July 12th, 2021 marks what would have been the 126th birthday of legendary lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II.
Best known as half of Rodgers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music, The King and I, Carousel, Oklahoma!, South Pacific), New York City native Oscar Hammerstein II was born in 1895 to vaudeville producer William Hammerstein. While raised in a theatrical family, it wasn’t until after his father’s death in 1914 that Hammerstein began to actively participate in theatre, thus beginning his lifelong career as a writer.
A graduate of Columbia University, Oscar Hammerstein dropped out of Columbia Law in 1917 to pursue theatre full time. In addition to his collaborations with Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein is renowned for his work with Jerome Kern (Show Boat), along with other famed musical composers.
Hammerstein’s work as a lyricist is celebrated for its emphasis on storytelling. While the selling point for musicals prior was largely the music itself, Hammerstein popularized the story element, shifting musical theatre from its vaudevillian influences into another form of narrative expression. Characters sing because their feelings are simply too powerful for speech alone. This emphasis on storytelling made room for a partnership between music and lyrics that resembles much of the musical theatre we see today.
Hammerstein was also a staunch supporter of writer’s rights, going on to become president of the Dramatists Guild of America. While he passed away from stomach cancer in 1960, Hammerstein’s influence is still felt around the world today.
In 2019, an immersive and updated revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Went on to win Best Revival of a Musical at the Tony’s, with actress Ali Stroker becoming the first wheelchair user to win Best Featured Actress.
As we continue to live in a world forever changed by the work of Oscar Hammerstein II, may we take a moment to wish him a very happy 126th birthday.