The Sound of Lyrics: The Search for Hammerstein's Gold | Playbill

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Special Features The Sound of Lyrics: The Search for Hammerstein's Gold The editor of "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II" climbed mountains and forded streams to collect the master's work.
The book from Knopf was released Dec. 1.


In the six-book "Complete Lyrics" series from Knopf, "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II," released Dec. 1, is the volume that might be most valuable to musical theatre fans. Hammerstein is regarded by many as the father of the modern musical.

Scion of a theatrical dynasty, Hammerstein, who was born in 1895, came of age during the era of operetta, contributing to Desert Song, The New Moon and Rose-Marie and more. He broke new ground in 1927 with the landmark (serious-themed) musical Show Boat (music by Jerome Kern), and pushed the musical theatre even further in his shows (starting in 1943 with Oklahoma!) with composer Richard Rodgers. He died in 1960. His last musical was The Sound of Music.

A seven-year project for editor Amy Asch (who is an editor of the Playbill Broadway Yearbook and's regional listings editor), the book boasts all of Hammerstein's lyrics — 850, more than a quarter published for the first time. A lean volume of Hammerstein's selected (by him) lyrics, under the title "Lyrics," was the only compilation available prior to this. His essay "Notes on Lyrics" is treasured by musical theatre songwriters.

The new 448-page "Complete Lyrics" has 81 photos, a foreword by daughter Alice Hammerstein Mathias and an introduction by Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Critic Charles Isherwood of the New York Times recently recommended it to his readers. Asch traveled the world in search of Hammerstein's lyrics.

"I really loved doing the research for this book," Asch told "In New York, I studied published and unpublished scripts, lyrics and musical material, clippings and programs at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, Tams-Witmark, the Shubert Archive, and the Museum of the City of New York.

"The music division of the Library of Congress has several relevant collections — the papers of Hammerstein, Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, plus the Warner-Chappell treasures from Secaucus, and copyright deposit copies of libretti and sheet music.

"In Los Angeles, I consulted Miles Kreuger's Institute of the American Musical, the Margaret Herrick Library, USC's Cinema-Television Library, USC's Warner Bros. archive, and special collections at UCLA.

"In London I saw material at the British Library (Lord Chamberlain's Plays) and the Theatre Museum."

Among the treasures she sifted through were personal and business letters.

"I loved reading Hammerstein's incoming and outgoing correspondence — bossy letters from Jerome Kern, playful letters to John Van Druten and Joshua Logan, reflective letters to his older son Bill," Asch said. "I liked getting to know the handwritings of his various collaborators and office assistants."

The job required a keen eye. Asch explained, "As I attempted to account for 800-900 song titles, I expected to encounter lyrics that changed as they were developed. But sometimes even the published material — which one might expect to be the final version — changed. A script might have a slightly different wording than a vocal score. Is the difference a new mistake that has crept in, or is it an old mistake being corrected?

"And some songs were very sneaky. For instance, two 'Marianne' songs were written for The New Moon. They were both published as sheet music, and the covers are almost identical. But inside, the music and lyrics are different. In the case of Sunny, the song 'Sunshine' found in the vocal score is entirely different than the song 'Sunshine' published as an individual sheet."

A lifelong fan of musical theatre, and familiar with Hammerstein's major titles, Asch was excited to make "discoveries" along the way.

"My favorite discoveries are mostly songs whose long absence was hardly noticed," she said. "But when I get into my archaeology mode, there is a definite thrill in discovery. For instance, Hammerstein wrote student shows at Columbia. Many of them have elaborate program books and even published scores. But there was no program for the 1918 show. By reading articles in the Columbia College newspaper, I learned that in the spirit of war-time conservation, the lyrics for Ten for Five were folded into the spring issue of the campus humor magazine — the Jester. The first copy of the Jester I called up was missing those pages! But the kind librarians brought in another copy from off site, and there they were!"

Rooting around and making multiple requests ended up paying off.

"At the last stages of my research, when I was scouting photographs, I found a leadsheet and lyric for a dropped song from the 1922 show Queen o' Hearts, in a box of photocopies at the Museum of the City of New York, apparently left over from a past exhibit on 'The Hammersteins of New York,'" Asch said.

(The first Oscar Hammerstein had built theatres and produced opera in New York City; Hammerstein's father ran the leading variety theatre; his Uncle Arthur produced operettas and musical comedies.)

Asch continued, "Early on in my research, I had sent Tams-Witmark a list of the shows I was interested in. For this one, Free For All, they had only a box of orchestra parts. Well, on my third or fourth visit to Tams, I asked to see that box — and to my delight, inside there were piano-vocal scores for some songs for which I had words but not music, and also some lyrics I couldn't find anywhere else. I don't expect that Free For All will be revived anytime soon, but it was an exciting find." To hear an interview with Amy Asch, visit

Asch, an archivist and researcher, worked on "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" and an expanded edition of "The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart." She contributed to the PBS documentary "Broadway: The American Musical" and prepared the catalog of works for the estate of the composer Jonathan Larson (Rent). Currently an editor of the Playbill Broadway Yearbook, she lives in New York City.

For more information about Asch's work, visit

Signed copies of the book are on sale through the Playbill Store.

This is this sixth book in Knopf's "Complete Lyrics" series after the lyrics of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser. A book of Johnny Mercer's lyrics will be published in 2009.


Hammerstein's musical shows include operettas Rose-Marie (music by Rudolf Friml), The Desert Song (Sigmund Romberg), The New Moon (Romberg) and Song of the Flame (George Gershwin), and eight musicals with Kern, including Sweet Adeline, Music in the Air and their masterpiece, Show Boat, plus Carmen Jones (an all-black adaptation of the tragic opera by Georges Bizet), and (with Rodgers) Oklahoma!, Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music. Rodgers and Hammerstein also wrote a movie musical ("State Fair") and one for television ("Cinderella"). Both of those shows were later adapted into stage versions.

Collectively R&H's works have earned dozens of awards, including Pulitzers, Tonys, Oscars, Grammys and Emmys.

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