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Perhaps the best characterization of Hammerstein, if not exactly an overview, comes from his protégé Stephen Sondheim. The following is the first paragraph of Sondheim's essay on his mentor:
Hammerstein is usually thought of as the Norman Rockwell of lyricists: earthy, optimistic, sometimes ponderously bucolic, a proponent of small-town American values, a purveyor of generosity and kindness toward the world and his fellow humans and of empathy with their small sufferings and dreams. Like Rockwell, he has been both underestimated (for his craft) and overestimated (for his philosophy). The more apt comparison would be to Eugene O'Neill. That may seem a bizarre linking -- the cozy lyricist with the mighty playwright -- but they have more in common than immediately meets the eye (and ear). Both use language which often aspires to poetry but is usually more earthbound than earthy and tends to veer off into preachment, in contrast to their theatrical imaginations, which soar. They are both experimental playwrights with things to say profound enough to override their literary limitations (Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, p. 36).
Close to the end of the essay we have this:
Hammerstein rarely has the colloquial ease of Berlin, the sophistication of Porter, the humor of Hart and Gershwin the inventiveness of Harburg or the grace of Fields, but his lyrics are sui generis, and when they are at their best they are more than heartfelt and passionate, they are monumental (p. 37).
Oscar Hammerstein II, Lyrics,
New York: Simon and Schuster,
In his book Lyrics, Hammerstein minces no words on two crucial aspects of writing lyrics: the integration of a song into a show's story and the usefulness of a rhyming dictionary:
There are few things in life of which I am certain, but I am sure of this one thing, that the song is the servant of the play, that it is wrong to write first what you think is an attractive song and then try to wedge it into a story (p. 19).
A rhyming dictionary is of little use and may, in fact, be a handicap when one is writing a song which makes a feature of rhyming. If you would achieve the rhyming grace and facility of W. S. Gilbert or Lorenz Hart, my advice would be never to open a rhyming dictionary. Don't even own one (p.20).
GREAT PERFORMANCES: Your father was always so dapper in his dress, and looked more like a successful banker than a major Broadway composer.
Mary Rodgers: I know. We made lots of jokes about that in the family, for he was a man who was very caring when it came to clothes. And although poor Oscar [Hammerstein II] was always concerned about his dress, no matter what he did, he looked as if he had just gotten out of bed!
In an interview with Richard Rodgers, Max Wilk quotes Rodgers on his collaborator's love of nature images and on other major themes in his lyrics:
What was truly remarkable was his never-ending ability to find new ways of revealing how he felt about three interrelated themes -- nature, music and love. In "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," the first song we wrote together, for Oklahoma!, Oscar described an idyllic summer day on a farm when "all the sounds of the earth are like music." In "It's a Grand Night for Singing" he revealed that the things most likely to induce people to sing are a warm, moonlit, starry night and the first thrill of falling in love. In "You Are Never Away" he compared a girl with "the song that I sing," the rainbow I chase," "a morning in spring," and "the star in the lace of a wild willow tree." In "Younger than Springtime" another girl is "warmer than the winds of June" and sweeter than music." In our last collaboration, The Sound of Music, just about everything Oscar felt about nature and music and love was summed up in the title song (p.79).
David Ewen. American Songwriters, An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1987 (includes 146 bios of composers and lyricists). -- a wide selection of used copies is available at abebooks.com (entry pp. 199-203).
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
Names of songwriters who have written at least one song included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook are listed below.
Names of songwriters with two or more song credits in the catalog (with rare exceptions) are linked to their own Cafe Songbook pages, e.g. Fields, Dorothy.
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