April 10, 2012

Out Of My Dreams 
Oscar Hammerstein II

The search for a full understanding of the life and works of Oscar Hammerstein II might well begin with this twelve-song disc, but it certainly won’t end here. Indeed, the disk will serve only to whet an appetite, not satisfy it.

Described as a “companion” to the PBS documentary of the same title, Out Of My Dreams leaves one wanting more.

Of course, any attempt to represent this man’s career with just one disc is not only an impossibility, it is a folly. That career covered over forty years, involved writing the book or lyrics or directing over forty-five shows on Broadway and producing half a dozen more. In the process, he published over eight hundred song lyrics.

Even if Decca Broadway loaded up the CD to capacity with Hammerstein songs, the disc would be more notable for what it excludes than for what it includes. As it is, they called it quits after just 12 songs using only half the running time that could have been used.

Lets take a look at what is here.

A few tracks from original broadway cast albums? Yes – the title track, plus “People Will Say We’re in Love” from 1943′s Oklahoma! “If I Loved you” from 1945′s Carousel and a young Yul Brynner’s “A Puzzlement” from The King and I from 1951. There’s also a track (“Dat’s Love”) from the original cast recording of Hammerstein’s re-working of Bizet’s opera Carmen into a Broadway show, 1943′s Carmen Jones.

Some of the tracks, however, are from revivals, concerts or studio recordings of scores. Julie Andrews lends her distinctive soprano to “Getting To Know You” from The King and I backed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under John Maucceri, while the equally distinctive baritone voice of Brian Stokes Mitchell handles “Some Enchanted Evening” from the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning South Pacific. Sarah Brightman and Barbara Cook team up for “Mister Snow” from Carousel, Simon Estes gives “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat the heft it deserves in a 1991 recording backed by the Munich Radio Orchestra, and Connie Fisher (yes, Connie Fisher!) does a superb “Do-Re-Me” from the London Palladium’s version of 1959′s The Sound of Music.

Then there are some recordings from the days when pop music stars “covered” songs from musicals in the hope of landing on the hit parade. There are Dick Haymes’ 1949 record of “It Might As Well Be Spring” from the movie State Fair and Rosemary Clooney’s 1958 recording of “Love, Look Away” from Flower Drum Song of the same year.

OK. That’s what is here. It was inevitable that what isn’t here would include a multitude of songs that are on any theater lover’s list of favorites. The disc doesn’t even hint at the richness that preceded the collaboration with Richard Rodgers. You’d hardly suspect from this collection that their first show together, Oklahoma!, was Hammerstein’s 35th Broadway show.

True, there is “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat, which he wrote in 1927 with Jerome Kern. But that show had more hits than any musical up to that time and he wrote four other major musicals with Kern which produced more songs that have become standards (or, as in the case of Sweet Adeline‘s “Some Girl Is On Your Mind,” should have).

There’s nary a clue that he worked with other famous composers and had major hits which produced well known songs in the 1920s and 1930s. He had hits with Rudolf Friml (Rose-Marie which ran from 1924 to 1926) and Sigmund Romberg including The Desert Song and The New Moon (anyone remember “Stouthearted Men”?).

In order to even begin to understand the way he impacted the art form of musical theater, the quality of his output and the essential humanity of the man, you must listen to full scores from his shows. As luck would have it, a great many of them are available either in their original cast form or in revivals or concert presentations. Just enter “Oscar Hammerstein II” into your browser and follow the links to your heart’s (and your head’s) content.

Serious delving into Hammerstein the lyricist, however, requires a volume that should hold down the coffee table of any lover of musical theater – or of the English language, for that matter. It is The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II edited by Amy Asch.

There are quite a few books about Hammerstein which a theater lover could devour. The best of the bunch has to be Hugh Fordin’s treasure of a book, Getting To Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II. The later part of Hammerstein’s career, the seventeen-year collaboration with Richard Rodgers, makes good reading in Frederick Nolan’s The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

Stephen Citron found themes in the life and work of Hammerstein and the lyricist of My Fair Lady, Camelot and so many others, Alan Jay Lerner to justify one volume on both, The Wordsmiths. It is out of print but used copies can easily be found online.

A personal favorite of mine puts the life of the man into the context of his family history. It is The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family by his grandson, Oscar Andrew Hammerstein which was published in 2010 and which was discussed in the December 7 Theater Shelf  column of that year.

This isn’t true about every creator of musical theater, but the more you learn about this great man, the more you want to know. His life is as inspiring as his work. So start your study now.

Out Of My Dreams: Oscar Hammerstein II
Decca Broadway Catalog B0016488-02
Running time 46 minutes over 12 tracks
Includes a short essay
List price $14.99

Additional Shopping List:

The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II
Edited by Amy Asch
ISBN 0375413588
List Price $65

The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family
Oscar Andrew Hammerstein
Black Dog and Leventhal
ISBN 1579128467
List Price $35

Getting To Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hamerstein II
Hugh Fordin
Da Capo Press
ISBN 0306806681

The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein
Frederick Nolan
ISBN 1557834733