The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II

Edited by AMY ASCH

Maybe he didn’t have the razor-edge irony of Stephen Sondheim or the bitchy wit of Lorenz Hart, but Oscar Hammerstein II was a colossus in the history of the American musical theater. A beautiful morning turned into an even more beautiful day as I whizzed through my favorites in this volume — from the badly underrated Carmen Jones of 1943 to the “Pore Jud Is Daid” requiem in Oklahoma! I knew that Hammerstein slaved over his lyrics for weeks and was always a bit jealous that Dick Rodgers could sit down and bang out the perfect music in seconds. That care is evident in Oscar’s amazing job on Carmen Jones, fitting Bizet’s rousing music into an African-American idiom: (“Beat out dat rhythm on a drum, / Dere’s one big heart for all de worl’ “) “Pore Jud,” proved another challenge: as Hammerstein said, it was tough to elegize this “sulky farmhand, a ‘bullet-colored, growly man,’ a collector of dirty pictures.” But the lyrics find a way: “He’s all laid out to rest / With his hands acrost his chest. / His fingernails have never b’en so clean.” I could go on for pages — there are 850 songs, about a quarter never before published in book form, including many cut and unused songs worth including in some dream show. A final anecdote to illustrate where credit is due: Mrs. Jerome Kern and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein II were supposedly at a dinner at which a third companion told Mrs. Kern how wonderful it was that her husband had written “Ol’ Man River.” As Mrs. Kern was thanking her for the compliment, Mrs. H. chimed in, “My husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Her husband wrote, ‘Da de da dum.’ ” Exactly.