The Importance of Being Oscar

In March, PBS will air a new documentary on one of the seminal figures of 20th-century songwriting, Oscar Hammerstein II. The film is hosted by Glee‘s Matthew Morrison, who was part of the revival cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, the award-winning production that played Lincoln Center from 2008–2010. (Morrison sang “Younger Than Springtime” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” in the production.) Here is a trailer for the upcoming documentary. More on Hammerstein after the video.



No one was more influential in the development of American standards than Oscar Hammerstein II, who rose to the pinnacle of theatrical writing at a time when America’s most popular songs emerged from musical shows. Starting in the days before radio and recordings were available to a wide audience, Hammerstein, following a group of theatrically successful forebears, first made his mark writing lyrics to music for operettas by composers like Rudolf Friml (Rose-Marie), and Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song, The New Moon). He then teamed with Jerome Kern, revolutionizing the musical theater with Show Boat and collaborating with Kern on several other shows that spawned lasting hits. (At right Paul Robeson performs “Old Man River” in the 1936 film version of Show Boat.)

Hammerstein’s fortunes sank in the 1930’s, however, when project after project, including Hollywood efforts, flopped. His final musical with Kern, 1939’s Very Warm for May, was also a flop, but one of its songs, “All the Things You Are,” emerged as one of the biggest hits of the 1940’s and, through countless interpretations, one our most revered jazz standards. The song can be seen as signaling a turnaround in Hammerstein’s fortunes.

With Kern committed to Hollywood and Hammerstein determined to stay in New York, the lyricist again adapted a major work, turning Bizet’s Carmen into the hit musical Carmen Jones, continuing the strides made by Show Boat and Porgy and Bess in integrating or casting exclusively African-American performers in major shows. (At right is the trailer for the film version of Carmen Jones.)

But Hammerstein’s biggest and most lasting success came from a surprise teaming with Richard Rodgers, who was finally separated from his troubled longtime partner Lorenz (Larry) Hart. Rodgers and Hammerstein teamed for the adaptation of a minor play, Green Grow the Lilacs, into a musical to be called Away We Go, about love and community in the American southwest at the turn of the century. When the retitled show, Oklahoma!, opened, it became one of the greatest successes of the 20th century, and the rest is American cultural history. (At right is Hugh Jackman performing The Surrey with the Fringe on Top from the 1998 West End revival of Oklahoma!) Rodgers and Hammerstein would go on to create the musicals Carousel, State Fair (a film), The King and I, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music.

Out of My Dreams, named for the Oklahoma! song that leads into the revolutionary “dream ballet” (originally choreographed by Agnes DeMille), will begin airing on PBS March 3, 2012 (check local listings). Below is Barbra Streisand’s version of Ken and Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are,” with its seldom heard verse transitioning into a bossa nova version of the well-known refrain.



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