Julie Andrews, Willie Nelson, Bernadette Peters, Vanessa Williams and Patti LaBelle headline "Some Enchanted Evening: Celebrating Oscar Hammerstein II," a "Great Performances" special airing this week on PBS. The all-star tribute honors the lyricist of "Ol' Man River," "Some Enchanted Evening," "If I Loved You," "The Sound of Music," "I Whistle a Happy Tune" on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Hammerstein, who died in 1960, began his career as a playwright and soon turned to writing librettos and lyrics for well-known composers. He was responsible for the lyrics of the operettas "Rose Marie" and "The Desert Song." He and composer Jerome Kern penned eight musicals, including the landmark "Show Boat." Hammerstein is best known for his work with his final collaborator, Richard Rodgers. The team wrote the groundbreaking shows "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "South Pacific," "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music."
The Oscar-winning Andrews, who recently recorded a Richard Rodgers tribute album, hosts the evening and performs "Edelweiss" from "The Sound of Music." Andrews has a long history with Rodgers and Hammerstein, having starred in their original 1957 TV musical "Cinderella," and the 1965 Oscar-winning film version of "The Sound of Music."
Times Staff Writer Susan King talked with Andrews over the phone about the special relationship and what made Hammerstein's lyrics so endearing.
What made Hammerstein such a great lyricist?
I think the poetry--the wonderful images he created and a certain wonderful reality. I mean, somehow along with the images there was this really real feeling to his work. For me, when Mary Martin sings (in "South Pacific"): "I'm as corny as Kansas in August, I'm as normal as blueberry pie," even though they are wonderful images, you recognize them instantly.
But some critics believe his lyrics were too sentimental, even simplistic.
Oh my God, no! I don't believe so at all. I think that Rodgers was so infinitely singable and hummable too, that perhaps (Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics) seemed sweeter than they really are. He really had a lot to say politically and had a lot to say about many aspects of life. His role (in musical theater) is extremely important. When you think of the body of work of the man from the emerging "Show Boat" and what that did and how it integrated the first really great novel into a musical ... these are huge pioneering steps.
Do you remember the first Hammerstein song you ever heard?
I wish I could say I could. In my early years I was much too ignorant and didn't realize how desperately important it all is, how really important the lyrics are. And for me as a singer, I am a lady who takes the lyrics first. Much as I adore the melodies, I choose a song for what it has to say. I'm not very good with some of the more modern songs that have an awful lot of "doo wah wahs," if you know what I mean, because I can't do anything with them.
What was it like working with Hammerstein on "Cinderella"?
He was tall and grave and a gentleman. I didn't see an enormous amount of him--I saw more of Rodgers--but when I did see him he was adorable, absolutely adorable, as was his wife.
Did you ever audition for a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical?
Yep. I auditioned for "Pipe Dream." It was just before "My Fair Lady." Rodgers--it wasn't Hammerstein--came up from the theater after I sang my soprano song and he said, "Have you been auditioning for anything else?" and I, in a somewhat dismissive way, said, "I have auditioned for two gentlemen who are doing a musical about Shaw's 'Pygmalion' ("My Fair Lady") and I don't know whether it is going to be any good or not," or something like that. He was sort of quiet for a second and then he said, "I want to tell you something. If they ask you, do Shaw's 'Pygmalion' as a musical and if they don't, let me know because I would love to use you." Think of the wonder of that advice. And of course, I did Shaw's "Pygmalion." Isn't that a kind thing to have done? ("Pipe Dream") was one of the few (of their musicals) that didn't make it as big as the others.
Is "The Sound of Music" your favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical?
That's hard to say. I think there are moments when it is. For instance, "The Sound of Music" itself is a wonderful song and so is "Edelweiss." I think that that little song is as classic as "Oh! What a Beautiful Morning" from "Oklahoma!" It is simplicity itself, but musically well-constructed and so simple in its lyric. There couldn't be one without the other. I must say, though, other people are inclined to think of that as being sweetly sentimental and so on. To me, it is a gem of a little song.
It also applies to anybody's home. It speaks for anybody who is displaced or has a love of country.
I think they were incredible as a team. Mr. Hammerstein, across the board, well, I don't know, was he the most important influence lyrically of the musical theater? When you think of the people that he worked with and the contributions that he made, I don't know anybody else who has done quite the bulk of work with as many collaborators. He never faded. He never ran out. You know, when you think about it, he managed to get right inside each genre of the musicals that he wrote. He didn't just write pretty words. He wrote what was necessary and right for each character.
"Great Performances: Some Enchanted Evening: Celebrating Oscar Hammerstein II" airs Monday at 7:30 p.m. on KCET and Tuesday at 7 p.m. on KVCR.