Please pardon our dust. Our team is hard at work standardizing and improving our database content. If you need assistance, please contact us.
"[Oscar Hammerstein II] was strong and balanced and sensitive. He had the basic virtues. His contribution to the American theatre was immense, and as much a contribution of personality as of technique. That is why his lyrics are known and loved by millions-because they are a reflection of that singular personality."
-S.N. Behrman, The New York Times, August 28, 1960
A gentle, sincere man who reputedly looked more like a real estate salesman than a Broadway personality, Oscar Hammerstein II transformed American musical theater through his idealism and creative genius. The son and grandson of eminent producers, Hammerstein was born into the theatre. Although he achieved renown primarily as a librettist and lyricist, Hammerstein also occasionally directed and produced his shows. As a youth in the 1920s, Hammerstein wrote traditional romantic musical comedy. Composing Show Boat with Jerome Kern in 1927, however, he forged a new direction, addressing serious historical issues and incorporating traditional American music. Collaborating with Richard Rodgers during the 1940s and 1950s, Hammerstein further developed his distinctive style of musical, including complex stories, songs and dialogue that advance the plot, and the confrontation of serious issues, such as the struggle between good and evil, racial intolerance, and community dynamics. The treatment of these themes, as well as their sincerity and exuberance, still appeal to audiences today, as proven by a recent spate of revivals.
Oscar Hammerstein II. Photo by Jack Rosen. Image courtesy of the James A. Michener Art Museum.
Education and Training
B.A., Columbia University, New York, New York, 1912-1916
J.D., Columbia University School of Law, New York, New York, 1916-1918
Teachers and Influences
Oscar Hammerstein II came from a famous theatrical family. His grandfather owned the Manhattan Opera House. His first introduction to theatre was in 1918 as an apprentice and assistant to his uncle Arthur Hammerstein, who taught him the technical aspects of theater through his road companies. His teacher and mentor in writing lyrics was librettist Otto Harbach, with whom he collaborated on several musicals. Other colleagues included Jerome Kern, Frank Mandel, Sigmund Romberg, Georges Bizet, Richard Rodgers, Joshua Logan, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse.
Connection to Bucks County
Oscar Hammerstein II resided at Highland Farm in Doylestown from 1940 until his death in 1960. While there, he wrote the lyrics to his successful musicals. A native New Yorker, Hammerstein was delighted by the opportunity to raise cattle in Bucks County, an endeavor he took seriously. Hammerstein enjoyed warm collegiate relations with other Bucks County artists, helping St. John Terrell to bring musical theatre to the country and helping Pearl S. Buck develop her humanitarian foundations. Named in 1989 to the National Register of Historic Places, Highland Farms enjoyed a brief stint as an award-winning bed and breakfast.
Colleagues and Affiliations
Pearl S. Buck, The Hammersteins were co-founders of Welcome House in 1949
St. John Terrell, Hammerstein supported his Music Circus in Lambertville
James A. Michener, Hammerstein adapted his novel Tales of the South Pacific as the musical play and feature film South Pacific.
Selected Musical Plays
Home, James, 1918
Rose Marie, 1924, released as a feature film, 1936
The Desert Song, 1926, released as a feature film, 1944
Show Boat, 1927, released as feature film, 1936
Very Warm for May, 1939
Sunny River, 1941
Oklahoma!, 1943, released as feature film, 1945
Carmen Jones, 1943, feature film, 1954
Carousel, 1945, feature film, 1956
South Pacific, with Joshua Logan, 1949, feature film, 1958
The King and I, 1951, feature film, 1956
Pipe Dream, 1956
Flower Drum Song with Joseph Fields, 1958, feature film 1961
Ballyhoo, musical play, 1931
May Wine, musical play, 1935
The Sound of Music, musical play, 1959, feature film, 1965
Author or co-author of more than one thousand song lyrics, including:
"Ol' Man River," "Lover Come Back To Me," "The Last Time I Saw Paris," "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "If I Loved You," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Hai," "Younger Than Springtime," "I'm In Love With a Wonderful Guy," "Shall We Dance?," "It Might as Well Be Spring," "The Sound of Music," and "My Favorite Things."
Teaching and Professional Appointments
Co-founder and partner of Williamson Music, Inc., 1945
President, Welcome House, 1953-1960
Doctor of Law, Honorary, Drury College, 1949
Doctor of Letters, Honorary, Dartmouth College, 1952
Additional honorary degrees from Boston University, Columbia University, University of Massachusetts, and Knox College
Medal of Excellence, Columbia University, 1949
Special Pulitzer Prize, Oklahoma!, 1944
Special Pulitzer Prize, South Pacific, 1949
Tony Award for Best Musical, South Pacific with Richard Rodgers and Joshua Logan, 1950
Tony Award for Best Musical, The King and I with Richard Rodgers, 1952
Tony Award for Best Musical, The Sound of Music with Richard Rodgers, 1960
Academy Award for Best Song, The Last Time I Saw Paris with Jerome Kern, 1945
Academy Award for Best Song, "It Might As Well Be Spring" with Richard Rodgers, 1946
Grammy Award, The Sound of Music, 1960
New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Carousel, 1945
New York Drama Critics Circle Award, South Pacific, 1949
Affiliations and Memberships
Member, Music War Committee, 1943
Sponsor, American Youth Orchestra
"...a perfect partnership..."
-Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers first met after a Columbia University Varsity Show in 1915, when Rodgers' older brother escorted him backstage. Four years later, when Rodgers enrolled at Columbia, he asked Hammerstein to write for him, as he did again in 1942, when his regular partner, Lorenz Hart, was succumbing to alcoholism.
Rodgers and Hammerstein quickly followed the project Oklahoma! with other vibrant musicals, including Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Boasting richly complex stories, a memorable score, and lavish productions, these musicals proved immensely popular. Idealistic and progressive, the shows deplored racial prejudice, suggesting, as in South Pacific, that bigotry is unnatural and has to be "carefully taught."
Over the years, Rodgers and Hammerstein developed a comfortable routine, whereby Hammerstein, in Doylestown, first wrote the book and lyrics for a musical and then Rodgers composed the score. Finally, together in their New York office, the two men developed the production. The spirit of their collaboration was affectionate, informal, and mutually respectful. Only Hammerstein's death in 1960 could dissolve their partnership.
Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein II, preparing for South Pacific. Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (cropped).
"The importance of 'Oklahoma'... can be simply stated. All musicals written before it immediately seemed old-fashioned... No musical since has been unaffected by it."
-John Steele Gordon
In the summer of 1942, Oscar Hammerstein II began composing lyrics for a new musical. "The corn is as high as a cow pony's eye," he wrote. Gazing at the field across from his Doylestown farmhouse, he changed his cow pony to an elephant. With this, Hammerstein began, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." This became the first song of Oklahoma!, one of the most influential musicals ever written.
Daring in its day, Oklahoma! pushed the stylistic innovations of Hammerstein's earlier musical, Show Boat (1927), one step further. Whereas Broadway musicals had formerly been revues, or chorus lines with loosely connected song and dance numbers with a minimal plot, Oklahoma! was a musical drama whose songs were seamlessly integrated into the story-line, advancing its relatively complex plot. Instead of dancing girls, the musical offered ballet choreographed by Agnes de Mille.
From the beginning, audiences loved Oklahoma!. It ran for 2,212 performances on Broadway, winning a special Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1944. It was adapted for film in 1955 and revived on Broadway during the 1990s. Encouraged by its success, Rodgers and Hammerstein created several other musicals in the same vein. Influencing generations of new playwrights, Oklahoma! changed American musical theater forever.
Theater poster for Oklahoma!. The Intelligencer, April 24, 1992. James A. Michener Art Museum archives.