The musical theater’s greatest genius, Stephen Sondheim, once described his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II as a man of limited talent but infinite soul, whereas Richard Rodgers was the reverse. With one characteristic double-edged quip, Sondheim managed to insult both men, but also to praise them. If Hammerstein could have chosen either description, I think he would have chosen the one Sondheim applied, correctly, to him.
Hammerstein was not a genius, but he was a mensch, and if his lyrics sometimes strayed into the trite or the banal, they went for the heart and very often got there. He wasn’t a great wit like Sondheim or his predecessor as Rodgers’s lyricist, the brilliant Lorenz Hart, but his earnest, plainspoken sentiments suited mid-century America’s confidence, its optimism, and its love of love songs in the great Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.
All of those shows and others are sampled in the revue Sincerely, Oscar, a modest, low-budget off-Broadway show (at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street through May 12). More like a show you’d see at Disney World than a typical New York City stage offering, it has virtually no scenery or props. It’s built around a holographic image of Hammerstein (1895–1960) who is seen and heard reflecting on various songs, his approach to writing them, and his relentlessly cheery outlook. Mostly he is seen sitting at a desk introducing the songs, words from which are projected on screens behind him as they are sung by a cast of two. Doreen Taylor, who conceived and wrote the show, sings most of the numbers, sometimes in duets with Azudi Onyejekwe, who also sings a few offerings solo. Both actors sing adequately but don’t do a great job of acting, especially when it comes to expressing romance, and the arrangements are aggressively odd, with bossa nova beats and electric-guitar solos. Most songs are performed by a jazz trio, sometimes supplemented with a woodwind or a guitar or canned strings.
For longtime fans, hearing unexpected twists on classics like “My Favorite Things” and “Getting to Know You” may hold some appeal, and for younger audience members, the show (which runs 90 minutes with no intermission) could serve as a sweet introduction to some of the greatest songs in Broadway history — “If I Loved You” (from Carousel), “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” (Oklahoma!), “Some Enchanted Evening” (South Pacific), “Edelweiss” (The Sound of Music). It would be ideal to hear the tunes with a full orchestra, but these numbers are iron-bottomed, unsinkable.
The infinitude of Hammerstein’s soul is evident in his hologram monologues, delivered with the promised sincerity and then some. Unlike Sondheim, he wasn’t a man to get tricksy, but he wasn’t trying to be. This is the raindrops-on-roses-and-whiskers-on-kittens man, the perpetrator of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” When he wrote the words “I’m as corny as Kansas in August,” it was his “Silly Love Songs” confession. Hologram-Oscar reminds us that “Out of my dreams and into your arms/I long to fly” is an actual line of his, apparently a favorite one. He tells us he has faith that “good triumphs over evil. If that’s religion then I’m religious.” Facing mortality, he says, “The world is quite a wonderful place.”
What a gentle, tender man. And what an innovator: Hammerstein helped invent the Broadway musical, which dates only to 1927 and Show Boat, his collaboration with composer Jerome Kern. Before that, Broadway meant vaudeville-style variety, glitz and gags, but Show Boat probed mature themes and developed its story along the lines of the novel on which it was based. The musical’s showstopper “Ol’ Man River,” familiar to generations as fodder for basses and baritones, is here performed by the tenor Onyejekwe with a lighter, sweeter tone. The song is less effective than usual, but Hammerstein’s words “I’m tired of livin’/and scared of dyin’ ” draw shivers as ever.
Anyway, Hammerstein could on occasion be witty (as when Oklahoma!’s Curly confesses, about his snow-white horses in “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” that “one’s like snow/the other’s more like milk”). The sly denialism of “People Will Say We’re in Love” — “Don’t throw bouquets at me/Don’t please my folks too much/Don’t laugh at my jokes too much” is a less neurotic precursor to Sondheim’s own “Marry Me a Little.” As for the corny songs, Hammerstein’s cockeyed optimism may not have been revolutionary, but it always made the audience smile.