Oscar Hammerstein II was one of the most influential musical theater writers and lyricists in U.S. musical theater history. He wrote musicals and lyrics for nearly 40 years. In 1942, he partnered with composer Richard Rodgers to form Rodgers and Hammerstein, an incredibly successful theater-writing company. A few of Hammerstein’s theater successes include The Sound of Music, The King and I, and Cinderella. I guarantee everyone has at least heard of these musicals.
Here, I want to talk about five of Hammerstein’s lesser-known (but still prominent) works that deserve a wider audience!
1. The New Moon
This was an operetta that premiered on Broadway in 1928. (It premiered in Philadelphia in 1927, but it didn’t do well.) Hammerstein wrote both the book and the lyrics. This musical was set in France and New Orleans during the 18th century, following a disguised French nobleman who fled to New Orleans and fell in love with a woman there. There are pirates, revolutions, love, and more, all wrapped up with a happy ending.
This was one of the last of Broadway’s operettas. It has even been called the “last great American work in the Golden Age of Operetta.” This is perhaps why The New Moon is not as well known; even if it was a great musical, it appeared toward the end of the age of operettas. It’s still an interesting operetta to explore, and because operettas are lighter than operas and have spoken dialogue, it could interest a broad audience.
2. Music in the Air
This was an operetta that premiered on Broadway in 1932. Hammerstein wrote both the book and the lyrics. This took place in Bavaria (a state in southeast Germany) between lovers Sieglinde and Karl from a small town to Munich, the area’s second-largest city. They were enamored and nearly corrupted by city life, but in the end, they realized it wasn’t for them and returned to their old lives together.
This musical is sort of plain and likely wouldn’t do very well today. It did all right in 1932, but it didn’t have the same spark, so to speak, as some of Hammerstein’s more famous musicals. The songs were well done, but the story was one that had been told before, and it didn’t add anything new to it. There has been a revival of it, but I cannot say how good it is.
3. State Fair
This musical premiered in 1945. Hammerstein wrote both the screenplay and the lyrics. This one is a departure from the others on this list, as it was a musical for film rather than the stage. The Frankes, a farming family of four, attended the Iowa State Fair. Everybody wanted something different—to win competitions, to get a break from daily life, and to finally win a carnival game. While things were bumpy at times, each ended up having a wonderful time and accomplishing their goals.
This was based on a 1933 film of the same name, and that one was based on a novel by the same name. The musical film wasn’t adapted for Broadway until 1996, half a century after it was originally released. The movie received mixed reviews, some positive and some neutral. It sounds like a nice film, something good to put on for the background, but not strong enough to stand the test of time.
This was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s third musical. Hammerstein wrote both the book and the lyrics. This was a more serious musical, set in 1905, following the life of a man named Joseph Taylor Jr. He becomes a doctor just like his father, but he is tempted by the money and fame he could have at a big city hospital rather than working in a small town. It explores his personal and professional life for decades, and it is a lovely musical. Click here for a synopsis.
However, the musical was not a success when it debuted in 1947. Perhaps the subject matter was too serious and realistic for audiences, or perhaps they didn’t find a musical about a doctor’s life and struggles interesting enough. But there are important lessons and takeaways from this musical, such as to follow your dreams and focus on doing good rather than being influenced by status or money.
5. Pipe Dream
This was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s seventh musical, released in 1955. Hammerstein wrote both the book and the lyrics. This musical was based on John Steinback’s novel Sweet Thursday, which is a sequel to Cannery Row. It followed the romance between a marine scientist named Doc and a woman named Suzy. (In Steinback’s novel, she is a prostitute, but it isn’t outright said in the musical.) It’s a Will-They-Won’t-They situation, and it takes everyone to try and get them together in the end.
In fact, Sweet Thursday was reportedly written with the hopes that it would become a musical. Despite Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best efforts, however, the musical was a flop. There was a lot of hype before it premiered, but it left audiences feeling disappointed. Rodgers and Hammerstein took Steinbeck’s novel and made it less gritty and corrupt, more family-friendly.
While his musicals weren’t always commercial hits that endured for decades, Oscar Hammerstein II really knew what he was doing. He has forever left his mark on U.S. theater history, to which his name will always be attached.
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