THE WORDSMITHS: Oscar Hammerstein 2nd and Alan Jay Lerner by Stephen Citron

THE WORDSMITHS: Oscar Hammerstein 2nd and Alan Jay Lerner

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Twice-told tales of two legendary Broadway lyricists. Citron (Noel and Cole, 1993, etc.) works chronologically: The first quarter of his text is pure Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960) and the last quarter all Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986); in between, he intercuts the stories but makes little attempt to relate them to each other. Despite some similarities, the two men had radically different personalities. Hammerstein was a moralist, an old-fashioned lyricist and librettist whose early work was in the accepted operetta style of the day. He had two extremely lucky breaks in his long career: One was an invitation to collaborate with Jerome Kern in 1927 on Show Boat, universally acclaimed as the first ""modern"" musical; the second was a late-in-life partnership with Richard Rodgers, beginning with the smash Oklahoma! (1943), which transformed him into a living legend. Lerner was a much more uneven and unpredictable worker. He benefitted from one important professional relationship, with Frederick Loewe, a Viennese-born composer who perfectly balanced Lerner's fiery temperament with his steadier musical hand; the duo are best remembered for My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960). While Hammerstein was a warm family man, genuinely loved by his colleagues, who had a lifetime of theatrical hits, Lerner passed through a slew of stormy marriages, battled a long addiction to amphetamines, and experienced a relatively short period of success. Citron offers insightful readings of both men's lyrics, as well as some interesting remarks about the evolution of their best-loved works. But his narrative is marred by awkward constructions (""all was not as bad as it might appear in the preceding paragraphs"") and oddly inappropriate clich‚s (""rumors...ran through the theater community faster than money through a drunkard's pockets""). Several previous books have already covered much the same biographical ground. Best read for its analysis of the songs; otherwise, little flesh on these bones.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1995
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.