Getting to Know Her: Meet Alice Hammerstein Mathias, Oscar's Daughter

By Amy Asch
19 Sep 2011

Alice Hammerstein Mathias
Alice Hammerstein Mathias
Leo Sorel/Imagem Music Group

As the musicals of lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II continue to be performed around the globe, Alice Hammerstein Mathias reflects on the life and work of her groundbreaking father.

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Is there ever a day when one of the many musicals written by Oscar Hammerstein II are not heard — somewhere — around the world? As of this publication date, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is enjoying an acclaimed hit encore run at Arena Stage in Washington, DC; Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat is wrapping up a nearly sold-out engagement at Goodspeed Opera House; the Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific is playing London's Barbican Centre; The Sound of Music is being prepped for a spring Carnegie Hall concert; and the list goes on.

It's time, my editor at Playbill.com decided, to reach out to a primary source in the world of the groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist — Oscar's daughter, Alice. I had been in touch with her when I spent several years reading scripts and correspondence in order to assemble and annotate "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II" (Knopf), a coffee-table reference book for which she wrote the foreword.

I was eager to interview her, as I remain passionately interested in all things Hammerstein (I'm currently working with producer JoAnn Young on a documentary about Hammerstein to air on PBS in March 2012).

Alice Hammerstein Mathias, who turned 90 earlier this year, grew up as a child of divorce, traveling between her mother Myra Finn Hammerstein's home and her father's home, and also between New York and Los Angeles depending on her father's work, with extended stays in London and Vienna. Her older brother William (1918-2001) worked in theatre and television, and helped guide their father's estate. Her younger brother James (1931-1999) was the child of her father's second marriage, to Dorothy Blanchard. Jamie was a director and producer too. Another sibling is Susan Blanchard Widmark, who came into the family when her mother married Oscar in 1929.

As you'll read in the Q&A below, drawn from our Aug. 20 chat in Alice's Westchester County home, Alice did occasional assignments for her father's shows and shared his interest in poetry and lyric writing. She married Philip Mathias in 1949. During a long career in the arts, he was a screenwriter, stage manager and director. They spent most of their long married life in Westchester, where they raised a daughter Melinda and a son Peter. Alice and Phil also collaborated on shows built around the song catalogs of Oscar Hammerstein and of Jerome Kern. He died in 2006 after a long illness. At the time of our conversation, Alice's daughter Melinda Walsh was representing the family at the London opening of the Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific.

What Hammerstein show have you seen most recently?
Well, I've seen Show Boat at Goodspeed Opera House. It has been a wonderful production — it still is going on — and it meant a lot to me. I've seen many productions. This was done in a small theatre with a pretty large cast and it fit so well, the way the director [Rob Ruggiero] and everybody connected with it performed. And I was really very excited about it. It would be nice if it continued.

Andrea Frierson and David Aron Damane in Goodspeed's Show Boat.
photo by Diane Sobolewski

Besides attending shows, what kind of things do you do as the Hammerstein family representative?
Professional things like making notes on scripts when people want to make a change to Show Boat. Or any Rodgers & Hammerstein show. And even just [other shows by] my father and whoever else he was related to. Actually, for Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, I don't have much clout with anything now, because we sold the business [to Imagem]. What we are allowed to do — "we" meaning Mary Rodgers and I — is give our approval to first-class productions of those shows; if they're making changes, or doing something with the songs, particularly we're interested. They may not change lyrics.

Aren't you doing something with your father's letters?
Yes, I am. I've been doing something with them for about six years. Because I've been wasting my time doing other things. And I do really want to get back to that. He wrote over — well, what I have is over a hundred letters from him, and then I have letters to him [from me] that he had saved, and I got back when he died.

So I'm trying to make a book that has the letters back and forth, to let it be known that he was a father with fatherly instructions or scoldings or inspirations. Because not much is known about him as a person. He's known more as a lyricist.

Some people see their father at breakfast every day. How was it that your father was writing letters to you?
He was writing letters because he was away so much. My father and mother were divorced when I was about seven. And [on top of that] his job was going out of town to do shows and to present them or to re-write them. That was his job. And he would come back and he would want to see us, my [older] brother [William] and me. When he was away, he always wrote letters, and I would get them sometimes once a week. Not certain days, but whenever he felt like writing. I have long letters from him on a train, on a boat, and he tells all about it. Some of them are very cute. Some of them are very emotional. I have one, for instance, that's at a later time telling me about the death of Jerome Kern [in 1945] and how it affected him. It brought you to tears.

When Kern died it affected [my father] a great deal. And he wrote to me — he wrote and told me all about what happened, what hospital they went to, where they were moved to, what doctor there was, and he and Kern's wife and daughter were there all the time in this hospital. And [that letter] showed how it affected him. [Note: An anecdote — apparently apocryphal, but very touching — has Hammerstein whispering the words of "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" to his unconscious collaborator and friend.] I don't think there was anything about singing a song [in that letter]. I don't think Kern would have heard it lying there. It affected him to lose Kern. He said when you have a collaborator like that, it's so difficult, it's almost like losing a wife. Then, I know that after that, he had to make a eulogy. He sent that eulogy [to] me, because I wasn't there. And he said he broke to pieces before he finished.

Alice Hammerstein Mathias (right) with Julie Gilbert (great-niece of Show Boat novelist Edna Ferber) and Goodspeed cast member Sarah Uriarte Berry (center)
photo by Goodspeed Opera House

What else can you tell me about the letters?
We would send little poems back and forth to each other, silly ones. And when I was ten or eleven I sent him a [serious] poem I was working on, and he analyzed every line. And he wanted me to look at "The Brook" by Tennyson, because my poem was called "The Brook." He was very encouraging. He sent me the Oxford Book of Verse. But I didn't finish writing it because he was too analytical.

You did some work for your father when you were older.
My father said he needed somebody to do research for him…for Carousel.

I think you've told me that you had to look up the recipes for the clambake scene.
I did. Well, he wanted a reason to get everybody in the cast into one place for a celebration and he wanted to find what that could be. …I went and looked up the whole recipe for a clambake, which he used, of course, but he changed. I remember one of the things I said: that when they were finished it was like "manna from heaven." And he changed that to "fitten' fer an angels' choir." It gave him an idea.

I'm thinking about the song "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and how someone wrote a letter to your father about the stanza that had to do with "ewe sheep" and "new sheep."
I think he wouldn't change it, because the rhyme went so well.

I think you're right.
But there was another thing. In the clambake song, one of the lines was about lobsters. "You slit 'em down the back, and peppered 'em good, and doused 'em in melted butter." And somebody wrote in and said: you don't slit lobsters down the back, you slit them down the front. So he had me go to a restaurant and speak to a chef. I went to a place called King of the Sea, which was rather well known then.

When I was starting to work on the "Complete Lyrics," you used the expression "research poison."
That is right. For instance in Carousel: I did research on what was going on in that time in New England. And I went into the trolley cars, the kind of policemen they had and all. And that's when he said, "I don't need all that. You have research poisoning." Which was true. Because I would [even] draw pictures of what I was reading.

When your father and Richard Rodgers started producing, people started to send them scripts. Maybe more than they could read themselves?
I read a lot of scripts that came in. And I wrote a couple of lines on each one. If it was quite good I would say so and say why. They were pretty bad, most of them. And I tried to be nice about it. I wrote letters back to the people. But they got scripts every day.

Did you have any interest in writing a script of your own, or directing a play?
Not directing. But I have written.

I know you're modest, but would you say something about your work on Babes in Toyland or The Merry Widow? Were you associated with a particular theatre group?
The Light Opera of Manhattan, known as LOOM. After my father died, I wanted to do something. First I wrote a few things for Thomas Scherman and his Little Orchestra Society. Later I heard from a friend of mine about this man who had a Gilbert & Sullivan group and he was looking to do other things in his little theatre. I translated the lyrics of The Merry Widow for LOOM. I knew a child's amount of German from having gone to school in Vienna for a year. And I got help from other people. The show was very popular. It brought them out of the red. I also adapted Babes in Toyland which was done every year at Christmas.

Had you talked to your dad about writing lyrics?
Yes, and he encouraged me a great deal. He said that I wrote better lyrics than he did at the same age. So that was a big thing. And it made me soar.



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