SHELF LIFE: "The Hammersteins," a "Kay Thompson" Biography and the Vocal Score of Night Music

News   SHELF LIFE: "The Hammersteins," a "Kay Thompson" Biography and the Vocal Score of Night Music
 
We page through Oscar Andrew Hammerstein's "The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family"; Sam Irvin's "Kay Thompson: From 'Funny Face' to 'Eloise'"; and a revised vocal score of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

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"The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family" by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein [Black Dog and Leventhal]
"The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family" is two books in one, the first about Times Square pioneer Oscar Hammerstein I and the second about musical theatre pioneer Oscar Hammerstein II. The first book is engrossing, recreating the many worlds within which Oscar I and his two sons operated. Here we have a fine portrait of Oscar II's grandfather, who arrived in Manhattan as a penniless teenager in the midst of the Civil War and started his career rolling cigars. The second part, though, is a pale and perfunctory snapshot of Oscar II, coming from his grandson Oscar III.

There is a provocative quote from Oscar II, relating how he sat for four minutes by Oscar I's bed as he lay dying in 1919 — "the longest time I ever spent with him." Oscar II had lived 24 years in fear and resentment of his internationally famous namesake, unable to even talk to the man. Here, in "The Hammersteins," we have Oscar II's grandson and namesake telling us the story of his grandfather. What has he to say?

Nothing. Did Oscar III spend five minutes with Oscar II on his deathbed? Did he grow up in fear and resentment of his grandfather? Was he even born when Oscar II died in 1960? Doesn't say. The author doesn't even tell us that he is the son of James, Oscar II's younger son. (This information can be gleaned from the dedication "to my dad, Jamey.") Nor does he identify himself as Oscar Hammerstein III, although he has been described elsewhere in that manner.

Oscar Hammerstein II

Oscar III is not important to us, of course; but Oscar II is. (Pardon all these Oscars-with-numerals; that's the clearest way to differentiate between them!) Oscar I is defined, in part, by his relationship with his two sons, theatre manager Willie (father of Oscar II) and producer Arthur. Oscar II's sons had theatrical careers, and both were in various ways connected with Oscar's theatrical properties following his death. Nary a word about their careers. James is discussed, mostly, as an adjunct to "the boy who came to dinner." (Stephen Sondheim, to you and me.) Jamey surely shared insights on his famous father with his son, insights which presumably would add to our understanding of Oscar II. Nothing. And if the author wishes to restrict himself to the third Hammerstein generation, why not fill us in on Oscar II's brother Reggie? Oscar III indicates that Reggie was the difficult one, and we have learned elsewhere that Oscar II frequently had to bail his brother out of problems that could have been embarrassing to the family name (and to the Rodgers & Hammerstein name). But you won't read about Reggie or his Broadway career in this chronicle of three generations. The book's portrait of Oscar II, alas, is sketchy and impersonal. Oscar III mentions 46 of Oscar II's shows, mostly by giving us opinions from folks like Ethan Mordden, Merle Secrest, Frank Rich and even Cecil Smith. If you're going to rely on outside writers for your opinions, why not quote contemporary observers who actually saw the productions in question, instead of people writing a generation or two after they were produced? And what about Oscar III himself? Does he have no personal opinion or knowledge of the Hammerstein shows? It seems not. Did he go see Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music as a child, sitting on his grandfather's knee? Not a word.

Oscar Hammerstein I
photo courtesy Library of Congress

The Oscar I section is not only interesting, it is especially well written. The latter half is riddled with pesky errors — the sort you make when you don't have a clear understanding of your subject. The "Cotton Blossom" opening of Show Boat is directly followed by Joe singing "Ol' Man River"? (What about Cap'n Andy's entrance, the bickering with Parthy, the fight between Steve and Pete over Julie, the ominous threat that will hang over the first act, Ravenal's entrance with "Where's the Mate for Me?" and his encounter with Magnolia wherein they jointly decide to "Make Believe"?) Hammerstein's statement that Show Boat has only 13 songs? (I count more than 20.) His statement that Rodgers and Hammerstein had to finance Oklahoma! themselves? That Oklahoma! ran "three times longer than any play previously"? (That's 2,212 performances, compared to 3,224 for Life with Father, 3,182 for Tobacco Road, and 2,327 for Abie's Irish Rose. Oklahoma! outran all prior Broadway musicals, but only by 800 performances.) He tells us further that Oklahoma! was the longest running play in London, where it lasted 1,458 performances (compared to 2,238 for Chu-Chin-Chow, 1,997 for Blithe Spirit, 1,646 for Me and My Girl, and two others in the 1,460s.) And here's this on Me and Juliet: "Dick wrote a lot of danceable tunes that Larry Hart would have adored, but Oscar wrote some of his least engaging music." And what are we to make of the statement that The Sound of Music was "the most successful show in Broadway history"? And there are more where those came from.

Typos are one thing; everybody makes typos, myself most certainly included. But the Oscar II section is filled with the kind of mistakes that don't seem to be careless typos; just incorrect statements that even a casually knowledgeable fan of Hammerstein's might pick up. And the danger is, some unsuspecting young student of theatre might come along, read this book, and take these statements as fact. This sloppiness extends to the photo captions, the first of which — "Times Square at night" — is all too clearly a shot of Hammerstein's Theatre (now the Ed Sullivan), a good half-mile from Times Square.

All of which makes "The Hammersteins" perplexing. The first half is, to borrow from Oscar II, something wonderful. Oscar I's life has previously been discussed at length in several places, but Oscar III for the first time pulls all the strings together and makes sense of this fascinating man. When he went bankrupt the first time, his competitors banded together and raised $25,000 for him. How many businessmen in a cutthroat profession would do such a thing as that? Truth to tell, the Oscar I chapters make "The Hammersteins" a worthwhile read. But oh, what a portrait of Oscar II by his grandson could — and perhaps should — have been.

"Kay Thompson: From "Funny Face" to Eloise" by Sam Irvin [Simon & Schuster]
For those of us born on the later side of 1950, the name Kay Thompson mysteriously turns up from time to time (as in the tribute goddaughter Liza Minnelli recently brought to the Palace). Less young readers might remember her when she was in still active, but we don't. Sam Irvin, who last fall gave us "Think Pink!" [Sepia 1135], a three-CD compilation of her recordings and performances, has written the first full biography of Ms. Thompson (1909-1998). Actually, this seems to be the first accurate anything about her; Thompson reinvented herself many times over, with little interest in biographical accuracy. What we discover is that Thompson — Kitty Fink, a pawnbroker's daughter from St. Louis — had no less than five full-blown careers. She started out as a distinctive and at times highly successful radio singer and arranger, working in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere. In this guise she made it to Broadway, or nearly so, in 1939; she was fired in Boston from a major role in what would turn out to be her only Broadway musical, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's Ed Wynn vehicle Hooray for What?. She maneuvered herself into an arranging and coaching job at M-G-M in 1943, becoming an all-important cog in that studio's Arthur Freed unit — the one that turned out all those golden musicals.

That type of gold dried up in 1947, so Thompson did not renew her contract and put together a grand nightclub act. Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers was apparently an act unlike anyone had seen before, or perhaps since, literally drawing West Coast audiences to the newly-established Las Vegas. Thompson virtually set her own price in top clubs in America, Paris, London and elsewhere. Soon enough, the novelty of that career began to wear off — hastened by competition from top-name celebrities who followed Thompson's example. Career four was brief; Thompson went back to Hollywood as an actress, co-starring with no less than Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in the 1957 motion picture "Funny Face." Thompson is simply wonderful in that film; her "Think Pink" number is iconic and if you haven't ever seen it, drop what you're doing and find it on YouTube. You could even make a case that she managed to steal the movie from the illustrious Fred and Audrey, which was quite a feat. But Thompson never did follow up her success with another film. Her fifth career, as an authoress, started simultaneously with a bang and a clang: "Eloise" was the fifth highest-selling fiction book of 1956 — and this was a kid's book! Eloise and Thompson moved into the Plaza, from which they ran an Eloise empire with sequels, merchandising and more. But that didn't last long, either. Then came a long decline, with Thompson cloistered away the rest of her years as permanent houseguest to Ms. Minnelli.

With Mr. Irvin as our guide, we see that Thompson really did attain several levels of fame. We also see that the lady was something of a monster; Irvin doesn't quite label her as egotistical, grandiose and graspingly greedy, but that's what comes across. Which is why each career starts, builds and mystifyingly ceases. That and various addictions, including many years as a patient of Max Jacobson (AKA Dr. Feelgood). Over the years we have heard about him, too, in various books. Irvin is the only author I've come across, though, who tracks down Jacobson's daughter for an interview. That's the kind of book "Kay Thompson: From "Funny Face" to Eloise" is. Comprehensive, yes; it seems like Mr. Irvin discusses every song Thompson ever sang, starting when she was six. But could we truly understand this ridiculously complicated whirlwind without all these details?

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AND ON THE MUSIC SHELF

The folks at Hal Leonard continue their parade of Broadway musical wares with a very special "revised edition" vocal score of A Little Night Music, newly edited by Peter E. Jones. Prepared from Sondheim's "final, revised composer's score," this is in many ways different from the originally published vocal score. Vocal scores were traditionally edited versions of the piano/conductor score, which were prepared by the copyists in conjunction with the orchestral parts; thus, it was directly based on — but substantially removed from — the composer's actual piano score. The p/c more or less gave the conductor a highlighted version of what was happening musically at any given time, as well as providing the rehearsal pianist with something to play that approximated what the performers and understudies would hear in performance.

This is fine for rehearsal pianists, but wouldn't you rather play Sondheim's version — with his arrangements and actual harmonies — than some editor's reduction of the orchestrator's translation of the original? The Sunday in the Park and Into the Woods vocal scores were prepared using Sondheim's own piano manuscripts, and Sweeney Todd has already been updated in this manner. Now they are joined by the corrected and Sondheim-approved Little Night Music. And lest you wonder, a note on the title page instructs us that "insofar as discrepancies in the lyrics, this vocal score is to be considered correct." It is gratifying to learn that the folks at Hal Leonard take their stewardship of Sondheim's work so very conscientiously, and have a program in place that promises more of the same.

Hal Leonard has also released an Addams Family songbook. Two Addams Family songbooks, actually: the traditional "vocal selections" and what they call "piano/vocal selections" (with the melody in the piano part). Thirteen songs by Andrew Lippa, plus Vic Mizzy's "The Addams Family Theme" complete with finger snaps. Also available is a new edition of the vocal selections book for Promises, Promises. Twelve songs by Bacharach & David, including the two songs — "I Say a Little Prayer," "A House Is Not a Home" — that were added for Kristin Chenoweth to sing in the current revival.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes Playbill.com's popular DVD Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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