When Oscar Hammerstein II died 50 years ago, the lights of Broadway and London's West End were dimmed in his honor. From Showboat to Oklahoma!, The King and I to The Sound of Music, Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics and librettos to some of the most famous and enduring songs and shows in American musical theater history.
But the Hammersteins did more than build Broadway with hit shows — they also built some of the first theaters that helped make Times Square a theater capital. Now Oscar Andrew Hammerstein, a fifth-generation Hammerstein, has written a book that tracks his family's influence on musical theater.
The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family starts the family story with Oscar Hammerstein I's immigration from Germany to New York in 1864 where he found work sweeping the floors of a cigar factory — an unlikely start to his rise.
"[He] moved up in the ranks until he was manager," Hammerstein tells NPR's Scott Simon. "Then [he] started inventing cigar machines, and he made a fortune from inventing cigar machines before he even turned 30 years old. So he had money to spend on building theaters."
Hammerstein I loved the opera and wanted to make it more popular in New York, so he built theater after theater in what would later become known as the city's theater district — not in small part because of Hammerstein I's efforts.
"He spent most of his life and all of his money in the pursuit of that dream," Hammerstein says. "Had he been a rational man we would probably own much of what is now Times Square, but our legacy now is much more in the creative side."
Hammerstein I's creative talents were inherited by his grandson, theater great Oscar Hammerstein II, who broke the mold of the American musical. Hammerstein says Stephen Sondheim, who knew Hammerstein II from the set of 1947's Allegro, makes a good three-part argument for what the famous musical writer left in his wake.
The first was to start the show off right away and not waste time with an opening number.
"A good example would be Oklahoma! and 'Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin','" Hammerstein says. "It tells the audience, 'Sit down, we're telling a story here.'"
The second of Hammerstein II's innovations was to delay the love song until at least the second act.
"That's a great idea because you don't want to throw them at each other before we get to know them," Hammerstein says. "We won't care about their love if we don't care about them individually."
The last innovation isn't so much a convention as an example of musical theater at its best: the soliloquy from 1945's Carousel.
"It tells a story and takes a plot around many different corners and drops you off very far from where the song starts," Hammerstein says. "That's an art form, to be able to do the sung story in such a way that you turn so many corners."
Musical theater experts are likely to connect these conventions with Hammerstein II's legacy, but anyone else is more likely to know him for his extraordinary partnership with composer Richard Rodgers.
The pair first teamed up for 1943's Oklahoma!, an adaptation of Lynn Riggs' Green Grow the Lilacs. Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics over several days and then gave them to Rodgers to write the musical score, which he literally began writing on the cab ride home.
"Oscar [was] livid," Hammerstein says. "He goes, 'Here I work for weeks and this guy takes a cab ride and the music just comes right out of him.' But I think Richard Rodgers was quoted as saying that the music just wrote itself. The words wrote the music for him. It made his job completely easy."
Still, not every Rodgers and Hammerstein show was a hit: 1947's Allegro could be fairly called a flop. But Hammerstein knew how to find the silver lining in his failures.
"He was quoted as saying you learn much more from a flop than a hit because it's hard to learn anything when everyone is praising you to the skies on those opening nights when everything is going well," Hammerstein says.
Hammerstein II challenged his audiences by breaking taboos in 1949's South Pacific and 1951's The King and I with stories of interracial romance. And despite the controversy, both his songs and his stories have endured.
Hammerstein says it's no secret why his grandfather's shows have stuck around for so long.
"The reason why they're so popular is because the story is the organic center around which everything else revolves," he says. "Oscar was very clear about the narrative being the most important thing, and everything else follows from that. He [was] a storyteller."