Hammerstein and Sondheim
Mentor and Protégé
After his parents split up, 10-year-old Stephen Sondheim and his mother, Foxy, moved to a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the future composer found a surrogate father and mentor in legendary Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. This map takes a look at the creative superstars surrounding Hammerstein and his protégé, who once enthused, “I wanted to be whatever Oscar was. I think if Oscar had been a geologist, I would have become one too.”
By the early 1940s Oscar Hammerstein II was washed-up. His greatest Broadway musical triumph, Show Boat (1927), was years behind him. Around the same time, a distressed Richard Rodgers asked Hammerstein how he should handle his alcoholic songwriting partner, Lorenz Hart, with whom Rodgers had written 28 stage musicals. Hammerstein counseled Rodgers to stick it out, and his offer to collaborate—“If the time ever comes that [Hart] can’t work, call me”—soothed the frantic composer.
As it happened, Hart was uninterested in a project dear to Rodgers, a musical version of Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, which the urbane Hart thought would turn out to be just a “corny” musical…set in Oklahoma. But Hammerstein was game, and after reading his soon-to-be-famous lyric “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” Rodgers was, as he put it, “sick with joy.” Oklahoma! (1943) became a huge hit, and the resurgent Hammerstein placed an ad in Variety, the headline proclaiming to his former detractors, “I’ve Done It Before and I Can Do It Again!” The new team soon came to dominate American musical theater. As Rodgers remembered, “What happened between Oscar and me was almost chemical.”
Stephen Sondheim never forgot the first opening night he attended at the theater: “New Haven! Carousel! It was a seminal experience of my life.” The 15-year-old cried so heavily, his tears stained the lucky fur wrap of Dorothy Hammerstein, wife of Sondheim’s mentor and father figure, Oscar. The next year, Sondheim asked him to critique his first musical, By George. “Now, do you want my opinion as though I didn’t know you?” Hammerstein asked. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read.” His next sentence—“If you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you”—changed Sondheim’s life forever.
Sondheim was thrilled to be appointed Hammerstein’s gofer on the 1947 musical Allegro. A relative flop for Rodgers and Hammerstein, the show nevertheless influenced Sondheim to try new things. “I’m drawn to experiment,” he said, because “I am trying to re-create Allegro all the time.” Hammerstein suggested he try four writing exercises, which yielded the songs he used for his audition portfolio. Sondheim the songwriter was soon Broadway-bound: Saturday Night (1954), with his music and lyrics, was to be his debut. It never opened on Broadway (the show’s producer died), although Sondheim remembers it as “not bad stuff for a 23-year-old.”
In the 1950s Rodgers and Hammerstein were a brand. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life (Groucho called them Roy Rogers and Trigger). The team was profiled in Life magazine, interviewed by Edward R. Murrow and honored by President Eisenhower. They even figured in one of Lucille Ball’s wacky schemes on TV’s I Love Lucy. The duo’s biggest problem was how to follow up their smash hit South Pacific. Dorothy Hammerstein and Dorothy Rodgers recommended Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, but their hubbies weren’t interested. They remained uninterested when English musical-comedy star Gertrude Lawrence decided only she could play Anna and only Rodgers and Hammerstein could write the show. They had never written a star-driven vehicle, and according to theater writer Ethan Mordden, Lawrence was “tough on her fellow actors, hell on directors.” However, a screening of 20th Century Fox’s 1946 film adaptation of Anna excited the pair and convinced them to base the musical on the movie rather than on Landon’s episodic, plotless book. The word was soon out: The next Rodgers and Hammerstein musical would be The King and I.
The “I” of the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s star vehicle The King and I was always meant to be Gertrude Lawrence. But who would play the King? The team considered actors Rex Harrison, Alfred Drake, even Noël Coward. But performer Mary Martin recommended Yul Brynner, with whom she had starred in the 1946 Broadway musical Lute Song. Of the young Russian actor’s memorable audition, Richard Rodgers said Brynner “had a guitar and he hit this guitar one whack and gave out this unearthly yell and sang some heathenish sort of thing, and Oscar and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that’s it!’” Brynner so energized the show that Lawrence, while dying from leukemia 17 months into the run, requested that Brynner be given star billing. Because the musical numbers in The King and I were beyond the talents of the director, John Van Druten, young Tony-winning Broadway and ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins stepped in. Employing Eastern dance forms, he staged the memorable “March of the Siamese Children,” the “Shall We Dance?” polka and the masterpiece “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.
Jerome Robbins struggled personally with his sexuality, his Jewish faith and a father who said, “My son’s a fag. How can I talk to him?” Professionally, Robbins sought perfection at any cost. New York Times critic Frank Rich explained, “Even by the standards of neurotic American artists…Robbins was a piece of work.” One former New York City Ballet soloist quipped, “If I go to hell, I will not be afraid of the devil. Because I have worked with Jerome Robbins.” And a tormented cast once watched silently as a screaming Robbins backed away from them until he fell off the stage.
In the 1950s and ’60s Robbins choreographed and/or directed such Broadway classics as The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof (whose star, Zero Mostel, reported, “I let him come in my dressing room, but I’ll tell you something, I never shook his hand”). But Robbins may be best remembered for West Side Story. Actor Russ Tamblyn, Riff in the movie version, claimed Robbins credited film star Montgomery Clift (Robbins’s former lover) with the idea of “Romeo and Juliet as a musical, but with gangs.”
In 1949 Jerome Robbins approached composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents with the idea of writing a musical version of Romeo and Juliet. Laurents remembered, “Romeo and the Montagues would be Catholic, Juliet and the Capulets Jewish; the action would occur on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan] during Easter-Passover.” Laurents called the work “East Side Story” but withdrew when he realized the Catholic-Jewish angle was unoriginal (Abie’s Irish Rose, playwright Anne Nichols’s popular 1922 stage comedy, had already covered this territory). The idea was tabled until 1955, when Bernstein met Laurents at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Inspired by Los Angeles newspaper stories about gang fights between Mexicans and Americans, they came up with a new focus for “East Side Story”: Puerto Rican gang violence on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The original lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were tied up with another movie and couldn’t work on the newly rechristened West Side Story, so Bernstein interviewed an unknown Stephen Sondheim for the job. Sondheim later admitted he “wanted to be asked to the party. I just didn’t want to go.” His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, persuaded Sondheim that if he was offered the job, he should “leap at it.”
In 1930 a 21-year-old girl making her Broadway debut held a high C note for 16 bars while the orchestra wailed and the crowd roared. The song was “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin, who ran backstage to greet his new star, Ethel Merman. He gushed, “Don’t ever let anyone give you a singing lesson—it’ll ruin you.” Merman, a.k.a. the Merm, starred in five Cole Porter musicals, including Anything Goes, and Irving Berlin wrote the songs to Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun for her. She was the archetypal Broadway belter, and her New York Times obituary stated the obvious: “She needed no hidden microphones.” Or, as Berlin said of Merman, “You’d better write her a good lyric. The guy in the last row is going to hear every syllable.”
In 1959 Merman starred in Gypsy as Madame Rose, the mother of all stage mothers. Merman objected to the untested Stephen Sondheim writing both words and music for Gypsy, but Sondheim sought the counsel of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, who wisely advised him that writing for a big star like her would be worth any diva drama.
David Merrick, one of Broadway’s most successful producers, wore a filthy, lopsided toupee. He may have looked eccentric, but his theatrical instincts were brilliant. He thought there was gold in the stage rights to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s colorful autobiography. Both he and his coproducer, Leland Hayward, wanted Jerome Robbins, fresh from West Side Story, to choreograph and direct Gypsy. Robbins was on board if playwright Arthur Laurents wrote the book. A musical about the “striptease queen of America” didn’t grab Laurents, but Lee’s “monster of a mother sweetly named Rose” fascinated him, he later wrote. Laurents signed on and suggested that another West Side Story alumnus, Stephen Sondheim, write the lyrics and music. Sondheim called Gypsy the “show where I came of age,” but this theatrical dream team was built to support star Ethel Merman. As The New York Times later eulogized, “Beginning in 1930, and for more than a quarter of a century thereafter, no Broadway season seemed really complete unless it had a musical with Ethel Merman.” For the challenge of playing horrid Rose in Gypsy, Laurents asked Merman, “How far are you willing to go?” Merman replied, “I’ll do anything you want.”
In 1959 Arthur Laurents asked Rodgers and Hammerstein about making a musical version of his romantic drama The Time of the Cuckoo, but Hammerstein died the next year. Stephen Sondheim recalled his last meeting with his mentor: “Knowing he was dying and worried about leaving his partner bereft, [Oscar] urged me to consider writing a show with Rodgers.” Working on the Cuckoo adaptation proved difficult, however. Rodgers’s “insecurity crossed the line into paranoia; he became convinced that Arthur and I were against him,” Sondheim wrote. Fearing his talent had withered, Rodgers was drinking heavily. When Rodgers fell asleep during a meeting with prospective director Franco Zeffirelli, Laurents became suspicious; at a later meeting in Rodgers’s apartment, Laurents found a vodka bottle hidden in the toilet tank.
The resulting adaptation, 1965’s Do I Hear a Waltz?, closed after only 220 performances (compared to 2,212 for Oklahoma!), yet later that year Rodgers wrote two new songs for the Sound of Music movie, the biggest hit of his 60-year career. Sondheim explains in his memoir, Finishing the Hat, why he worked with Rodgers on Waltz: “I was paying my dues to Oscar, the man who had shaped so much of my life.”