Oscar Hammerstein II made his initial mark on the American theatre in the 1920s as the author of the most popular operettas of the day. It was an era that still reveled in big luscious melodies by Victor Herbert, Rudolph Friml and Sigmund Romberg, and the outlandish, spectacle-laced plots that were the signature feature of the form. Collaborating with Romberg, Hammerstein had great success portraying the derring-do world of the Canadian Mounties in Rose Marie and cemented his reputation with The Desert Song, an even more exotic, overripe romance featuring Arabian intrigue, breathless heroism and sex in tents.
In 1927, he and Jerome Kern took a great leap forward, and more or less laid the groundwork for what was to become the modern musical play. Show Boat, their epic treatment of race, ill-fated romance and show business on the Mississippi River, promised a revolution in the form. But the revolution was put on hold; a year later, Hammerstein and Romberg were back on the boards with a new operetta, The New Moon, featuring pirates in the Louisiana Territory in the 1790s. As it happens, The New Moon proved to be the last great success of the operetta era. Broadway was quickly overtaken by jazz-age comedy and music that swung: the Gershwins, Porter and Rodgers & Hart. Hammerstein was still more than a decade away from finding the collaborator with whom he would have his greatest impact, Richard Rodgers.
To a great degree, Hammerstein wandered in the wilderness for most of the '30s; he was never a jazz baby by nature, and was seeking some new form that would suit his own sensibilities. In 1932, he decided, whether consciously or not, to tip his hat to the operetta form and move on. Working again with Jerome Kern he created Music in the Air, a show that both recalled and made overt fun of operettas, and the people who wrote, produced and appeared in them. Yet Music in the Air was much more than a lampoon. It was billed as "A Musical Adventure," but the billing had more than one meaning. The hero and heroine of the story, who travel from the naive comfort of their rural life in Edendorf over the German Alps to the big bad demi-monde of Munich, were on one kind of adventure. Kern and Hammerstein were on another.
It's not just the score of Music in the Air that breaks ground. The book and lyrics were Hammerstein's most sophisticated to date, and suggest that, contrary to his later (and largely undeserved) reputation as a purveyor of comforting homilies, he was, in fact the most worldly writer of musical theatre, a man eager to confront the vagaries of desire, the confounding nature of aging, and overpowering urge to regain the potency of youth. Music in the Air behaves like a light romantic comedy, sometimes sounds like the operettas it is spoofing, and its plot is tried and true; but it leaves the impression of something more profound, a kind of meditation on sex, love, youth and age probably not seen again in a Broadway musical until Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music some 40 years on. It also, in its charmingly old-fashioned manner, presages the more serious romances to come from Hammerstein's pen in later years. With something very close to a Lubitsch touch, Music in the Air captures a style long vanished; it lives on as an intriguing mid-life experiment in the career of one of our most venerated musical dramatists.
Jack Viertel is the artistic director of Encores! This piece appears in the February 2009 Playbill for New York City Center.