Few families can lay claim to having a greater influence on the history of musical theater more than the Hammersteins. Their unique legacy that changed the course of theatrical productions has been encapsulated and captured beautifully by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein when he writes about his great grandfather Oscar I and his grandfather Oscar II in his fascinating new book “The Hammersteins A Musical Theatre Family.”
Theater lovers and history buffs alike will treasure this influential saga that bursts with anecdotes, theater trivia and photos of a family who created Times Square, literally building the theaters that would become Broadway.
When a poor sixteen year old immigrant boy landed on America’s shores from Germany in 1864, no one could have predicted the course his life would take or the imprint his decisions would make that are evident to this day. Oscar I started as a lowly sweeper at a cigar factory and through hard work and ingenuity created patents that would revolutionize that industry and provide him the dollars to finance his true love: opera.
This “wide-awake young gentleman” was soon buying land in Harlem and building theaters to showcase his theatrical love. As a larger than life impresario, in addition to his skills as an inventor, builder, editor, writer, promoter and dreamer, he let his passion for opera drive his ambitions, even it it took him to the poor house.
The traditions he started where carried on by his sons Arthur and Willy as their theater legacy took root. Whether it was in buildings or in talented acts they promoted, their contributions to the theatrical stage cannot be questioned. The grand heritage continued with Oscar II who, despite promising his father on his death bed he wouldn’t choose theater as his calling, found the lure too great to resist.
Imagine a world without Oscar II’s lyrics in such monumental classics as “Show Boat,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The Sound of Music,” “Oklahoma!” or “The King and I.” A promise to his dying father Willy aside, Oscar II could not deny his fascination for the stage. Partnering with Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, among others, would lead to masterpieces of musical theater that have not been seen before or since. He also mentored a young Stephen Sondheim and set him on his path in the world they both loved.
Rich in family history, on and off the stage, with family recollections only a grandson or great grandson could be privy to, “The Hammersteins A Musical Theatre Family” does justice to their incredible story, “ a book that connects the creative continuum.” (Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers $35.00). The author spoke recently at Goodspeed in an event sponsored by Essex Meadows, a retirement community in Essex, sharing insights on his personal history.
There is still time to see one of Oscar II’s crowning achievements in “Show Boat” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam until Saturday, September 17. For tickets ($28 and up), call the Goodspeed Musicals, on the Connecticut River in East Haddam at 860-873-8668 or online at www.goodspeed.org. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and on select days at 2 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and select days at 6:30 p.m. The song “Ol’ Man River” is a “transformative moment in theater.”
Prepare to be swept along in the grand family tradition that makes the Hammerstein name synonymous with American musical greatness.