environment they were working. I was trying to elucidate that because I feel that it is not immediately obvious to everyone.
I learned so much from your book. For example, I didn’t know that the term Jim Crow actually derives from the theater and a character who was invented by a white actor in the 1820s.
It was the launching of blackface, the first blackface character. The theater is so important to our culture and to our understanding of who we are.
In your book, you quote Stephen Sondheim saying, “If it hadn’t been for the Hammersteins, I really don’t know where I would even be, if I’d even be alive.” In fact, in some ways, their relationship—Oscar’s mentorship of young Stevie—is the heartbeat of your book. How often did you interview him for your book?
Technically, I only interviewed him once, but I met him several times. I’ve been a theater critic, so I had corresponded with him. I would always explain to him who I was and he’d say, I know who you are. I had questions for him about Agnes de Mille. He hated her so much. He worked on Allegro, which was Oscar’s 1947 show. Sondheim was working on this last show, and he told me, “I can’t answer your questions now but I’ll record the answers on a cassette tape and send them to you.” So, he sent me a cassette tape, but I did not have a cassette tape recorder. I had to go running to Goodwill and find a cassette tape recorder. And it is the funniest tape, because she was the director and he thought she was terrible to the actors and only nice to the dancers.
He called her the C-word, like 27 times in 15 minutes, and it just made me laugh so hard. You know, it’s hysterical. It’s one of my most prized possessions. He was an angry person. I mean, he could be lovely. But he was not like Oscar at all.
He had this memory—it’s a small thing—but I hadn’t ever heard it before and it’s very touching. He and Oscar were standing at the window, watching it rain. Just the two of them. Sondheim was just a boy at the time. And Stephen said, “It’s coming down so hard. Look at it coming down.” And Oscar said, “Yeah, that’s because it’s heavier than air.” It’s so witty and obvious. I could see them and feel the connection in their relationship. Sondheim loved him so much. Someone told me that one of the last things he said before he died was that he hoped he would see Oscar. I tried to get that verified but was unable to.
I was fascinated by the importance of Sondheim’s psychotherapy in their relationship toward the end of Oscar’s life. Here’s this guy who was totally resistant to dealing with grief but he was also wanting in on that relationship. Even Sondheim said that his analysis was “a bond between us, almost a secret.”
Oscar also knew how terrible Sondheim’s mother was, because she was a neighbor and he knew how hard it was for him. (He didn’t see his father that much after the divorce.) Dorothy and Oscar Hammerstein knew how awful she was. They were always asking him to talk about it, but they never said anything against her. Against Foxy—that was her nickname. They handled it beautifully. They really tried to make his life better. Later, he said that they saved his life, that he didn’t know whether he’d still be alive if they hadn’t been there.
You also describe him as being an intermittent parent to his own kids, but he was very much a parent to Sondheim.
I don’t think he was as disengaged a parent as people say. When he got awarded the Father of the Year in 1959, he said, “This will come as a big shock to my children.” But he wrote a little poem on a piece of paper that was going to be his speech for accepting this award and it said, “You know, children, they don’t, or won’t listen to you when you tell them what to do. But when you’re talking to someone else they will listen to you.” And that basically becomes the lyric from Into the Woods (1987) for “Children Will Listen.” But Sondheim said he never saw that poem. There must have been a psychic connection between them.
Can you talk about the cost to Hammerstein of his insistence on optimism?
That’s a great question, because, as you said, he didn’t pay a lot of attention to grief. In a way, that can make him seem shallow. And also, you could talk about it in terms of his privilege.
He didn’t want to be stopped by pain and grief. He wanted to just be happy. When he was 15 and his mother died, he was just like, I’m gonna get through this. And he had that impulse, part of his optimism. I’m gonna get better. Not to dwell in the darkness for too long, because it could suck you right down. He was very buoyant and did not get sucked down very often.
But in the eulogies he wrote for people like Gertrude Lawrence and George Gershwin, he does understand the gravity of loss and is wrestling with it. Look at Carousel. I mean, it’s pretty dark. It goes all the way there.
I was surprised to read about the criticism The Sound of Music got—that it was too sweet, too many children and nuns. The backlash against Rodgers and Hammerstein was remarkable.
The English theater critic Kenneth Tynan was actually always ungenerous to Rodgers and Hammerstein. In his review of Sound of Music, he said it was tragic that the innovative spirit they had shown throughout the 1940s was just gone. Many people felt it was a little pat. But it has a lot of interesting stuff in it, especially stuff that didn’t make it into the movie, like “No Way to Stop It”—a lot of people objected to it because they thought it was too on the nose and didactic.
You quote Hammerstein saying,
[T]here’s nothing wrong with sentiment because the things we’re sentimental about are the fundamental things in life, the birth of a child, the death of a child or of anybody, falling in love. I couldn’t be anything but sentimental about these basic things. I think to be anything but sentimental is being a poseur.
It’s so not of the moment, for sure.
Does it ever irritate you when people go to see a movie from 1964, and they’re like, “Oh, that was another time.” It’s like, yeah, yeah, of course it was another time. It’s your job to understand what was happening. You can’t just dismiss it because it was another time.
To this day, those scores and those shows—I just find them incredibly helpful for getting through hard stuff, for feeling joy, for feeling gratitude. I mean, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” if you can really sing it, it’s amazingly powerful. And I just would hate to see anyone throw out the baby with the bathwater when we’re talking about our own culture. The whole book was my urge to say, Let’s embrace what is so beautiful in this stuff. And you can.
But also, let’s address the elephant in the room. Like, for instance, nobody wants to do Carousel anymore, because Billy Bigelow is a wife beater. And the musical does ask you to understand him and to understand Julie’s love for him. And I think refusing to try to understand is a mistake. In Nicholas Hytner’s production, he has Billy shake his head no when Julie says, yes, it is possible for someone to hit you and have it not hurt at all. Just by having that directorial choice, by having Billy shake his head no, it rejects Julie’s argument without rewriting the text. So, there are ways to keep ordering these shows, because a lot of what’s in them is as eternal as any human wisdom, I think. Don’t overlook them because they were written in another time. They really can help you understand how people lived in those times, which I think is really important, and how we live now.
You described Oklahoma! (1943) as being the Hamilton of its day.
Yes, the cast was so young and they were unknown. You couldn’t get a ticket, and it was about us: it was about America and our future. And who are we? And what’s great about us? I mean, it really was the same musical in a lot of ways.
Did you see the Daniel Fish production, Woke-lahoma? He makes it very dark, and he does a lot of really interesting things. The cast is basically stunned and splattered with blood at the end and kind of just staring at the audience, like at the end of Sweeney Todd (1970). Basically, the fact that he shoehorns that into Oklahoma! is kind of hilarious. But it also works.
So, these shows are very malleable. And I just would encourage the next generation not to pass them by. That’s my plea, because they have so much that is valuable.
A founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Laurie Winer has been a theater critic for The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
Joy Horowitz, a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, is the author of two books and has taught writing at USC, Harvard, and Yale. She was a 2023 recipient of the T. S. Eliot Foundation Writers Residency Fellowship in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Joy Horowitz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her books include Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter’s Story (1996) and The Poisoning of an American High School (2007).
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. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!