(July 12, 1895 – August 23, 1960)
Believe it or not today’s article is about a non-black man. A man that I sincerely believe understood the mindset and the tragic conditions of black men and women in the past and the current times until his death in 1960. It wasn’t until a recent show about his life on PBS that led me to this conclusion. In a minute, I will tell you why I came to this belief, but before I go any further, I should tell you the name of whom I am talking about…Oscar Hammerstein II.
Oscar Hammerstein II was the product of the entertainment industry. His grandfather, who he was named after, was a respected vaudevillian that owned the Village Theatre in New York City. His father managed the theatre and according to sources, was opposed to his son’s desire to participate in the arts. It was not until he died that young Oscar participated in his first play, a college variety show called On Your Way. Ultimately, Oscar had a very celebrated career, winning awards eight Tony Awards and two Academy Awards for Best Original Song. Many of his songs have become standard repertoire for singers and jazz musicians through the years. He co-wrote 850 songs. Hammerstein was the lyricist and playwright in his musical partnerships; his collaborators wrote the music. He collaborated with composers Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Frinl, Richard A. Whiting and Sigmund Romberg; but his most famous collaboration by far, was with Richard Rodgers. (A list of some of his most noteworthy work/songs can be found below.)
So what did he do that makes him worthy of my modest black history acknowledgement? Two of his works, to me, strengthen my position. The first is Showboat, a musical that I initially saw as a film, first in black and white that featured the great Paul Robeson as “Joe” and a second time a 1951 production that was filmed in color and in “Cinemascope” that featured William Warfield also as “Joe”. The casting of Ava Gardner in the latter film was really an insult, I’ve never had much respect for her as an actor and in this case, she was definitely miscast. The second work that I think makes him a noteworthy individual was his production of “Carmen Jones”, an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, that had an all-black cast that initially was a Broadway musical in 1943 and a film in 1954. The film starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. Otto Preminger, whom Dandridge had an affair with for nearly 4 years, also directed it. A third musical, South Pacific also dealt with racial issues.
Hammerstein was one of the more tough-minded and socially conscious American musical theater artists and it definitely shows as he delved deeply into the black culture in these two pieces of work. He did not run from the racial prejudices of his time. Showboat’s bold underlying plot was about miscegenation…interracial relationships and marriages. At the time, many states, if not most in the U.S., had laws preventing it. He didn’t mince words either…his plays, especially this one, used the words of the day. Negroes were “Nigga’s” and “boys” and “mammies”. In today’s politically correct times, the use of those words, even in the context of the times, are intolerable to some.
True story: I saw the revival production of Showboat twice, the first time in Toronto (more about that experience will come later) and the second time at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. For the Detroit performance, I took a black friend who was so incensed and offended by the words and terms that were used in the play, we had to leave and we were only 20 minutes into the performance. Every time a white performer used the “N-word” she winced. She ultimately chastised me for bringing her to the performance, dinner was cancelled and any romantic notion that I might have had as far as she was concerned was over…stick a fork in…it was done (forevvvvver)! She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t offended too. At $100 per ticket it would have taken a lot to have offended me and anyway I wasn’t responsible for the words, it wasn’t like I could change them. To be truthful, why would I? The play was a story about the south in the 1800’s, the time of showboats, and racial epithets were used all of the time. If it happened in “polite” society, would you…could you expect it to be any different on the docks. It represented the reality of those times, not that you had to like it…and I tend to think that he wanted you to hate it, because he didn’t like it either. Some say that when you look at the overall body of his work, Oscar was a softy, a sentimentalist. I move that he had to be that to grace his characters with the dignity and genuine humility that they portrayed. I can guarantee that the actors that performed his words…sang/spoke the lines he wrote, were just as proud to be his vessels, as the, many of us were that heard them.
Another true story…January 1994, I went to Toronto, with a very special lady I was seeing at the time, to see the first run of Showboat at The North York Performing Arts Centre. This was the first time I saw it. The second time was the ill-fated occasion at the Masonic Temple. With regards to the performance, the setting…the staging was far better than what I subsequently saw back home in Detroit, plus it had our hometown star, Lonette McKee. The stage was HUGE! It made good use of the technology of the times…lighting, set design, for a while it was the best set I had ever seen (I loved Les Mis too) and the most dynamic. Anyway, my girlfriend and I had great seats. We were first row, just slightly off center…it was such an unexpected surprise that we sat so close. When I got home I sent a card to thank my travel agent.
So, anyway, the lights go down and the show begins with a couple of songs. Finally, they get to Old Man River. The character “Joe”, played marvelously by Michel Bell, comes on stage looking right at me, smiles, and goes into the song. It was fabulous!!! The next song was “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, a group performance that included Joe, Lonette MeKee’s character “Julie” and Joe’s wife “Queenie”, who was played by Gretha Boston. One by one whenever a black performer came on stage they looked at me, smiled and sung each song as if they were performing for me. I got chills from Gretha’s “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun”. It wasn’t my birthday and I must admit that I felt a little self-conscious. I wondered if anybody else had noticed or was I just dreaming. At the end of the show, m’lady asked how did it feel to have a private performance of the musical. I confessed that I loved it immensely, surprised that she noticed it too, and was very happy that I hadn’t imagined it all. When we stood to leave we turned to see that I was the only black person in the audience. They were performing for me (and of course, my girl as she was sitting next to me)! How COOL was that?
The revival of Hammerstein and Kern’s adaptation of the Edna Farber book was a tremendous success. Like Mark Twain’s work I hope that his or Ms. Farber’s efforts survive the politically correct censors that walk the streets today. PC cannot or should not be retrofitted on classic works…of literature, art or performance. Oscar Hammerstein was not just one of a kind. There are many like him…that have a sensibility about the characters and situations that they write about. He reminds me of Mark Twain, another fantastic storyteller. I hope there will be no attempt to “sanitize” his words, as they were trying at one time to Twain’s work.
Oscar Hammerstein II was and remains a transformative figure in the history of Broadway and musical history. His honest use of dialect and language makes for some “powerful” playmaking and his legacy shall live on forever!
- Ol’ Man River
- Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man
- Make Believe
- Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’
- People Will Say We’re Falling In Love
- Oh, What A Beautiful Morning
- The Surrey With The Fringe On Top
- You’ll Never Walk Alone
- If I Loved You
- June Is Bustin’ Out All Over
- Some Enchanted Evening
- Bali Hai
- You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught
- I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair
King & I
- Getting To Know You
- Shall We Dance
- Something Wonderful!
- Whistle A Happy Tune
Sound of Music
- Sound of Music
- Climb Every Mountain
Lady In Red
- The Last Time I Saw Paris
- It Might As Well Be Spring