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THE WORDSMITHS by Stephen Citron

THE WORDSMITHS

Oscar Hammerstein 2nd and Alan Jay Lerner

By Stephen Citron

Pub Date: July 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-508386-5
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

 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 (18951960) and the last quarter all Alan Jay Lerner (19181986); 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 clichÇs (``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. (b&w photos, not seen)