OKLAHOMA! Fact #4: "Oscar Hammerstein II Was a Big Softy"

OKLAHOMA! Fact #4: "Oscar Hammerstein II Was a Big Softy"
Lorenz "Larry" Hart and Richard Rodgers at work.

Lorenz "Larry" Hart and Richard Rodgers at work.

Lorenz “Larry” Hart was a drunk. He was a damn good lyricist; but, boy, was he a drunk. In his memoirs, composer Richard Rodgers describes their unceremonious first meeting at Hart’s house in 1919. “The total man was hardly more than five feet tall. He wore frayed carpet slippers, a pair of tuxedo trousers, an undershirt and a nondescript jacket. His hair was unbrushed, and he obviously hadn’t had a shave for a couple of days.” Somehow seeing through Hart’s disconcerting physical presentation, Rodgers knew that Hart proffered an undeniable spark. As he put it, “I left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.”

Rodgers was right on all counts. Together, they made a formidable pair. They wrote a slew of Broadway hits throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. On Your Toes, Pal Joey, and Babes in Arms— all of which were undoubtedly toasted with too much champagne. And while their success steadily mounted, so did Rodgers' irritation with Hart.

1941 was the first year in the past 6 that they didn’t open a new show on Broadway. According to Rodgers, “The reason, I’m afraid, was Larry. The drinking, the staying out all night and the disappearances were increasing to an alarming degree. It was almost impossible to rely on him to keep an appointment, and if he did, he was seldom in condition to do any work. He no longer seemed to give a damn about anything.”

When the Theatre Guild came to Rodgers regarding a musical adaptation of Green Grow the Lilacs, he knew he couldn’t count on Larry. Anyways, this new project would require a gentle mawkishness that Hart couldn’t muster in his best of days. Rodgers surprised himself by considering partnership with a man who hadn’t had a hit in almost ten years, Oscar Hammerstein II. “[Hammerstein] had always been part of a romantic, florid kid of theatre, more operetta than musical comedy, which was quite different from Larry’s and mine,” said Rodgers. “He had written his best lyrics with men of traditional, classical European backgrounds or training.” But one thought prevailed in Rodgers’ mind. Sure, Hammerstein wasn’t hot, but he was smart. After all, he had supplied countless innovations to form and content with the ground-breaking Show Boat in 1927. Rodgers assessment of Hammerstein led him to this conclusion: Hammerstein’s talent was “mis-used rather than used up." That’s when Rodgers and Hart became Rodgers and Hammerstein.

From the start, Rodgers was grateful that his new collaborator shared his same desire for productivity. In their first meeting on what would become Oklahoma!, they sat under a large oak tree and discussed what kinds of songs they would write, where they would fit those songs into the story, who would sing them, and what mood the show would have.  

But the trait that Rodgers most admired in Hammerstein was his sentimentality. You’d never think it from looking at him, but the man was a big softy. Rodgers’ favorite example comes from their composition “Surrey with a Fringe on Top”. It’s a simple little ditty wherein Curly imagines a-settin’ atop a hired rig to take his girl Laurey to a party. As realized, the song offers a gentle pitter-patter to recall the steady trot of horses’ hooves. Derivations in Rodgers’ melody resemble small animals scurrying out of the way. Hammerstein’s contribution was a love poem to the prairie. His lyrics had Curly offering gratitude to every small pleasure that made this place his home.

The song had an odd emotional effect on lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. So says his partner Richard Rodgers, “Oscar was so moved by this song that just listening to it made him cry. He once explained that he never cried at sadness in the theatre, only at naive happiness, and the idea of two boneheaded young people looking forward to nothing more than a ride in a surrey struck an emotional chord that affected him deeply.”

With the soul of an artist and the pragmatism of a mogul, Oscar Hammerstein II was just what Rodgers needed to be born anew. Together, they formed a partnership the likes of which will never be seen again.

Richard Rodgers, Julie Andrews, Oscar Hammerstein II

Richard Rodgers, Julie Andrews, Oscar Hammerstein II