Now we know why Stephen Sondheim answered so many letters.
Remember, Sondheim said of mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, “If he’d had been a geologist, I would have become a geologist.” In that spirit, we can infer that Hammerstein’s policy of faithfully answering his mail inspired Sondheim to do the same.
If there ever were any question that the legendary book writer and lyricist often initiated and answered correspondence, Mark Eden Horowitz’s 1,088-page THE LETTERS OF OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II puts all doubts to rest.
One didn’t have to be Joshua Logan or Mary Martin to get Hammerstein to a typewriter; Carol Parodneck, Herbert Gellendre and Mary Cremme – whoever they may have been – also received responses from five-time Tony-winning and two-time Oscar-winning Oscar.
Some undoubtedly wound up wishing that he hadn’t responded, such as someone named Phyllis Rich Bradley. In 1959, she wrote, “Since the weary evening I spent at OKLAHOMA! I have never been to another of your productions.”
“That was in 1943,” Hammerstein responded. “I wasn’t even aware of your absence from my other plays, and if you had not told me, I never would have known.”
That’s telling her!
When dealing with professionals, Hammerstein was even more direct. To a music publisher who’d sent him advance copies of Rodgers and Hammerstein vocal selections, he wrote “I object very strenuously to the back page … (where) credit is given to Rodgers and no credit is given to Hammerstein for the lyrics, which are certainly part of the score … I am good and sick of the custom of only mentioning the composer … ‘vocal’ implies that there are words as well as music and in the future I want equal credit with whatever composer I work with. I think it is high time this damn nonsense was stopped.”
So, some letters went from bad to terse (“We would not be interested at this time in a production of a Yiddish translation of OKLAHOMA! Thank you for your interest.”) Even such luminaries as John Steinbeck got the bum’s rush when making the suggestion, “Can’t you see the Lincoln-Douglas debates in music?”
Hammerstein’s response: “The answer is, no, we can’t.”
Hammerstein wasn’t always intransigent. After censors read the screenplay for CAROUSEL, they made 22 demands. He mostly acquiesced, even after they condemned “the toilet gag.”
CAROUSEL mavens might furrow their brows in trying to glean what that offending passage could possibly have been. The answer: “Blow High, Blow Low” includes the lyric, “Like a dear little baby in her bassinet and her little behind is kind of inclined to be wet.”
(June, get the Bible!)
However, we might expect that Hammerstein unleashed his terrible swift sword when he heard that Logan would use color filters for songs in the SOUTH PACIFIC film. No: “The conception of the device is wonderful,” he wrote, “and it is my belief that it can work.”
Logan’s response – “In a couple of years, we will hate them” – gets us nodding our heads. However, Logan didn’t mean it the way we do. His full sentence: “In a couple of years, we will hate them because so many people will be copying them.”
We hear of play doctors coming in to give advice on shows in trouble during previews or out-of-town. Here we see that producers had such respect for Hammerstein that they summoned his advice even before they started rehearsals. Herman Levin did, when readying GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES with Carol Channing as his lead.
Those who only came to know the clownish Channing from one (or more) of her HELLO, DOLLY! stints or THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE might be surprised to see Hammerstein call her a “fine actress. There is going to be nothing unbelievable in her portrayal and I hope that her efforts will not be canceled by too many clownish characterizations around her.”
(How times changed!)
We see the letter that no less than William Morris from the William Morris Agency wrote Hammerstein on Dec. 8, 1949: “Would you be interested in ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM?” Was he ever! Only 476 days later, THE KING AND I opened at the St. James.
It did not, however, include the once-planned scene in which The King would die after being gored by a white elephant. Frankly, there was enough chaos in “quite a complicated process,” as Hammerstein wrote, to get the ever-elusive Gertrude Lawrence to sign a contract.
In Ethan Mordden’s magnificent 1999 book RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN, he reported that when Lawrence’s voice became truly terrible, R&H wrote her and asked her to leave – but then didn’t have the heart to send the letter. Horowitz gives it to us in its entirety; it’s quite frank.
So was Hammerstein, when asked to evaluate a script or a song. That famous story about his tutoring Sondheim after the fifteen-year-old wrote “The worst thing I ever read” was the type of remark that he gave most people who requested his opinions.
And yet, most of the letters reveal why Sondheim called Hammerstein as “the finest man I have ever met.” Many, many letters were pleas for human rights, as Hammerstein constantly tried to help the downtrodden and members of minorities.
The lyricist who pointed out that we had to be carefully “taught to hate and fear” wasn’t just writing for a character. Reams of letters prove positively that Lieutenant Cable’s values were Hammerstein’s, too. In fact, when a letter-writer complained about that SOUTH PACIFIC song, Hammerstein defended it and rued that “I see progress being made only very slowly.” How right he was – and sadly, still is.
Hammerstein also devoted much time to raising funds so that one of Broadway’s most famous names could be honored. When he was short $10,000, he wrote fellow committee member Jule Styne: “You have so far not made any donation. I saw GYPSY last week and loved it. I also think you are going to make a lot of dough. Would you like to break down and send me a check?”
Perhaps Styne did, for that statue of George M. Cohan has been in Duffy Square for the last sixty-three years.
Many might-have-been musicals are mentioned. Hammerstein was interested in adapting a particular collection of short stories, but after Logan read them, he said, “I do not care enough about Tevye’s fate.”
Quite a few letters concern FANNY, for Logan tried to interest Rodgers and Hammerstein in writing it. They wouldn’t, because they didn’t want to partner with then-neophyte producer David Merrick who held the rights and didn’t want to surrender control to them. During rehearsals, Logan wrote Hammerstein to say that he didn’t think Walter Slezak would be much of a threat to Ezio Pinza because “Pinza is IT.” (The upper-case letters are Logan’s.) Hammerstein responded, “Slezak is a formidable actor and I still think he will be hard to head off.”
Score one for Oscar: Slezak, not Pinza, won the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical.
Other musicals eventually happened without R&H’s participation. In 1952, Mary Martin suggested that Laurette Taylor’s life would make a good musical; this was more than a decade before she’d star in a thinly veiled story of Taylor’s life in JENNIE.
Despite a solid Dietz-and-Schwartz score, JENNIE wasn’t a hit, but ME AND JULIET, which Hammerstein chose to do instead (admittedly at Rodgers’ prodding), also missed the mark. All the while writing it, though, Hammerstein said that he and Rodgers were “looking anxiously for something we think would be a suitable vehicle for Mary.”
They found it – or, to be precise, Martin found it for them: a musical about The von Trapp Family Singers.
Hammerstein’s many letters to Sondheim go from “Dear Stevie” to “Dear Steve.” In a 1953 missive, he agrees with his pupil that “The story of the Mizners is of course good material.” Who knows what would have happened if Sondheim had listened to him then and finished WISE GUYS-GOLD-BOUNCE-ROAD SHOW (did I get them all?) then and there, and not decades later?
We even get a letter that Sondheim sent to Mrs. Dorothy Hammerstein while he was a student at Williams College: “I am sorry to hear about the loss of your mother … I heard it from Mom and Sue who were up here to see our show NIGHT MUST FALL in which I had the lead.”
Who expects shameless self-promotion in a sympathy card? (And, believe me, the next line isn’t “But enough about me.”)
Have you noticed that my comments center on the 1950s? That’s the section where I just happened to open the book and was so immediately mesmerized that I didn’t start at the very beginning. Now I’ll merrily roll along backwards in THE LETTERS OF OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II, ready to tackle what Hammerstein had to say about ALLEGRO, in a book that’s brisk, lively, merry and bright.