Musical theater brings us story condensed, memorable enough to memorize, lyrics long revered. This weekend Abby and I are wrapping ourselves in the music of Oscar Hammerstein, creator of the lyrics for The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, South Pacific, and Carousel. Among so many others…
Hammerstein had a great start as a storyteller, being the son of a New York opera impresario of the same name (and so he is a Junior, although he always went by Oscar Hammerstein II). Oscar’s gift to all of us who want to tell stories is the way that he lifted story to the center of whatever he created for the musical stage, a different style than others — much like Billy Wilder’s devotion to story in his films.
Hammerstein’s strongest tales, told in a lyric surpassing the beauty of poetry, were often at the end of a musical’s act — high points of the theater’s storytelling. Some Enchanted Evening comes at the end of South Pacific‘s first and second acts. You’ll Never Walk Alone finishes up Carousel. Climb Every Mountain, one of the last lyrics he wrote before his death, provides the first act finale for The Sound of Music.
He showed more than sentiment in his writing; he told bittersweet stories. Carousel, a show from the earliest days of his teaming with Richard Rogers, serves up sorrow along with love in If I Loved You. The lyric is so short, like so many of his greatest stories:
If I loved you,
Time and again I would try to say
All I’d want you to know.
If I loved you,
Words wouldn’t come in an easy way
Round in circles I’d go!
Longin’ to tell you,
But afraid and shy,
I’d let my golden chances pass me by!
Soon you’d leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know how I loved you
In fact, If I Loved You and You’ll Never Walk Alone finish up Carousel with a one-two finale.
On Wikipedia, the writers there point out that story as the primary point was Hammerstein’s gift to American theater. And like any good storyteller, he can be counted on to deliver both the happiness of love and hope, as well as the sadness of endings:
He was probably the best “book writer” in Broadway history — he made the story, not the songs or the stars, central to the musical, and brought it to full maturity as an art form. His reputation for being “sentimental,” is based largely on the movie versions of the musicals, especially The Sound of Music. As revivals of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I in London and New York show, Hammerstein could be very tough-minded indeed. Oscar Hammerstein believed in love; he did not believe that it would always end happily.