My Dinner with Oscar

 

When the dust finally settled from his parents’ divorce, ten-year-old Stephen Sondheim found himself in a drastically different world. Born and raised amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City, he was now suddenly living with his mother in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Instead of towering skyscrapers and crowded streets he was surrounded by rolling green hills, bubbling brooks, old stone bridges, and prancing white tail deer. At first glance, this serene countryside may not seem like the ideal training ground for a future master of the American musical. But make no mistake; Bucks County is no ordinary farm community. Located between New York City and Philadelphia, this quiet little region has been home to numerous writers and artists, including George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Jean Toomer, Pearl S. Buck, James Michener, and hundreds of others who labored over their art with the same passion but without ever achieving similar name recognition. Because of its reputation as a literary haven, producers have often previewed shows at The Bucks County Playhouse before taking them to Broadway. In light of this, it should have been no great surprise to Sondheim that his friend and next door neighbor Jimmy was the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, who with Richard Rodgers changed the course of American Musical theatre with shows like Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. The Hammersteins welcomed Sondheim into their family, and Bucks County suddenly went from being a rugged little artists’ community to a veritable university of musical theatre. The impact on Sondheim’s life was profound, and, as hindsight proves, extended to the American musical itself.

            Oscar Hammerstein became a surrogate father to Sondheim, who would later recall the education he received just sitting at his mentor’s kitchen table listening to shop talk. Eventually, when Sondheim was fifteen, he marshaled the courage to show Hammerstein a play he had written. It was a musical about the students and faculty of his school, George School, entitled, appropriately enough, By George. That night, he went to bed certain that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t possibly pass up this masterpiece, and dreamed of his name shining on a marquee above Broadway. Yet, the reception proved to be anything but encouraging. According to Sondheim, “When I was summoned to the house the next day, he asked, ‘Do you really want me to treat this as if I didn’t know you?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ I said, to which he replied, ‘In that case, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read.” Hammerstein then sat down with Sondheim and, treating this first effort like a genuine script, began to teach the eager teenager the fundamentals of writing a musical. “I’ve often said, at the risk of hyperbole, that I probably learned more about writing songs that afternoon than I learned for the rest of my life.”

            During that first lesson, and the sessions that followed, Sondheim not only learned what a character and a scene were, he also learned how to structure a song. “He’d begun as a playwright before he became a songwriter,” explains Sondheim. “He believed songs should be like one-act plays, that they should have a beginning, middle, and end. They should set up a situation, have a development and then a conclusion, exactly like a classically constructed plot.” 

            Sondheim recalls that one of the most interesting exercises Hammerstein gave him was to write four musicals, “He said, take a play that you like, that you think is good, and musicalize it. In musicalizing it, you’ll be forced to analyze it. Next take a play that you think is good but flawed, that you think could be improved, and musicalize that, seeing if you can improve it. Then take a non-play, a narrative someone else has written—it could be a novel, a short story—but not a play, not something that has been structured dramatically for the stage, and musicalize that. Then try an original.” From this Sondheim produced musical versions of George Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Beggar on Horseback, Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor, P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, and an original called Climb High. The latter met with more approval from Hammerstein than Sondheim’s first effort. 

            In some ways, the relationship that Hammerstein and Sondheim developed over the years was like the passing of a torch from one generation of American musical theatre to another. In 1965, Sondheim would fill his mentor’s shoes by teaming up with Richard Rodgers for Do I Hear a Waltz? The tools Hammerstein provided his pupil served him well. Sondheim went on to one of the most dynamic careers in the history of musical theatre with shows like West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd…The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Assassins. In 1987, the Tony Awards program anointed Sondheim “the Unofficial Poet Laureate of Broadway.” One has to wonder, where he and the American musical would be today if not for the divorce that removed the young Sondheim to Bucks County?  

 

Dan Tarker, Literary Associate