"The Hills of Yesterday"
Hammerstein’s Farm Now a Bed–and–Breakfast
Sondheim's words: "a seminar." He says: "I learned more in that afternoon than most people learn about songwriting in a lifetime," but it was just the beginning of an intense, multi-year course from one master for a future master.
So exactly where did that life-changing event – an event that eventually changed the course of American musical theatre – actually take place? It was in an 1840s farmhouse on the crest of a hill on East Road outside Doylestown, Penn. The house where Oscar Hammerstein II wrote shows that defined the "Golden Age of Broadway" with composer Richard Rodgers is still there.
If you're interested, you can visit the one-time home of Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein, which is now the Highland Farm Bed & Breakfast, operated by innkeeper Christine Cole. She has named the rooms her guests use after Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. For example, the room that was Hammerstein's master suite is now the "South Pacific." His study, where he paced in thought and then wrote either at his standup desk or relined on a chaise, is now "The King and I."
Was this where young Sondheim received that afternoon seminar? Was it here that Hammerstein gave him the assignments for four shows he was to write as exercises in his training? Oscar - or "Ockie," as the family, including Sondheim, called him - asked Sondheim to write musicals based on (1) a play he admired, (2) a play he thought had problems, (3) an existing novel or story, and finally (4) an original piece. It took him years, but he emerged from the training equipped to use his intellectual prowess with the skill of a trained craftsman.
On the third floor is a single room, "The Carousel," assembled from two rooms that were the children's bedrooms. (Oscar had two children by a previous marriage. Doroty had two as well. Together they had James, Sondheim's first acquaintance in his surrogate family.) Also on the top floor are two rooms rented together and called "The Oklahoma Suite."
The living room remains much as it was during the years the Hammersteins had Sondheim as a constant presence, especially during summer vacations between academic years at the George School in Newton, just 15 miles down Swamp Road, and later at Williams College in Massachusetts. Breakfast is now served across the entryway in what was once the family music room.
The wrap-around veranda where Hammerstein could watch the cattle "standin' like statues" is still there, topped by a railing supporting metal pineapples reportedly taken as souvenirs from the set when South Pacific closed. Down the hill is a golf course where Sondheim and Jamie would sneak onto the three holes farthest from the clubhouse to play unobserved.
Even the village of Doylestown will bring thoughts of musical theatre to mind. Driving through the quaint town one notices the Country Theatre, the town's only movie house both now and when Sondheim was young. It was here that he saw the movie Hangover Square, with its score by Bernard Herrmann. He later said he used a sonic structure from that score in Sweeney Todd."
Musical theatre buffs would have been as surprised as I was this spring when I visited to find that the movie playing there was a new film, Away We Go. Although a sheer coincidence, that's the original title of the show that eventually became known as Oklahoma! the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Sondheim says he hasn't been back since the farmhouse became a B&B … "except in my dreams."
The Highland Farm Bed & Breakfast can be reached at 215 – 345 – 6767. Reservations can be made via www.HighlandFarmBB.com. [TSR]