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On Hammerstein and Sondheim

Geoffrey Block, Distinguished Professor of Music History at the University of Puget Sound, is the author of Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical From Show Boat to Sondheim and Lloyd 9780195384000Webber.  The book offers theater lovers an illuminating behind-the-scenes tour of some of America’s best loved, most admired, and most enduring musicals, as well as a riveting history.  In the excerpt below we learn about how Hammerstein mentored Sondheim.

Sondheim, a native New Yorker whose father could play harmonized show tunes by ear after hearing them once or twice, was the beneficiary of a precocious, suitably specialized musical education.  While still a teenager and shortly after the premiere of Carousel, Sondheim had the opportunity to be critiqued at length be the legendary Hammerstein, who, by a fortuitous coincidence that would be the envy of Show Boat’ second act, happened to be a neighbor and the father of Sondheim’s friend and contemporary, James Hammerstein.  Sondheim’s unique apprenticeship with the first of his three great mentors, Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, one of the giants of the Broadway musical from the 1920s until long after his death in 1960, might serve as a Hegelian metaphor for Sondheim’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of modernism and traditionalism, high-brow and low-brow. His great aesthetic achievements have been as a loyal revolutionary (not unlike Beethoven) who thoroughly engaged with-rather than rejected-Broadway’s richest traditions. Before his collaborations with three major composers in this tradition as well as Robbins and Laurents and Merman, Sondheim was able to learn invaluable lessons about the craft of Broadway from one its greats pioneers. Sondheim never forgot Hammerstein’s priceless lessons in how to write and how not to write a musical. To help his student develop his craft and discover his own voice, Hammerstein suggested that Sondheim write four kinds of musicals to develop his craft. For the next six years Sondheim would attempt to follow this advice.

Some of what Sondheim learned about lyric writing and dramatic structure from the master soon became available to musical theater aficionados when Hammerstein published a seminal essay on the subject in 1949. One central premise stated early in the essay is Hammerstein’s conviction that “a song is a wedding of two crafts.” Later, Hammerstein articulates the importance of “very close collaboration during the planning of a song and the story that contains the song” and espouses the view that “the musician is just as much an author as the man who writes the words.” The resulting marriage of music and words, the welding of two crafts and talents “into a single expression” is for Hammerstein “the great secret of the well-integrated musical play.” Unlike Hammerstein, Sondheim would assume two mantles, author and musician-although, unlike his mentor, Sondheim did not write the librettos for any of his Broadway shows.

Throughout the course of his essay Hammerstein explores a number of the issues and ideas about theatrical songwriting that did not go unnoticed by his student and neighbor. For example, Hammerstein advocates what we might call a non-operatic approach to the musical that maintains clear and sharp distinctions between spoken dialogue and song. With few exceptions, and in marked contrast to his popular contemporary Lloyd Webber, Sondheim has followed this approach ever since. Hammerstein also never wavered from his conviction “that the song is the servant of the play” and “that it is wrong to write first what you think is an attractive song and then try to wedge it into a story.” His protégé would follow this advice well, in fact unwaveringly for the next forty years…

…A quarter of a century later Sondheim published some of his own thoughts about lyric writing adapted from a talk he simply called “Theater Lyrics” first given to the Dramatists Guild and then later published in a slightly altered form in the collection Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers, on Theatre. On the first page of this talk in its published form Sondheim informs his audience and readers that most of what he knows he learned from Hammerstein, his first mentor (although he acknowledges the example of other lyricists, including Cole Porter).  Sondheim recalls that the mentorship officially began when Hammerstein critiqued a draft of a musical called By George, a musical à clef about the preparatory school where the young protégé was then a junior.

What Hammerstein taught the novice at their historic first session not only encompassed lyric writing but also addressed larger dramatic issues.  This is how Sondheim recalled his lesson nearly thirty years later: “Detail by detail, he told me how to structure songs, how to build them with a beginning and a development and an ending, according to his own principles, how to introduce a character, what relates a song to a character, etc. etc.  It was four hours of the most packed information.  I dare say, at the risk of hyperbole, that I learned in that afternoon more than some people learn about song writing in a lifetime.”  Some of what his teacher told him (e.g., the remarks on rhyming, phonetics, and sincerity quoted earlier) appeared a few years later in Hammerstein’s essay.  Over the years Sondheim also often repeated Hammerstein’s anecdote about the importance of detail, which was inspired by his mentor’s astonishment when he learned that the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty carefully detailed the top of Lady Liberty’s head long before it was possible to anticipate the popularity of photographs of the iconic image from above…

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