March 10, 2005

BEDFORD MAGAZINE: "Getting to Know You: Oscar Andy Hammerstein III"

"GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Oscar Andy Hammerstein III"
By Bonni Brodnick

  Oscar Andy Hammerstein III, painter, writer and Hammerstein family historian, truly has the muse -- just like his father, Jamie Hammerstein; his father’s father, Oscar Hammerstein II; and his father’s father’s father, Oscar Hammerstein I.
A South Salem resident, Andy, who recently appeared in the PBS documentary series, “BROADWAY: The American Musical,” gives us a perspective on the 101st Anniversary of Broadway; how his grandfather, Oscar II, and his partner Richard Rodgers, changed the American theatrical and musical landscape with such masterworks as Oklahoma! and Carousel, the importance of a good libretto and the future of The Great White Way.

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BB: Can you give us some perspective on the significance of Broadway’s 101st anniversary?
OAH: It’s actually the 100th anniversary of the name “Times Square,” which the New York Times petitioned the city to do in 1904, from a very lovely name, “Longacre Square,” which was basically 42nd Street, north to about 50th Street, and was already doing the things that it is now so famous for: fun, profits, theatre, more fun and pleasure. But it has a long and interesting history predating Times Square as a theater district.
It was once a horse stable, an armory and cattle pens. In the days when farmers moved cattle by foot down from the northeast, down the “broad way”, they couldn’t get them all the way to the slaughterhouses on 14th Street in a day because you really couldn’t push cattle more than 30 or 40 blocks a day. So 42nd Street was a stopping point for the night. I like to think that Broadway was the original “cattle call.”

BB: How did the Hammersteins find their way to Broadway?
OAH: Our family’s history in Times Square has to do with the fact that we built the first theater there, the first successful vaudeville house in Times Square, and two more theaters in the area for Lew Fields of Weber & Fields, a Dutch comedy act. Another theater we built was the Republic Theater, which became the Belasco Theater, then Minsky’s, before becoming the Victory Theater, showing porn and second-rung movies in the 40’s and 50’s, before being moth-balled for years and getting renovated to be the new Victory Theater that it is today.

BB: What’s the buzz about mud fights and opening night?
OAH: Oscar I had this egomaniacal desire to put all of entertainment into one building and build a huge theater. Hammerstein’s Olympia Theater was like Chelsea Pier: to take it all, do it all and obviate the need for competition by having such a large place. It sat 6,000 people and when you think about it, it’s ridiculous. It had two theaters, a music hall and enough boxes to make the Metropolitan Opera look tiny.
On November 25, 1895, Opening Night, he pre-sold 10,000 tickets. In those days, most of the people going to the theater had no real reason to go other than it was something to do for the night. You went to gawk. Like when streetlights were first invented, people came down to the street just to look at them. People came to opening night just to walk through the theater and take a look, like it was an architectural walking tour.
So Oscar oversold the seats by 4,000 tickets. He thought as people were coming in, all you had to do was control the flow. If you did that, and people left as you sold more tickets, you would never have to keep a strict count of how many people were in.
However, it started to rain heavily. Which meant the people who were inside, decided to stay inside and the people who wanted to come in, and weren’t allowed. So they’re outside getting wet, holding tickets, getting angry, and they try to charge through the doors. The police are called in and, from horseback, drive back the crowd. The crowds wanted none of it and pushed the cops back. They start locking arms in rugby formation and attacking the police in order to get through the doors. My family’s shoulders and elbows are wedged against the door to keep 4,000 people from getting into the theatre. It involved into a mud fight and the morning papers described it as a “rather friendly riot occurred” the night that Hammerstein’s Olympia Theater opened.
Misjudging the character of his audience, Oscar I was out of business by 1897. Basically, it was economics of scale, which I like to not very politically call, “The Fat Man at The Picnic.” No one likes him; he eats up everything and creates a high demand for whatever food is remaining. All of a sudden, the acts cost more because Oscar has to actually pay people to get them away from other theaters. He was driving up the price of acts and no one in the business likes that. He couldn’t fill the 6,000-seat theater, especially in the summertime. He starts dipping into circuses to get his entertainment. It’s not working and only two years out, he’s done.
He learned his lesson from that and in 1898 built the Hammerstein Victoria in a different spot. This was on the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, literally where the Reuters building is now. It was the corner. The theater sat much less, about 1,200. It was built from second-hand materials because he had gone broke and was just barely putting this thing together. This theater ran for about 17 years and netted a very handsome profit for the family, doing only vaudeville after 1904. It became something of a cash cow for Oscar I’s opera ambitions.
These were the days before you had endowment grants for arts. If you wanted to put on opera, and had no other real source of income, a good idea would be to run two theaters and have one do vaudeville or burlesque, which made money fast and easy. Then if you had to go into opera and lose all your money, at least you already made your money. Lowbrow entertainment was subsidizing highbrow entertainment. This was how Oscar went about it because he had no backers. He was an autocrat and was not into making deals. He had built his first two theaters in Harlem under the same plan. He built the Olympia Theater in 1895 and in some regards was trying to show highbrow on one side and lowbrow on the other. By 1898, he built his highbrow theater next to his lowbrow theater. By this time he was in his late-50s and said, “Ah, fahget it.” He sublets the highbrow, thought who needs the aggravation, and he just runs this off vaudeville because he needs to amass a lot of money.
He then built the Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street and jumped back into the old theater neighborhood, below 42nd Street, to build an opera house in 1906.
At a geographical level, the Hammersteins have a place in the history of Times Square. We built four theaters, but more importantly, Oscar’s attempt to do opera over a four-year period bankrupted him in 1910. The Metropolitan Opera gave him a $1.2 million to stay out of the opera game. But being an opera-mad man, he took that money and built an opera in London to compete with Covent Garden, lost all of his money and returned to New York. He couldn’t do opera because he had a contract with the Met preventing him from doing it for 10 years. So he said, “I’ll do operetta!”
He starts commissioning American operettas. His first commission is Victor Herbert. It was the first time a person had asked for, what would now be called, a musical to be made in the American idiom. Before that you had Gilbert and Sullivan, very English, or you had the Viennese operettas. This was the first homegrown attempt to create American operettas. So in a more profound sense than just the geographical contributions he makes, is that he sets up the genre of the American musical by commissioning American operettas.
This coincides with several other historical strains. You may say that Oscar imported the Viennese operetta style and Americanized it. At the same time period of time, there was George M. Cohan doing patriotic Americana shows, or flag-wavers. There was Ziegfeld’s Review, which was basically everything stolen out of vaudeville and put it into a very thin plot of a show with a lot of naked ladies, which always does well on Broadway.
These are the separate genres that fused in just a few decades time to become the American musical. You’ve got the serious Viennese, the jokes from vaudeville and the girls from Ziegfeld. The three collided somewhere in the late 20’s.
What we have today is the result of those three strains. Oscar I set the stage for his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II’s work.

BB: What do you remember most about your grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein II?
OAH: It took Oscar three weeks to figure out how to start “Oklahoma.” He read a lot of poetry and got, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day.”
So for three weeks he’s working on trying to get this thing going. He finally hands the lyrics to Dick. It was one of the first times they worked on lyrics first; it was usually the other way around. Dick Rodgers is humming, gets home, goes to the piano, calls Oscar and says, “What do you think?”
Oscar replies, 'This is NOT a collaboration. I work for three weeks on this song to get it perfect and you take a cab ride home and you’re finished with your half of the collaboration? What is this?'
This was a case where the lyrics were so perfect that they suggested the tune to Dick and he just banged it right out. To his credit, Oscar belabored lyrics. He often said that he would be approached by people who claimed that they could write a tune a day.” He would always respond, 'It would be better if you wrote one tune a year and it was a really good one than if you wrote 365 tunes a year and they were bad ones. Slow down. Relax.'
In my lectures, I point out that in the first 21 years of his career he was collaborating on well over 45 productions. He was doing two productions a year. He got in with Richard Rodgers and did one production every two years. Most of Oscar’s best work comes out of the period when he slowed down.

BB: The songs your grandfather wrote include such classics as “Getting to Know You,” ”Younger than Springtime,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “All Er Nothin’” and more than 122 more. These show tunes continue to touch the hearts of millions. What keeps us whistling their happy tunes?
OAH: What keeps them alive is that these songs are in very good shows. The difference between really good songs in a really bad show, and really good songs in a good show is that the good songs in the bad show closed and we didn’t hear from them again.
There are a lot of wonderful songs in the world. The fact that Oscar Hammerstein’s songs are hard-wired onto our brains has more to do with the fact that we see them in high school or local theater productions, and whenever PBS is doing a fundraiser. They get trotted out because they’re well written.
The point is it’s because of the libretto, not because of the song. Oscar’s brilliance had to do with looking at a story and figuring out where the songs go in that story. And because of that, there are 5,000 productions every year. And that’s why we whistle a happy tune.

BB: When no one’s around, do you ever break into one of your grandfather’s show tunes?
OAH: Of course, I do. I like 'My Boy Bill,' the soliloquy from Carousel, because it’s long and not many people know all the words. If you’ve been in this family long enough, you too would know seven minutes of this song.
I also like 'Come Home,' a wonderful, heart-busting song from a flop called “Allegro.” It’s about a village beseeching its favorite son to come back from the big city as a big time doctor and come home to the small town where the real values are.
Oscar is definitely a tear-jerking writer. A lot of people have certain talents. Lorenz Hart had the talent to be very witty and to create great sympathy for a character. E.Y. Harbert wrote great songs from the point of view of animals. Everybody has a gift. Oscar had a gift for getting straight to the heart of something. In a sense, a song is a simulation of an interior monologue. It’s not the brain that’s being tasked in the interior thought. It’s the heart.
If there’s any advice to songwriters, it would be, 'Don’t sing the telephone book. Don’t do Gilbert and Sullivan writing couplets. Just find out where you would be talking to yourself and write the song from there.'

BB: What was Richard Rodgers like?
OAH: I can’t say that I knew him personally but I have an interesting story about him.
A lot of people who write for the musical theater started in the early days as people who would sell pianos or piano music scores. They would be very adept at playing and loved playing. At the end of any good Broadway run, or any party, you would see them there until three o’clock in the morning, banging out tunes with chorus girls singing over the piano.          
That’s how I grew up. There were parties in my house with all these drunk people singing until late in the evening.
Unlike that kind of piano player, Dick Rodgers was more like putting on his musical gloves, sit down, compose a song, and when he finished, he took off the gloves. He never touched the piano for fun. Mind you, he worked from the time he was 17 until he was 77, so it’s okay. Most of the people in the theater business that I knew loved playing piano first and gravitated into the field.

BB: There’s something theatrical about your oil paintings and silk screens. Have you ever considered getting on stage and doing set design?
OAH: I respect that there is a difference between the two skills. I don’t necessarily wish to presume that just because I can do one, I should be able to go do the other.

BB: Your late father, Jamie Hammerstein, directed, produced and stage-managed such plays as State Fair, Flower Drum Song, and Damn Yankees. Did you attend any of the rehearsals? What were they like?
OAH: I attended rehearsals all the time. For me the magic was that I was one of those obsessive –compulsives who could listen to the script, and because I wasn’t on the stage, after three or four readings, knew it. After two weeks, when the actors were all trying to remember their lines, they’d yell out, 'Line!' and there would be this little snotty 10-year old giving them the line.
My parents stuck me in private school in NYC, but during vacations and summers I was flying around going to rehearsals in Phoenix, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, San Antonio and LA. My father worked a lot on the road. If I were with him in the summer, or part of the summer, where he went, I would go. I really love the back-stage life, the traveling and rehearsals.

BB: What did you admire about your father’s work as a director?
OAH: The director’s job is truly an unsung one because if the director can’t do it, it can’t get done. My father did some wonderful work. There’s a nuance to motivation. Sometimes actors are too overt or too cryptic and the director needs to get the tone to come out right. You need to see the whole picture and paste that person’s emotions so that they don’t crescendo too soon or don’t crescendo enough at the end. There’s a kind of organic move to an actor’s character development.

BB: And some of the actors your father worked with were…
OAH: My father worked with a lot of people who later became famous. As a young boy, I got to hang around with John Lithgow, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, John Cazale, who played Fredo, the slimy guy in “Godfather II” and was in “Dogday Afternoon.” He played the witless bank robber and the spineless brother. He wasn’t like his characters at all. We had great times in hotel rooms.
I want to say for the record that Debbie Boone is a NICE lady. She’s a great gal. Forget about this mom and apple pie and Jesus stuff, she was a ball. Dad directed her in “The Sound of Music” and she was perfect.

BB: Which star made the biggest impression on you when you were young? Why?
OAH: My mother was in an industrial show, which they don’t make anymore. These corporate-sponsored shows, which were either themed to the product or the revival of something, were great because everybody who was out of work had a job.
In what had to be the most dubious move in my mother’s life, she told the star of the show, 'Keep an eye on my kid.' It was Bert Lahr. And Bert Lahr is a lot of things but responsible was not one of them. There were all these girls running around and he’s telling them all to sit with him. 'Sit here! Sit next to me!' He was pinching every ass that went by. This was part of my education.

BB: What was your favorite first opening night to a Hammerstein play?
OAH: I saw my father’s London production of Oklahoma, which set new precedent for me in my expectations of what I love to see in shows. It was more naturalistic than Broadway and Dad was basically saying, 'Let’s get out the dirty pants and the scuffed chaps and make it look like we have happened upon a real town rather than a simulation.'
So that when they spring into song, it was even more remarkable. Get the Vegas gay chorus boy thing out of it and put the macho into it. They WILL get into a fight. They WILL draw a gun. Dress them like they are, half a paycheck away from murdering someone. This made it more immediate. Every song had more urgency and everything seemed realer.

BB: How did miking the singers affect musical theater?
OAH: Back in the days when Oklahoma originally opened, there was no miking. If you were going to play to a 1700-seat house, you needed to be able to bellow good and hard. Billy Bigelow may have been scripted as a 17-year old barker, but he was always played by a 30 or 40 year old who had a lot of experience on the stage because there weren’t any 17-year olds who could do it. Just like in opera, Carmen may have been a 17-year old cigarette girl, but it was always sung by a big 40-year old who could stand and give weight ballast to her mouth.
In the old days, you could accept a certain suspension of believability. As you moved on through time, and you could get miking, you wanted your Oklahoma characters to be 19 or 20 years old. And you wanted them to be dirty. You wanted a certain amount of naturalism. The fact that they were dressed like real farmers, rather some sort of Vegas thing, and that they were really young rather than we were going to pretend they’re young, made it possible for you to really get into the character.

BB: There is theatrical tradition that saying “Good Luck” before a performance might bring the opposite. Was there a typical Hammerstein well wish prior to show time?
OAH: There was no secret Hammerstein quote, but Oscar’s favorite from his grandfather was, 'There’s no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad show.'

BB: Any Sardi’s moments you can share?
OAH: When Oklahoma, opened and Oscar and Dick walked into Sardi’s and wanted to gloat. They felt so good about their show. Their time had arrived. The show got stunning reviews. Rodgers & Hart reviews were always good, so Dick was used to a good review, but Oklahoma was groundbreaking, breath-taking, this-show-will-run-forever kind of review. Dick asked if he could buy Oscar a drink, and he said, 'No, I want to be stone cold sober for this. I don’t want to miss a thing tonight.'

BB: Give us an account of the “Three Week/Three Minute” theory.
OAH: It always took three weeks and three minutes to write a song for both Larry Hart and Oscar Hammerstein. According to Dick Rodgers, it would take him three weeks to find Larry Hart and three minutes for him to write the song. And it would take Dick three minutes to find Oscar, and three weeks to write the song.
What you have is a slow lumbering tortoise and the hare thing. Oscar is definitely the tortoise winning the race. He took a song like a sculptor to stone, chipping away until the words all worked out right. Larry could stand over a taxi writing lines and the song would come out almost like a genius.

BB: Do you have a favorite show on Broadway right now?
OAH: The Producers because it’s irreverent and well made. I saw it both with and without Matthew Broderick. I don’t know why Matthew Broderick makes such a good whiney, sexually insecure New York accountant. It’s something a country bumpkin can’t pull off. I saw the show with a guy who played it like an Iowan greenhorn and I kept saying, 'No, no, you’re missing the New York neuroses in the character.'

BB: How often do you get into the city to catch a Broadway show?
OAH: Not enough. About six times a year.

BB: Is there a way to bring the abracadabra of Broadway to those unable to make it to the theatre?
OAH: My stepmother, Dena Hammerstein, originally got involved with friends who were dying of AIDS. A spinout from her work with various organizations was working with the children left behind. Then it turned into children with AIDS or chronically ill. She volunteered her time in hospitals, first with GMAC, then Rusk Institute Pediatric Unit, and then founded her own non-profit organization, Only Make Believe.
    For 6-week periods, a traveling troupe brings the magic of theater to chronically and terminally ill children in hospitals throughout New York. There’s a large population of young people whose majority of life is inside hospitals for one reason or another. They are institutionalized children. Dena’s ongoing effort is Only Make Believe and the organization is a way to continue the Hammerstein tradition of entertaining and bringing a moment of levity to all audiences.
Every year we have a fundraiser. We’ve had Harvey Fierstein, Brad Oscar, Nathan Lane and whole piles of people who work on Broadway come out to support Only Make Believe, and that’s what keeps it going. The help of Broadway.

BB: Broadway has become the playground for Hollywood and media moguls. Does this affect the integrity of the medium?
OAH: No, it doesn’t affect the integrity of the medium. It’s a bit of a minefield. Sometimes it works in the reverse. For example, a lot of Disney stuff starts out as a cartoon and then becomes a musical. They have an interesting formula there.         There’s also the question of taking a Broadway show and making it into a movie, like “Chicago” and “Phantom of the Opera.” I think going in the Disney direction is a much safer bet. If you did a cartoon, you did it for kids, so you have a market.   
     It sets up an aesthetic, a genre and a set of limitations. You are not doing Ibsen or O’Neil, you are not doing Shaw. You’re keeping it simple stupid. There’s going to be a redemptive ending and everyone is going to come out happy. Disney knows its formula and does a good job.

BB: What does it take to thrill a Broadway audience today?
OAH: A lot of what made Broadway shows popular had to do with a period of theater history. Shows that prospered during the mid-80s was when Times Square was a rather seedy area. To a great extent, the market for Broadway shows was as much driven by people coming from out-of-country, as out-of-state or out-of-city. If you’re looking at an entertainment form in a second language, say you’re German or Japanese and you’re in New York to see a show, you don’t need to understand the language to understand either a cat being lifted on a giant tire, a helicopter landing in the middle of the stage or a chandelier crashing. That is spectacle. Spectacle doesn’t require language. “Cats,” “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom of the Opera” were very popular when there were a lot of tourists in the city. The majority of the market was not your East Side, Park Avenue couple. They had seen the show. They’re not coming back time and time again and keeping the numbers going.

BB: What would your grandfather think of “La Cage aux Folles,” “Phantom,” “Hairspray,” “Les Mis” and “Lion King?”
OAH: I hate to speculate. I know that he didn’t like to see his work abused in commercials, for example, and resisted the temptation to profit because of his perception of the crassness of the television medium. The world in which he worked included no television and 60-70% of New Yorkers who went to the theater regularly. Now you’re living in a world where less than .5% of the population goes to the theater, and you have 100 channels on TV. So his conclusions from 1960 don’t have a lot of flying power.
However, he understood that theater is a populist art form, so whatever sells tickets at the door keeps people working and that’s probably an important aspect to the question. He would probably say, 'Whatever works.'

BB: Is there a formula to writing a winning musical?
OAH: No. People who wrote a show in 1927 could go broke with the same formula in 1928. The audience changes. If you show a car crash in one, you can’t show a car crash in the second. You have to do something different. If you write a book, The Complete Guide to Writing a Successful Musical, it will be out of date in a year. On paper, it might look like the perfect show: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, a little death, a little struggle, a couple of martial arts and a great ending that brings out the humanity in the audience. On paper, it looks great. But it may not fly. It may be dead.
Or maybe it’s a show about trying to get the girl’s phone number. Banal, stupid, silly and it works. Who knows? You have to guess your audience and sometimes you get lucky and there’s chemistry.
Flower Drum Song for Oscar was a lucky show. He thought it was an okay show, but it got great reviews and ran for a long time. Sometimes you get lucky. Like a lot of things. You make a good painting. It didn’t just happen. You wasted a lot of paint and canvas before you got there. Oscar wrote a handful of good shows, but he wrote dozens of crappy ones. You learn so much more from your flops than your hits. The euphoria of yes-men and happiness that flows from a hit is deafening. No one says to you, 'This is going to run forever, but I think the character was underwritten in Act II.'
But if it flops, they’ll say, 'The character was underwritten in Act II. There was no counterpoint. You had no comedy act. There weren’t enough girls,' and the list goes on and on.
You learn from every flop. Much more than you do from a hit. You didn’t get struck by lightening. Just be grateful and, believe me, the frost will come.

BB: Is musical theatre continuing to evolve or is it presently in the pits?
OAH: It’s always evolving. It’s always been considered on the ropes. Back in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s there was a mentoring system where a person could learn from the bottom and work their way to the top. They could work with people more knowledgeable than them, absorb some of the mistakes that their elders had made so that they didn’t make the same.
Economically speaking, that continuity was severed somewhere in 60’s, sometime between “Bye-Bye Birdie” and “Woodstock.” There were shows being built, but it was like they were being built from scratch, without the knowledge of the things that had come before. “Dream Girls,” and “Chorus Line” are unlike any other and in a way, Oscar taught Stephen Sondheim. But the real reason is economics.
If you had the talent to write for the theater, why would you? If you were a songwriter back in the 1960’s, what would you want to do? Would you want to spend two years and $8 million to write 10 songs that could go into a flop show and never be seen again, or would you rather make an album, put it out, and then make another one. Make $20 million and go out and make another $20 million. The show was not a popular vehicle anymore. There were the LP records, the introduction of Black music into American culture and the dawning of multi-media entertainment forms. It became unprofitable. Had it remained popular and continued to go its merry way, and no television had come into the scene, the people who might have been writing for theater would have been Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan or Frank Zappa; people who could see big pictures. Maybe even the Beatles, had there been a stage to write for. But there wasn’t. The format changed.
There was a breach in the tradition. We’re coming out of that, but I can still feel that the things learned from the 40’s and 50’s, the quality that you would find in Guys and Dolls or in Oklahoma are not in Hairspray. They’re good, but they’re missing something.
Television has had an impact on American theater. If you want to reach a market, if you’re talking about going to the populous, it’s all populist art. It’s not eclectic or archaic, or fine art. You’re selling tickets and briefly, you’re selling ad time. You have to guarantee that you’re going to fill the seats in the house.

BB: Orchestras seem to be getting smaller and smaller with more and more computerized music filling in for what used to be live orchestration. What do you think of the boxed music trend? Does it cheapen the experience for the theatergoer?
OAH: No. What’s cheapening the theater expense is the expense of the theater itself. It’s cheapened when you can’t see a show because it’s too expensive. I love 26 people in the pit, but I’d rather see four on synthesizers and see a show than not see the show. You can always hire the musicians, but in truth it’s very expensive between the musician unions and the theater owners. To get a show, to pay its investors back, takes forever. I am not a traditionalist. I honestly believe this is a medium that changes all the time. I’m perfectly willing to see synthesizers in a pit. If something works in 1943 that doesn’t work in 1993, leave it to the encore series to do it as it was. But if you’re going to put in money and back it on Broadway, change it to make it work. It’s a populist art form.
I’m not sentimental. I’m interested to see more shows that cost less to make. I would, of course, prefer live sound, but if it can’t be done, I’d rather it be done.

BB: How does Phantom measure up to any of your grandfather’s shows?
OAH: There’s no character development and it makes me want to scream. Here’s what Oscar did and here’s why you care. This may sound formulaic but it’s true: he put off the boy and girl deep-dating as long as he could. Rather than have them kiss at the beginning, he upped the stakes by delaying the gratification.
I hated Miss Saigon. Why? In Carousel and Oklahoma, by the time Billy and Julie, or Laurie and Curly, tell of their love for one another, we know who they are. We know their insecurities, their fears, their hopes and their dreams. How the heck are we supposed to care about two people falling in love if we don’t know or care about either of them individually?
That’s why Oscar became famous for writing his alternate to love songs, like “People Will Say We’re In Love” and “If I Loved You.” There’s one in every show. He kept them from actually consummating their love at first, and there would be a build up.
Back in the 1900s, you had a big immigrant population for whom English was second language. A lot of humor and a lot could be understood broadly. Those were the days when a mustachioed villain and a good-looking hunk, and every woman and every bad guy would tie Polly Purebred to the tracks, and every hero saved the day. You didn’t need character development because people watching the show could identify good and bad. It was a morality play. It was a melodrama. It wasn’t a musical play in the sense that we care about character development. That’s Joe Hero, Jane Hero and John Bad Guy. That was the audience that the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals were appealing to – out-of-towners and second-languagers.
When two people lock and embrace 10 minutes into the show, they’re not catering to people who want to see the subtleties of character development, with all of the pyrotechnics as well. It’s part of a huge cycle. If you follow cycles, maybe the next one will be extravaganza in the aisle, flag-waving stuff like Hairspray or Mamma Mia!

BB: Everyone complains about how much do-ri-me it takes to buy tickets today. Will prices keep going up and up and up?
OAH: It will squeeze first-run productions out of New York and into the national scene where the unions are a little weaker or not so demanding. It’s a national trend abetted by all sorts of horses. New York will lose its predominance necessarily as a place where you’ll see first-run great shows. Maybe shows will end up there, but they’ll start in other places, like Vegas.

BB: What will Broadway be 10, 20 and 100 years from now?
OAH: The 'scene' of Broadway, the scene of the Algonquin Round Table, the Damien Runyins, the Walter Winchells, the Hammersteins, if you had that kind of creative ferment in the center, it didn’t matter so much that there were gangsters and brothels surrounding it because that was it’s essential soul. It was the creative ferment in the center. The chewy nougat of Broadway. It’s gone. There’s no chewy center in it right now. And even though the sin and the porn are stripped away, what’s missing is more important and can’t be brought back. We’ve mall-ified Times Square and I don’t know if that can ever be recovered.
Back in the days when creative people were drawn to working collaboratively on a populist art form, before TV, they weren’t really directed towards movies in LA because they liked the format here. There was a creative ferment. Everybody knew everybody, everybody had jokes for everybody, and everybody tried to top everybody. There was a game in town. Everybody knew who was sleeping with whom; it was like high school or college. It was a world where you weren’t but a few days away from what was happening.
There is nothing happening now. A person writes a show in their room with a friend of theirs and tries it out. There are people who revolve in and out of this business.
Times Square used to be the geographical location of it. It’s not anymore. And that’s sad. In those days, you could actually house it at certain hotels, in certain restaurants. There would be a meeting place they would go to. There are neither those meeting places nor those people.

BB: Isn’t it all a matter of economics?
OAH: Yes. Why stick around New York, beat your ass up to make $600,000 in a lifetime when you could make that in a year screenwriting scripts that are never made in California.
It wasn’t until Disney that the show was an afterthought to the movie. The animated movies they make that become shows are scripted and storyboarded out in California. We’ve had five decades of the opposite. You make a good enough show; they make a movie about it.
I’m sad for what’s lost because I don’t think anything is going to change that. Broadway will become a place where you’ll see McDonalds, 7-11’s and Virgin Records. There will be theater, but they‘ll be relics from a greater day. 42nd Street is a sentimental journey now. It’s nostalgia and hasn’t been experienced firsthand by anyone living it now.

BB: What kind of music do you listen to?
OAH: I like a lot of music. I like opera, speed metal, progressive, jazz, Wagner, Zappa, Primus, Elvis Costello, Ani di Franco, Elliott Sharp, Iron & Wine … I’m really very omnivorous.

BB: You’ve devoted your life to studying and preserving your family’s heritage and their contribution to American entertainment. Why is this important to you and how are you sharing this knowledge?
OAH: I honestly see the dramatic potential in the Hammerstein story. I’m really proud of it and all, but I identify with it and see it as a good story. I love the Don Quixote-nature of Oscar I. The fact that he was willing to gamble his fortunes over and over again, that he was bombastic, that’s all very appealing. In the end, a guy that tries that hard, that’s the story.
In our culture we ignore losers. It’s a shame because there is a mother lode of people who have not succeeded, but whose efforts you just have to revere.
I love what Oscar I tried to do. His failures are more interesting than his successes. He was successful in inventing Times Square, but he was a failure at popularizing opera. Perfect. He went down broke. Perfect. That’s a story. That’s a man imprisoned by his own dreams. I love that. I identify with that. I’m a painter. I’m unheralded. I like the idea that you stick with what you can do and be damned.

BB: Having grown up in Manhattan, just a cab ride from The Great White Way, do you miss the din of the big city from your Lake Waccabuc view?
OAH: I grew up in NYC and I’ve done it. You have to live in the city all your life to realize that it’s okay to move out.

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1 comment:

Seth Knoepler said...

Either BB is the World's Greatest Interviewer or she struck the Mother Lode when OAH III agreed to let her interview him. It would be great if, now that "The Hammersteins" has been published, more people find their way to this post.

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