A Jewish Tone for the Sound of Music

January 2, 2013 2:37 am 0 comments

Left to right, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Helen Tamiris (back), watching hopefuls who are being auditioned on stage of the St. James Theatre in 1948. Photo: Library of Congress.

Oscar Hammerstein II was raised by Scottish Presbyterians, and the only time he ever entered a synagogue was to deliver eulogies at Temple Emanu-El on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

But according to his grandson Oscar Andrew (Andy) Hammerstein III, his Jewish heritage influenced Oscar II’s work—for which he won eight Tony awards and two Academy awards as a lyricist on musicals including “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma.” This influence can be traced back to Oscar II’s grandfather, German-Jewish theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I.

“German Jews, especially those that had been given the ironic opportunity to assimilate during the 1860s and 70s–that crowd metamorphosed their Judaism to a great love of musical theatre, opera in particular,” Andy Hammerstein III told JNS.org. “There was something about it that appealed to the heart. What is musical theatre but song and story? What is Judaism but rabbi and cantor? You have a twin-pronged religion teaching children. When they leave the religion they still bring with them that twin-pronged desire for song and story. Judaism is remarkable because it appeals to the singer and the storyteller. Oscar is in some way carrying out a very Jewish tradition of sung story.”

Oscar II’s work remains influential more than five decades after his death in 1960. Five-time Grammy winner Carrie Underwood will star in the coveted role of Maria von Trapp in NBC’s live broadcast of “The Sound of Music” in late 2013, based on Hammerstein’s original Broadway musical. NBC is partnering with the acclaimed “Smash” producing team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for “The Sound of Music.”

Bert Fink—senior vice president at the Rodgers & Hammerstein agency, which was founded by the legendary theater team of Oscar II and Richard Rodgers—told JNS.org, “As much as I would like to claim Oscar Hammerstein II as a landsman, he was not Jewish—neither by Talmudic Law, nor in how he was raised.”

“His mother, Alice, was of Scottish descent, and her religion has been described as Presbyterian or Episcopalian,” Fink said. “Oscar Hammerstein II was raised in the Episcopalian faith, and he raised his children vaguely in that faith.”

According to Ellen Schiff, adviser to the Jewish Theater of Austria and a consultant to the Foundation of Jewish Culture in New York, Oscar II “was more focused in his endeavors” than his Jewish grandfather.

“He was smitten with the love of musical theater and spent his whole life in it,” Schiff told JNS.org. “As a student at Columbia he wrote university productions based on adaptations, a practice he continued, with one exception, throughout his career. Recognizing that audiences were less engaged with a show’s typically unlikely story than they were with its songs and comedy, he set out to explore interweaving these elements.”

In 1949, Oscar II took a lot of flak for inserting the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” into “South Pacific.” That song admonished the mostly white, relatively affluent theater crowd that racism was taught, not inborn, and thus offered hope that a cycle of hate and fear could be broken.

Andy Hammerstein said Oscar embraced and championed many progressive causes at a time when it was a difficult thing to do.

“It was one of many congruent events that ushered in a decade of racial struggle and progress,” Andy said. “That song, preachy as some had complained, remains at least as relevant today as when it was written.”

Oscar II first gave creative voice to his politics in 1927 with “Show Boat,” an epic tale of life on the Mississippi River after the Civil War. In an historic production, blacks and whites not only shared the musical stage, they also shared the plot.

“This was strong stuff back then,” Andy said. “The show and its authors were banned from much of the south for years. After the Great Depression struck, Oscar migrated out to Hollywood to do work-for-hire gigs for movie studios. While there, he founded the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936 in order to warn Americans about the looming peril of Hitler’s rise to power and to promote the need for international cooperation to contain, by all means necessary, the looming menace overseas.”

Schiff said a hallmark of Oscar II’s work “is his abandoning the customary upper class characters and settings influenced by European musical theatre in favor of mining the considerable potential of shows about ordinary Americans.”

“His opera-loving grandfather would have delighted in the seven-minute soliloquy sung and recited by a carnival barker in ‘Carousel,’ and by Oscar’s relocation of Bizet’s Carmen to the American South in ‘Carmen Jones,’” she said. “It was not only music, lyrics, libretto and setting that were integrated in his 1927 adaptation with Lorenz Hart of Edna Ferber’s novel, ‘Show Boat.’ Blacks and whites are integral to every dimension of this watershed show that transformed American musical theater.”

In the early 1940s, an FBI file was opened for Oscar, fleshed out and backdated to include the brouhaha surrounding “Show Boat” and the implicit one-world-order goals of the Anti-Nazi League. The New York and Philadelphia FBI offices coordinated surveillance efforts that included tapping his phone lines, reading his mail and sometimes tailing his activities, mostly in New York City.

“Despite accusations of ties to known Communists and sympathizers, Oscar II spoke his liberal beliefs clearly: treat all human beings as equals despite race, creed or color,” Andy said. “Oppose both censorship and segregation—recognize they are the two sides of the same hateful coin. Honor each individual’s right to think one’s mind, speak one’s mind and to assemble without fear. Help those in need, even across borders and ideology. Talk—especially with your enemies. Resist the temptation to demonize those with whom you disagree. Encourage artistic expression, especially in the young and the disadvantaged. Negotiate global solutions for global problems. Above all, put your money where your mouth is.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Sports US & Canada Israeli-American Group Congratulates Cavaliers’ Blatt on Reaching NBA Finals

    Israeli-American Group Congratulates Cavaliers’ Blatt on Reaching NBA Finals

    JNS.org – An organization whose work focuses on the estimated population of 500,000-800,000 Israeli Americans congratulated David Blatt, the Jewish head coach of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Cleveland Cavaliers and a longtime Israel-based coach, for clinching an appearance in the NBA Finals. The Israeli-American Council (IAC), whose stated mission is “to build an active and giving Israeli-American community throughout the United States in order to strengthen the State of Israel, our next generation, and to provide a bridge to [...]

    Read more →
  • Food US & Canada Bacon Flavor Ben & Jerry’s ‘Not Gonna Happen’ Because it Wouldn’t be Kosher

    Bacon Flavor Ben & Jerry’s ‘Not Gonna Happen’ Because it Wouldn’t be Kosher

    Famed ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s will not be introducing a Bacon flavored product to its offerings because the company intends to keep its entire line kosher, Marketing Director Alison Gilbert told AOL’s morning show Rise recently. “It’s kind of funny, a lot of people look for bacon in our ice cream, which is probably not gonna happen because all of our ice cream is kosher,” she said, referring to Jewish dietary restrictions that proscribe the consumption of pig [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports Israeli Judo Team Faces Antisemitic Harassment in Morocco: ‘We Will Murder You’

    Israeli Judo Team Faces Antisemitic Harassment in Morocco: ‘We Will Murder You’

    Israeli athletes at a world Judo championship in Morocco reportedly faced antisemitic slurs during the competition, news site WorldNetDaily reported on Monday. “We will murder you,” and “you’re not wanted here, go home,” were among the vituperative attacks directed at the Israeli Judo Association team, which was in Morocco last week for the World Masters Judo Tournament. According to Haaretz, each Israeli teammate was met with boos and jeers upon entering a fight. Additionally, no Israeli flags were present at [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.