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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.”

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