Who Was Oscar Hammerstein II?
With composer Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the groundbreaking musical Show Boat (1927). His collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers led to some of the most notable musicals in Broadway history including Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959), among others. The celebrated pair also worked on film adaptions of their work and garnered many top awards including two Pulitzers, multiple Academy and Tony awards, and two Grammys. Their work has been revived numerous times and remains popular among audiences.
Oscar Hammerstein II was born in New York City on July 12, 1895, into a family who worked in theater. His father, William, managed a vaudeville theater, while his grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I, was a famed opera impresario. Hammerstein's uncle Arthur was a successful producer of Broadway musicals.
While Hammerstein was studying law at Columbia University, he began acting in the school's Varsity Show revues. At Columbia, Hammerstein met lyricist Lorenz Hart and composer Richard Rodgers. As his passion for theater began to eclipse his interest in law, Hammerstein talked his Uncle Arthur into employing him as an assistant stage manager. Two years later, he married his first wife, Myra Finn. The couple had two children, named William and Alice.
In 1919, Arthur promoted his nephew to production stage manager, affording young Hammerstein the opportunity to rewrite scripts in need of improvement.
Librettist and Lyricist
Also in 1919, Hammerstein wrote his own play, called The Light, which his uncle produced. Despite the play's relative failure, Hammerstein forged ahead with his writing. In 1920, he collaborated with Rodgers and Hart in writing a Varsity show called Fly with Me. Not long after, Hammerstein dropped out of grad school at Columbia to concentrate his efforts entirely on musical theater.
Hammerstein first found success as a librettist with Wildflower, a collaboration with Otto Harbach produced in 1923. He achieved even greater success with 1924's Rose Marie, which he created in collaboration with Harbach as well as Herbert Stothart and Rudolf Friml. While writing Rose Marie, Hammerstein met Jerome Kern. In 1925 the duo teamed up to write Show Boat. The successful musical put Hammerstein on the map as a writer and lyricist.
Hammerstein divorced his first wife, Myra, in 1929 and married Dorothy Blanchard Jacobson. They had one son, named James, and Dorothy had a daughter, Susan, and son, Henry, from a previous marriage.
Hammerstein continued to collaborate with Kern on several musicals including Sweet Adeline (1929), Music in the Air (1932), Three Sisters (1934), and Very Warm for May (1939). In 1943, he wrote the lyrics and book for Carmen Jones, an updated version of George Bizet's Carmen set during World War II and featuring an African-American cast. The musical was adapted into a 1954 film, starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge.
For his next theatrical collaboration, Hammerstein partnered exclusively with Rodgers and their first Broadway musical together, Oklahoma! (1943), was a smash hit. Oklahoma! went on to win a Pulitzer Prize Special Award and Citation in 1944.
In 1950, Rodgers and Hammerstein earned a second Pulitzer in the drama category with the musical South Pacific. The duo produced a string of hit musicals during the Golden Age of Broadway including Carousel (1945), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959), which was Rodgers and Hammerstein's final collaboration.
Death and Legacy
While still in his professional prime, Hammerstein lost his battle with stomach cancer on August 23, 1960. He died at his house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In Hammerstein's memory the lights on Broadway were turned off at 9 pm that September 1.
In 1995, Hammerstein's centennial was celebrated all over the world with recordings, books and concerts created to commemorate the "man who owned Broadway." The following Broadway season, three of Hammerstein's musicals ran on Broadway at the same time: Show Boat, The King and I and State Fair. All three won Tony Awards—Show Boat and The King and I for Best Musical Revival, and State Fair for Best Musical Score.
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