What Hammerstein Might Have Done By Peter Filichia
Mark Horowitz has been thoroughly enjoying himself.
The Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress has been reading the letters that Oscar Hammerstein II had received and sent
that suggested what his next musical should be.
Although Hammerstein said no to many, other collaborators wound up writing their own musicals on the subjects.
Offers poured in after THE KING AND I’s 1951 opening gave Rodgers and Hammerstein four hits in five attempts. Regarding Al Capp’s comic strip LI’L ABNER, Hammerstein wrote that he’d discussed it with Capp and Joshua Logan “who is very anxious to do this very thing. Nothing came of it. Perhaps something will someday.”
Yes, indeed, something did, but with composer Gene de Paul and lyricist Johnny Mercer. L’IL ABNER was the third longest-running musical of the year, behind BELLS ARE RINGING and, of course, MY FAIR LADY.
Denis P.S. Conan Doyle – Arthur’s son –offered Rodgers and Hammerstein the chance to adapt his daddy’s Sherlock Holmes story A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA. Hammerstein agreed that it “might prove to be a very good musical play. Mr. Rodgers and I are unfortunately occupied with too many commitments at the moment to consider anything further.”
Would R&H have done it if he and Rodgers not been “unfortunately occupied with too many commitments”? Or was Hammerstein just being gracious? What we do know is that without that august team, the two songwriters who later adapted that story into BAKER STREET suffered a critical and financial failure.
Considering a 1944 letter to Herbert Lom (who would be London’s first King in R&H’s THE KING AND I and later the Commissioner who’d endure Inspector Clouseau’s incompetence), we might infer that A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA would interest him: “My own policy is to look for properties that don’t seem to be ideal for musical adaptation and then try to meet the challenge and turn them into a musical with some unusual character to them. The trouble with working on a musical which everyone says ‘should be made into a musical’ is that you are likely to wind up with something very obvious and perhaps old-fashioned.”
That policy was reiterated that same year when Hammerstein expressed in a letter that “The thing I like about DON QUIXOTE is that the stakes are high. It is a chance not merely to come through with a hit – an objective not to be underrated, of course – but it also has the makings of something really important in the theatre and worth getting excited about.”
Twenty-one years later, many voters who chose the Best Musical for both The Tony Awards and The New York Drama Critics Circle agreed wholeheartedly. MAN OF LA MANCHA became the third longest-running musical in Broadway history. Add to that four Broadway revivals, including the 2002 staging with Brian Stokes Mitchell that Masterworks Broadway recorded.
A 1952 letter reveals that MGM had courted R&H to musicalize PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as a movie musical. “After careful study,” Hammerstein wrote, “we decided not to do it, but it is a by no means unattractive idea.”
Bo Goldman, who would win Oscars for writing ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and MELVIN AND HOWARD, would be one of three songwriters who turned the Austen tale into FIRST IMPRESSIONS in 1959. The cast album might make you concur with Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam when they sing “I Suddenly Find It Agreeable.”
In 1953 when Moss Hart and Edna Ferber suggested her novel SARATOGA TRUNK, Hammerstein replied “the other story we have been considering is more interesting to us. It will be a more radical departure from the previous stories and groups of characters with which we have dealt. We don’t think its chances of being successful are any greater than the chances of your play – perhaps not as good. We just feel more like working on that one.”
That was ME AND JULIET. SARATOGA came to Broadway six years later thanks to two top-notch pros: Mercer and composer Harold Arlen. Hollywood star Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence, fresh off WEST SIDE STORY, were above the title. It didn’t run long, but long enough to get a cast album that’s still available.
Around the same time, Hammerstein rejected an offer from MGM director Jack Cummings for a book called FIVE FOREIGNERS IN JAPAN. “Seventeenth century Japan,” he wrote, “was a dynamic period in Japanese history. The events in this story shaped the entire policy toward foreigners in Japan and consequently changed the history of the world.”
Well, Hammerstein didn’t do it, but his protégé Stephen Sondheim certainly did: PACIFIC OVERTURES, perhaps the musical that best deserves the term “sui generis.”
Perhaps one reason for Hammerstein’s refusal was that he’d recently done a show set in that part of the world. We do know it was why in in 1952 that he didn’t tackle THE HIDDEN FLOWER, a novel by Nobel Prize-winner Pearl Buck about an interracial romance in post-war Japan: “I have quite recently been over that ground in a play: SOUTH PACIFIC.”
As for Buck, she co-wrote a 1960 Broadway musical that wasn’t based on one of her novels: Hilda Wernher’s MY INDIAN FAMILY concerned a woman who comes to India to see her married daughter only to discover that she’d recently died. CHRISTINE lasted only twelve performances, but its score has many, many adherents.
In 1953, Vincent Sheean, who had written a biography of Hammerstein’s grandfather – a successful theatrical impresario — suggested TWELFTH NIGHT but as an opera. The biggest success for any of the many TWELFTH NIGHT musical versions is YOUR OWN THING, a 1968 musical that celebrated the Swingin’ Sixties. It’s a fun time machine of what those days were like, both in music and sensibility.
John Steinbeck, who wrote SWEET THURSDAY – which became R&H’s PIPE DREAM – sent a letter to Rodgers while that 1955 musical was still in rehearsals. After he’d pitched his novel OF MICE AND MEN, Rodgers passed the letter to Hammerstein who responded to Steinbeck that “I am flattered by your willingness to entrust it to us, and as soon as I get your SWEET THURSDAY off my neck, I will try to give it some time and sincere thought.”
“Off my neck,” eh? Did Hammerstein already feel some doom and gloom over what would be R&H’s shortest-running show? Nevertheless, many swear that this is R&H’s most underrated score.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Elmer (STREET SCENE) Rice hoped that Hammerstein would musicalize DREAM GIRL, his 1945 hit comedy. Hammerstein instead endorsed “Alan Lerner, who is certainly one of the brightest minds in the musical field today.” That evaluation wasn’t surprising, for Hammerstein wrote that on April 13, 1956 – less than a month after Lerner’s musical of Shaw’s PYGMALION – one MY FAIR LADY had opened. And don’t forget that he and Rodgers attempted to adapt PYGMALION some years earlier.
Rice had to wait almost a decade before someone did musicalize DREAM GIRL as SKYSCRAPER, which lasted seven months.
Hammerstein received a suggestion to musicalize THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: “This has already been done by a British author-composer named Vivian Ellis, and he played me his score the last time I visited London, so you see we could not very well go ahead with this idea.”
Ellis’ musical (called HALF IN EARNEST) didn’t bother bookwriter-lyricist Anne Croswell and composer Lee Pockriss who in 1960 turned Wilde’s masterpiece into the fetching ERNEST IN LOVE. However, Croswell, who initiated the project, admitted that she not only wasn’t aware of that show, but that she also didn’t know that Wilde’s play was considered a masterpiece; had she been aware, she said, she would have never dared to attempt it.
Be glad she did. One of Croswell’s rhymes for Lady Bracknell’s “A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother” is one of the most deft ever. See if you agree.
Needless to say, Hammerstein would occasionally start a correspondence. He wrote Rouben Mamoulian (who’d directed his OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL) in early 1946: “I want to congratulate you on your choice of AH, WILDERNESS! for your next picture. I have several times considered it for musical adaptation and once suggested it to Dick, but the quick Rodgers frown crossed his brow and I let it go.”
Lucky for us, Bob Merrill didn’t. TAKE ME ALONG is an astonishingly fine score – much better than the one heard in Mamoulian’s SUMMER HOLIDAY.
One property did pan out, as we see from Hammerstein’s letter to Alice Duer Miller (author of the novel on which ROBERTA is based): CINDERELLA. “We all keep stealing from the fairy-story,” he wrote. “Why not do it straight – fairy godmother, pumpkin and all, with good modernistic dialogue?” And yet, Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t make it a TV musical for nineteen years after this 1938 letter.
After Mrs. Richard Shaw wrote in May of 1960 to recommend a book, Hammerstein wrote “that Alan Lerner and Frederic Lowe [sic] acquired the rights to THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING about a year ago and are right now very busy working on the adaptation of this book.”
Terrible trouble on the road meant a postponement, but CAMELOT was a success. Lest Mrs. Shaw think that Hammerstein was mocking her for not having read about CAMELOT, he gallantly stated “This is certainly an endorsement of your own perceptiveness. I regret that it did not come quickly enough to us. I feel quite sure that we might have taken your advice had our friends not already beaten us to it.”
What’s truly remarkable is that on July 6, 1960 – only forty-eight days before Hammerstein would die – he was either considering new properties or avoiding letting any letter writer know that he was so seriously ill.
About a piece that had appeared in The New Yorker, he wrote “It is a charming story and a tantalizing one. It is difficult for me to get out of my head, and difficult for me to make up my mind about. It would be difficult, I believe, for us to adapt it as a musical play, but it is a tempter.”
Little did he know that his composer’s grandson – one Adam Guettel – would musicalize that story: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA.
The suggestion that Hammerstein rejected that became the biggest hit? TEVYE’S DAUGHTERS was offered in 1949; fifteen years later it surfaced as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. We can’t say that Rodgers and Hammerstein would have done it better, but we do know that Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick did it very well and were very glad that they had taken the suggestion.