Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical

Yale Univ. Jan. 2023. 376p. ISBN 9780300223798. $32.50. THEATER
Longtime theater critic/Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor Winer’s exceptional research into the life and works of Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960) follows his evolution from optimistic lyricist to committed activist, whose works reflected his personal relationships and visions of the world. Best known for successful productions starting with the controversial Show Boat to his extraordinary collaborations with Richard Rodgers (Carousel; South Pacific; The Sound of Music), Hammerstein created the musical play in which his lyrics took precedence. Winer utilizes thousands of personal letters and interviews with those closest to Hammerstein to reveal his muses. His idealization of his mother inspired the creation of women characters who could do no wrong; they dominated his productions. His ex-wife’s alleged pessimism formed his belief that a positive attitude controls one’s destiny. His overwhelming love for his second wife made him (in Winer’s words) “a poet of the anticipation of joy.” While Hammerstein frequently failed to share profits or credit with collaborators, Winer argues that his works paved the way for civil-rights legislation, and his mentorship of a young Stephen Sondheim ensured more musical masterpieces.
VERDICT Winer’s exploration of Hammerstein’s journey is timely, respectful, and deserving of inclusion in strong performing arts collections.
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