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Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960)
Oscar Hammerstein II
From THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: "Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern demonstrated that popular music could also be serious drama with the musical 'Show Boat.'"


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Clendenning Hammerstein II (1895-1960) was perhaps the most influential lyricist and librettist of the American theater. Major musicals for which he wrote the lyrics include "Show Boat," "South Pacific," "The King and I," and "The Sound of Music."
Oscar Clendenning Hammerstein II was perhaps the most influential lyricist and librettist of the American theater.


Oscar Clendenning Hammerstein II was born into a great theatrical family on July 12, 1895, in New York City. His grandfather, Oscar I, was an opera impressario and showman. His father, William, was the manager of Hammerstein's Victoria, one of the most famous vaudeville theaters of its day. His uncle, Arthur, was a well-known producer. All were famous in their own right, but all would be eclipsed by the success of Oscar II, the third generation theater Hammerstein. Oscar, or "Ockie" (his lifelong nickname), dabbled in theatrical activities as a youth, but when it came time for a career choice his father pushed him away from the theater. Oscar went to Columbia University in preparation for a career in law. It was at Columbia, however, that Oscar's career in theater actually began when, at age 19, he joined the Columbia University Players as a performer in the 1915 Varsity revue "On Your Way." He participated heavily in the Varsity shows for several years, first as a performer and later as a writer. It was at Columbia that Oscar first met the young man who would later collaborate with him and with Lorenz Hart, another Columbia alumnus: Richard Rodgers.

After Oscar's first year of law school, he convinced his uncle, Arthur, to hire him as an assistant stage manager on one of his upcoming shows. By 1919 he was promoted to production stage manager for all of Arthur's shows. In his position as production stage manager Oscar was able to do some writing and re-writing on scripts in development. Eventually he was writing musical comedies of his own. His first success as a librettist came in 1922 with "Wildflower," written with Otto Harbach. A more major success in 1924, "Rose Marie," written with Harbach, Rudolph Friml, and Herbert P. Stohart, led to his collaboration with composer Jerome Kern. Kern and Hammerstein had both been concerned with the "integrated musical," a musical in which the book, lyrics, and score all grow from a central idea and all contribute to the story line. They adapted Edna Ferber's sprawling novel about life on a Mississippi River boat into the landmark 1925 musical "Show Boat," with Kern composing the score and Hammerstein writing the book and lyrics. "Show Boat" firmly established Oscar's success and reputation as a writer and lyricist.

Photo credit: Oscar Hammerstein II. (Richard Rodgers Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

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