Recently the Canadian theatre and film producer Garth Drabinsky lost the final appeals on his fraud conviction. The start of Drabinsky’s five-year prison sentence seemed a distant anticlimax to the fall of his Livent company over a decade ago.
But outside of the legal issues that led to his conviction, it is apparent that Drabinsky is both a distrastrous financial manager and a compelling theatre producer. On the financial front, he never concerned himself with cost. He was discharged from the financial management of Livent even before his indictment, but this did not prevent Livent from going into bankruptcy.
Yet as a producer, Drabinsky made substantial contributions to musical theatre. He, in fact, revived it and brought it out of the doldrums that had lasted for decades. His 1994 revival of Showboat was a major event, and his 1998 production of Ragtime gave needed impetus to new musicals. It should be noted that Audra McDonald was one of the stars of Ragtime, and that she, in turn, has promoted the careers of a number of important new composers.
In reading Oscar Andrew Hammerstein’s book The Hammersteins recently, I was reminded of Garth Drabinsky. Oscar Hammerstein I, the noted producer, was as inconsiderate of finances as he was devoted to opera. He engaged himself in opera production several times in his life, and each time ended in financial failure. In his final years, Hammerstein was financially forced to live in retirement in New Jersey.
Nevertheless, Hammerstein was gifted in many ways. He did much to develop midtown Manhattan and Harlem. As a cigar maker, he made several inventions.
Yet it was in opera where his passion lay. As head of the Manhattan Opera House, Hammerstein was devoted to providing New Yorkers with worldclass opera productions. As this book states, his productions were artistic successes. While his rival, the Met, clung to more traditional fare, Hammerstein produced such cutting edge operas as Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande While most opera impresarios usually concerned themselves only with singing, Hammerstein also sought high standards of acting and dancing in his productions.
The book’s author, Oscar Andrew Hammerstein, is the son of James Hammerstein, and there are a number of noteable Hammersteins that his book could have gone into more detail on. Oscar I’s sons Willie and Arthur were successful Broadway producers. Oscar II’s sons William and James were gifted and knowledgeable directors and producers.
Yet this book concentrates mainly on the two Oscars: I and II. Oscar Hammerstein II, of course, is one of the central figures in the history of musical theatre. Working as a director and producer in addition to being a playwright and lyricist, he achieved legendary successes spanning from 1924’s Rose Marie through 1959’s The Sound of Music.
What this book shows is the profound impact that the grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I, had on his famous grandson. In mid career, Oscar II became a bit obsessed with his late grandfather. He wrote a screenplay on him, which went unfilmed only because he could not agree with Arthur Freed of M.G.M. on who would play Oscar I. Remembering seeing his grandfather at a Manhattan Opera performance of Bizet’s Carmen, Oscar II then adapted that opera in 1942. The result, Carmen Jones, received a successful Broadway run, and was later made into a film.
After Carmen Jones came Hammerstein’s storied collaboration with Richard Rodgers. It was during this collaboration that Hammersein achieved the integrated musical, which wove the diverse elements of song, dance, story, spoken dialogue, design and acting into a seamless whole. Hammerstein’s achievement was in no small part a result of his grandfather’s work in opera at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Oscar Andrew Hammerstein’s book is also interesting for the Hammerstein family photographs that have not before been publicly available. Particularly striking is the photograph, taken about 1860, of a young girl named Rosa Blau. She would grow up to be Oscar I’s first wife, before dying young in 1879, and she has a haunting resemblance to her grandson Oscar II.
And on the subject of Oscar Hammerstein II, I would note the recent production in San Francisco by 42nd Street Moon of Kern and Hammerstein’s 1934 show Three Sisters. When this musical was first presented in London, the local press was a bit hostile, and the authors were discouraged from taking it to Broadway. Yet through the recent production, the show has been hailed as a lost masterpiece. Considering the high regard I have for both Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, I would be quite interested in the prospect of this musical being finally produced on Broadway.