Oscar Hammerstein II was the creative force behind the two musicals universally credited with revolutionizing 20th century theater: “Show Boat” in 1972 and “Oklahoma!” in 1943. And he wrote the book and lyrics to an amazing string of shows that includes early works of “Rose-Marie” and “The Desert Song,” along with the blockbusters “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific” and “The King and I.”
The PBS documentary “Oscar Hammerstein II—Out of My Dreams,” to air Tuesday, Aug. 14, at 8 p.m. on KUED, is an absorbing portrait of a musician who stands head and shoulders above others for his contribution to the development of American theater. It’s an enjoyable introduction to the sincere, optimistic man — and entertainment legend and inspiring humanitarian.
“Blessed with genes and genius,” Hammerstein was born to William, the manager of the most famous vaudeville theater of its day, and his grandfather, Oscar I, was an opera impresario and showman. His uncle, Arthur, was a well-known producer. All were famous in their own right, but would be eclipsed by the success of the third-generation theater Hammerstein.
Consider two names alone of the interviewees, and you’ll know “Out of My Dreams” is a must-see for music and stage enthusiast: Stephen Sondheim, who was mentored by Hammerstein; and Harold Prince, an acquaintance of Hammerstein in the 1950s and director of the award-winning 1994 revival of “Show Boat.”
“‘Show Boat’ changed everything,” says Prince. “It broke new ground. And he did that all the time, for his entire career.
Beginning with “Show Boat,” Hammerstein’s deep interest in social causes was evident, and he made the issues more palatable through song. "He was very concerned with human rights, and they (human rights) were reflected in his musicals. The idea of someone dealing with (oppression and miscegenation) in 1927 is pretty extraordinary," Prince says.
Also, “South Pacific” in 1949 took a bold, controversial stand on racial tension, expressed in the two love stories central to the musical.
The hour-long “Out of My Dreams” is narrated by Matthew Morrison of TV’s “Glee.” Morrison also starred in the 2008 revival of “South Pacific” as Lt. Joe Cable, who sings “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” that fervently confronts prejudice.
Archival footage includes a rare 1958 Hammerstein television interview with CBS News' Mike Wallace and a handful of recorded conversations.
As Sondheim relates, Hammerstein was extraordinarily generous. The two met at the Hammerstein country home when young Stephen was a neighborhood pal of Hammerstein’s son James. “He treated me like an adult,” Sondheim says. “So the result was that I came away with dignity and a feeling like I was worth paying attention to.”
Sondheim has attributed his success in theater directly to Hammerstein's influence and guidance, and he was so enamored with Hammerstein that he said, “If I had become best friends with the son of a plumber, I guess I would have become a plumber!” — a revealing quote though not included in the program.
“Out of My Dreams” includes a glimpse into Hammerstein's beloved family farm, Highland Falls in Bucks County, Penn. In the home’s den, Hammerstein wrote while standing at a tall bookkeeper’s desk, which he believed stimulated his creativity.
Listed on National Register of Historic Places, Highland Falls is now a bed and breakfast with guest rooms decorated after the famous musicals. If you are able to spend an evening in the former Hammerstein home, please report back: According to legend, the pineapples atop of staircase newel posts were stage props from the Broadway production of “South Pacific.”