(Commentary) Terry Teachout–How Do You Solve a Problem Like Oscar Hammerstein?

AOf all the Broadway musicals written between the consolidation of the genre in the early ’20s and the start of its decline in the mid-’60s, only 20 or so are now revived regularly. Five of them—Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959)—feature lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Richard Rodgers, while a sixth, Show Boat (1927), was written by Hammerstein and Jerome Kern. Hammerstein also wrote the books for five of these shows (the exception is The Sound of Music), and those librettos define to this day how a “normal” musical is constructed. He is thus by definition the most important and influential figure in the history of musical comedy.

No one questions Hammerstein’s historical significance, nor does the popularity of these six musicals show any sign of diminishing. But there is a gap between that popularity and the esteem in which he is held by many critics. Kenneth Tynan summed up the conventional wisdom about the alleged sentimentality and naiveté of Hammerstein’s work when he dismissed The Sound of Music as “a show for children of all ages, from six to about eleven and a half.” Stephen Sondheim, Hammerstein’s protégé, put it more forgivingly when he described him as “easy to make fun of because he is so earnest.”

Hammerstein affected to be unfazed by such criticisms. “In my book,” he told Mike Wallace in a 1958 TV interview, “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 in love….”

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Posted in History, Music, Theatre/Drama/Plays