Book Review by Yani Perez . . .

The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II, edited by Mark Eden Horowitz and published by Oxford University Press, is a collection that features hundreds of previously unpublished letters from Oscar Hammerstein to prominent theatre figures. 

Mark Eden Horowitz

Mark Eden Horowitz is a Senior Music Specialist in the music division of the Library of Congress, where he has been an archivist or co-archivist for the papers of Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers, Vernon Duke, Cole Porter, Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner, Leonard Bernstein, and others. He is the author of the award-winning Sondheim on Music and served as the contributing editor for The Sondheim Review for ten years. 

Horowitz’s new collection introduces audiences to a deeper side of Oscar Hammerstein II. In addition to including letters from famous theatre professionals, the book also provides insight into one of the theatre’s most influential innovators, Oscar Hammerstein II. He wrote the groundbreaking musical Show Boat (1927) with composer Jerome Kern and would then join forces with Richard Rodgers to create an extended repertoire of work that includes  Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), The Sound of Music (1959), and more. Together, they won Pulitzers, Academy, Tony, and Grammy awards.

Hammerstein’s an accomplished lyricist and librettist, writing almost 850 songs. His talent was uncanny. Hammerstein and his collaborator, Richard Rodgers, changed the musical theatre canvas with their unique use of music, dance, and drama. “When people comment on Oscar’s innovations, it usually focused on what’s referred to as the “integral musical’—how, among other things, songs now grew out of characters and the story, and how the characters and the story develop through songs” Horowitz stated. However, Hammerstein was not only a lyricist and librettist, he was also a producer and businessman. He would later become Stephen Sondheim’s mentor and “surrogate father” as described by Sondheim. He was also an activist. Horowitz’s collection reflects the many layers of this multifaceted, talented artist. Horowitz writes, “ I am convinced that Hammerstein was not only a great man of the theater—a richly talented writer and an astute businessman—but also a profoundly good human being.” Readers will also get a more intimate view of Hammerstein’s personality. 

Portrait of Oscar Hammerstein II, 1920 (The Library of Congress)

The compilation includes hundreds of letters, both received and sent. The collection has been beautifully curated, edited, and annotated by Horowitz. 

The book includes letters to and from colleagues such as Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Kern, and Josh Logan. There are also letters from celebrities, politicians, activists, and critics. Hammerstein even kept letters fromstrangers.

Horowitz does an excellent job of providing historical context for each letter. He gives details of where Hammerstein was and what was going on in his life during the time the letter was written. The introductions flow seamlessly into the letter. This structure helps the reader imagine Hammerstein’s life at that specific moment. 

The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II  is a gem! The book is engaging, informative, and insightful. Horowitz beautifully summarizes the essence of his book, “I believe the letters that follow reveal things about all the aspects of Oscar—the lyricist, the collaborator, the writer, the man of the theater, the businessman, the family man, the believer in causes, the intellectual, the man of good humor, the defensive, thoughtful and compassionate man that he was. They’re also a fascinating view of history as it was lived and the history of forty years of show business.”

Mark Eden Horowitz has given theatre lovers or anyone interested in American theatre an incredible compilation of historical insight into one of America’s greatest theatre creators, Oscar Hammerstein II. 

The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II 

Edited by Mark Eden Horowitz 

Published by Oxford University Press

May 2022