OFAM 2012 – Article about oscar Hammerstein for understanding The King and I. This article is posting one page at a time, but you may want to read it one page at a time and reflect on the material while waiting for the next installment.
THE QUESTION : DOES THE KING AND I SHOW HAMMERSTEIN “FIGHTING RACISM” BECAUSE HE IWAS CONFLICTED ABOUT RACE, ESPECIALLY MARRIAGES BETWEEN WHITES AND NON- WHITES?
The Life of Oscar Hammerstein
Oscar Hammerstein II is an American icon. He was the lyricist and book-writer of such legendary Broadway shows as South Pacific, State Fair, Oklahoma, and, of particular interest this year because it is the OFAM 2012 show, The King and I. Hammerstein’s work reflects a most basic idea of the American Experience, a sensibility marked by confidence, independence and goodness. Hammerstein was one of the most influential artists in American History.Such a position in culture was ripe for mythologizing. Only in recent years have historians started to crack open the Hammerstein myth. Frederic Nolan writes, “Was he really the Pollyanna of the Great White Way that many writers have tried to make him?” Nolan, whose The Sound of Their Music, is an excellent study of Rodgers and Hammerstein writes also:
…always behind the image of the behind the image of the benign, esteemed, and sensationally successful lyricist-librettist lurks a darker half, a person who could be cruel to his children and insensitive to his colleagues; a secretive and even unkind man who portrays who preferred to pretend trouble did not exist rather face it head on..
YIP HARBURG, who wrote the lyrics to Brother Can You Spare a Dime and Over the Rainbow, said this about the “elite fraternity” of theater songwriters:
Our tribe of songsmiths always wrote for our peers. We were very much ashamed of ourselves if we wrote something clichéd, if we took an idea from another person. By “our tribe,” I’m talking about Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Hart, Dietz, all those people who got together every week, usually at George Gershwin’s house, and we could more or less compare the things we were working on.
-Yip Harburg on songwriters
Hammerstein’s lyrics represented a distinct departure from the style described here. Hammerstein’s lyrics were criticized as unsophisticated, and, by comparison to Hart and others, as overly sentimental. In the 1958 interview with Mike Wallace , Hammerstein responded to the criticism:
I would like to talk about sentiment if you let me, in contradistinction to sophistication. The sophisticate is a man who thinks he can swim better than he can, and downs himself, he thinks he can drive better than he can, and sometimes causes great smash-ups, so, in my book, there’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 love. I couldn’t be anything but sentimental about these things. I think to be anything but sentimental is being a ‘poseur’.
– Oscar Hammerstein II on sophistication and sentimentality
Hammerstein was, by that time, the most famous and successful lyricist on Broadway. By 1958, he and Richard Rodgers had written Oklahoma, Carousel, State Fair, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, Me and Juliet, and Flower Drum Song. Importantly Hammerstein had help revolutionize the Broadway musical with realism, integrating song and dance with the plot. And from a purely musical viewpoint, he led Rodgers into a new musical style, distinctly separated from Tin Pan Alley’s jazz- inflected sound. This was one of his most important achievements. After all, style periods come to an end. In those endings are possible seeds for new styles. Hammerstein had the seeds and he knew what to do with them.
The Mike Wallace interview shows that Hammerstein was a proud man and an extremely sensitive artist. In my opinion the interview shows that Hammerstein doubted the value of his work at some level. Certainly, he is bothered by the criticism. Most artists don’t appreciate bad press, but Hammerstein seemed especially thin-skinned, and became known for public protests against New York’s theater critics, sometimes in a haughty tone.
I believe that the most important traits of an artist’s personality are formed during childhood, and any understanding of his or her creative spirit must start there. Childhood, itself, is a theater created by one’s parents and family, and the family stage upon which Hammerstein debuted his life was marked by drama, emotionional insecurity, and distant, powerful male figures.
Oscar Hammerstein II was born into a theater family. His father William managed the Victoria Theater; Uncle, Arthur, was an important Broadway producer. But the most important family figure was his grandfather, the famous opera and show business impresario- Oscar Hammerstein l.
The first Oscar Hammerstein was famous as a producer, composer, and businessman in musical theater and opera. Born in to a German-Jewish family, he came to New York on his own as a teenager, worked in cigar making, later inventing and patenting cigar manufacturing tools, from which he made a fortune. With that money Hammersein l built The Harlem Opera House, the first of many theaters he would open in Manhattan. He was, also, on occasion, a composer, writing In 1896 the comic opera Santa Maria to open his own Olympic Theater. He was an a prime mover in creating the theater district later known as Times Square.
Hammerstein l was flamboyant and daring. Once he took a hundred dollar bet that he could write the music, book, and lyrics of a show in 48 hours. He won the bet -the result Kohinoor . But then he lost ten thousand dollars when he insisted on producing the show, a failure, and keeping it open for a week. He was tough, competetive figure in the theater business. Hugh Fordin writes : ” The Hammerstein legend grew as Oscar engaged in fistfights outside his theaters, hissed at his own performers, ran well-publicized legal feuds with ex-partners and pulled off coup after coup in his theatrical presentation.”
Opera was his greatest passion. Oscar Hammerstein II opened opera houses in New York and Philadelphia to compete with the Metropolitan Opera. The Met eventually paid him a million dollars not to produce any operas in America for ten years. With the money he built an opera house in London, an investment which he lost. When asked, “is there any money in the opera business?, he famously quipped, “yes, and it’s all mine.”
Oscar ll knew his grandfather from a distance, meeting him for the first time when he was seven. Grandfather Hammerstein showed no affection or interest in his grandson. When the older Hammerstein , however, young Oscar took a new interest in the”Old Man,” collecting material for a biography about him. The younger Hammerstein said:
Perhaps for the first time it seemed safe to try. He couldn’t hurt me now. He couldn’t humiliate me. The fears and resentments of this remote “old man,” developed in my childhood, were no longer a block to our union. It is ironic and sad and strange that I did not begin to understand or like my grandfather until the day of his death. But he was a strange man and so, perhaps, am I.
-Oscar Hammerstein II , about his grandfather , Oscar Hammerstein
Grandfather Hammerstein wasn’t the only male family figure who was emotionally distant from Oscar. Willie, his father, was a formal man, quiet and reserved. He went of to work and returned without fanfare. William Hammerstein had the opposite disposition of his father – Oscar Hammerstein I -the great wild man of the theater world. Considering his formal and reserved personality, one might have been surprised that William Hammerstein ran one of the most colorful and successful vaudeville theaters in New York.
In fact, there was always a separation between the downtown theater activities and Oscar Jr.’s home life. Although the family made a living in show business, they looked down upon it, thinking of themselves as insiders who had the smarts to lure audiences into the theater. A curious duality for Oscar Hammerestein II: A family whose business was the theater but who looked down on it as unseemly. Oscar was forced into many promises that he would not go into the theater business in any way, instead taking a formal education to become a lawyer.
The dominant parental relationship for Oscar in his childhood was with his mother, Alice. Vibrant and emotional, but as I read the history, she was not altogether stable. Alice considered Oscar more talented than his brother Reggie. “Oscar’s the genius, Reggie’s the clown,” she would say. She always told Oscar that he was gifted and special. Poor Reggie !
Oscar Hammerstein II was born to comfort. At age 4, the family lived on Madison Avenue, with a live-in maid. But Alice was a restless soul. One of her “hobbies” was constantly moving. Between Oscar’s 3rd and 12th birthday, Alice moved the family 9 times. Such sudden changes in habitat and circumstance must have been confusing for a child.
Not only did the Hammerstein’s move, on the new situations was downright bizarre for Oscar. When he was 5, the family moved into a building with two apartments. The Hammersetein’s lived upstairs, and Alice’s parents lived downstairs. Oscar’s Scottish grandparents had become a second family, yet presented another duality of emotional safety and instability. His Scottish grandfather had an affair early in his marriage. As a result, Oscar’s Scottish grandmother wife slept separately in another bedroom for the rest of their lives.
From age 5 to 8, in the latest living arrangement, Oscar split his time between his regular family upstairs, and his grandparent downstairs. At meals, Oscar would eat with father Willie, mother Alice, and brother Reggie. But at night, he would go downstairs and sleep in the same bed as his grandmother, his grandfather in another room.
Oscar often took walks with and his grandmother. Sometimes she would have to sit down in the street from an emphysema attack. Although concerned, Oscar (only 4 or 5) remembers being “dreadfully ashamed” at the public spectacle. Another emotional duality for Oscar in which affection and embarrassment were simultaneously at odds.
With Oscar’s father and grandfather distant emotionally, while his mother and grandmother were close (one might even say too close), “it is not hard to imagine,” writes Fordin, ” what damaging effects the coddling matriarchy might have had on Oscar.”
Alice was vibrant, loving, but troubled. Her pre-mature death when Oscar was only 13, must have been a deep shock on an already unstable emotional life.
Another source of confusion and embarrassment for Oscar (in my opinion) was Jewishness. Although the Hammerstein family were a famous Jewish name in the theater, none were observant Jews. More important for Oscar II, his mother’s lineage was Scots-Presbyterian. Alice had her children baptized as Episcopalians and followed some of its Christian ritual: eating fish on Friday, fasting on Good Friday, and attending church on occasion. For religious Jews, a non-Jewish mother can not give birth to a Jewish child. By bloodline, religious practice, then, Ocar Hammerstein II was hardly Jewish. Yet, his father’s lineage made him Jewish in the eyes of non-Jews. While he could attend church or a school whose students were mostly Christian, in the Summer Oscar had to go to a camp for Jewish children, although it catered mostly to children of well-to-do German Jewish families, one of them Lorenz Hart.
Anti-Semitism was still quite strong in America then, even in New York. Jews were considered by many as a separate race from whites, thus the “one drop of Jewish blood” made one Jewish.
There was a distinct separation, also, between -wealthy Jews who lived uptown and poor Jews who lived downtown on Manhattan’s lower East Side. Wealthier Jews were more likely to have been more assimilated that poorer downtown immigrants.
Language was also a factor. Well-to-do German- speaking Jews considered Yiddish (the German -Jewish language of Eastern Europe ) uncultured and a sign of lower class, immigrant life.
Hammerstein ll always insisted that people pronounced his name “correctly” as “Hammer -STINE-” the more Germanic manner than the everyday New York “Hammer-STEEN.” Although he would g work in a theater world in which Yiddish was spoken widely (indeed, Yiddish humor of many types entered the American mainstream of theater and comedy), Hammerstein (in my opinion) considered Yiddish as a “low” style. This attitude created yet another cultural opposition for Oscar. While German was thought of has the high class, Yiddish Theater and acts, an important part of the theater business, were part of the entertainment business of the family. Yet another separation between cultural attitude and business reality.
While Oscar Hammerstein II continues to be claimed as a Jewish writer to this day, in reality Oscar Hammerstein II came from a mixed marriage, was somewhat embarrased by his Jewishness. All of this seems interesting, at the least, or possibly important when considering the many plots of Hammerstein’s later works.
A prudish streak ran through the Hammerstein’s upbringing, and joined with his somewhat delicate emotional nature, Hammerstein’s view of marriage and sex was Victorian. Myrna Finn was a young woman Hammerstein knew in passing. But when he was 22, he kissed her hand in a game of spin-the-bottl at a party. On the spot, he decided he wanted to marry her and asked her father for her hand.
Hammerstein was always reluctant and embarrassed to write about sex directly in his work. But as a dramatist, he became aware of what attracted auduences. Fordin writes, “South Pacific, Carousel and Carmen Jones have stories that rest on the power of sexual attraction. As long as the sexuality was implicit, Oscar could treat it with the same understanding that he brought to other aspects of human behavior,” and, ” his problem was dealing directly with sexual material.”
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