A Not-So Overnight Off-Broadway Phenomenon

 

Whether its Bob Hope Drive  in downtown Burbank, Korn Row named after the Rock band Korn) on a rustic side street in Bakersfield, or I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change Way in New York City, you know you’ve finally made it when a city names a street after you.

 

For the musical I Love You, Your Perfect, Now Change, the honor came after celebrating  its 10th Anniversary running Off-Broadway  at the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street in March of last year, making it only the second play in the history of Off-Broadway theatre to reach this milestone.

 

It’s quite the achievement, especially when considering the sluggish performance of many Off-Broadway shows since September 11th, 2001. Yet, I Love You, Your Perfect, Now Change enjoyed one significant advantage; the stewardship of a producer whose theatre pedigree is one of the most respected in the business: James Hammerstein, son of legendary librettist Oscar Hammerstein II.   

 

The Hammerstein Legacy

 

Although most may recognize the Hammerstein name as part of the musical team of Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, it was actually James Hammerstein’s great grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein I, whose love of the performing arts first quite literally transformed the physical landscape of New York City.

 

In 1864, Oscar Hammerstein I was just another German immigrant to America, sweeping floors in a cigar factory. Ten years and 44 cigar manufacturing inventions later, however, Hammerstein I was able to hang up his broom and dustbin for good to pursue his true passion: Opera. Over the next three decades Oscar Hammerstein I would build over ten Opera houses in New York City and abroad including the Harlem Opera House in 1889, the Columbus Theatre in 1890, and the Olympia Theatre in Longacre Square. It was actually through his efforts that Longacre Square would eventually be renamed Times Square and become the central theatre district of New York City.

 

One can understand if James Hammerstein felt more than a little pressure living under the looming shadow of two such formidable figures in American theatre history—not to mention a grandfather and uncle who enjoyed successful theatre careers running vaudeville houses around the city.

 

Starting at the Bottom

 

However, just because he possessed the Hammerstein name didn’t guarantee James a glamorous job when he decided to pursue the family business. His first gig? Second assistant stage manager on Me and Juliet, a lesser Rodgers and Hammerstein work directed by George Abbott.

 

Abbott ultimately became a surrogate father to Hammerstein, who confessed in a 1995 interview with the Star-Ledger: “Whenever I work on a show, I sometimes hear my father’s voice in my head giving me advice. But I often hear George Abbott’s voice, too.” Abbott recruited Hammerstein to work as the production stage manager for the 1954 revival of On Your Toes and the first production of Damn Yankees.

 

Like Abbott, James would find his calling in the director’s chair. Unlike Abbot, however, it wouldn’t be until the end of his career when he took on the role of producer that he achieved a success comparable to that of his father and great grandfather. 

 

From Mentee to Mentor

 

Hammerstein’s involvement with I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change actually came out of his own mentor/mentee relationship with director Joel Bishoff. He met Joel while teaching a course on Harold Pinter at Columbia University. After serving as Joel’s faculty advisor on his senior project, J ames hired him to work as his assistant director/choreographer on half a dozen shows.

 

One day, Joel asked James if he would like to come hear a new musical called Love Lemmings he was working on with playwright Joe Dipietro. Initially written as a series of vignettes about the trials and tribulations of the modern dating scene, Joel encouraged Joe to work with composer Jimmy Roberts to turn the series of sketches into a musical review. Although most industry insiders considered the review form about as dead as John Wilkes Booth, James Hammerstein saw potential in the play during the show’s first reading. He immediately recruited Bernie Kukoff and Jonathan Pollard to help him produce the new musical.   

 

Not an Overnight Sensation

 

After changing the show’s name from Love Lemmings to I Love, You, Your Perfect, Now Change, the show toured regional theatres outside of New York City for two years before the Westside Theatre finally agreed to rent them space. Unfortunately, it would take still another year financially limping along before word of mouth turned the show into a New York phenomenon.

 

Sadly, James would never get to enjoy the ribbon cutting ceremony that rechristened 43rd Street into I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change Way. On January 7, 1999, he suffered a massive heart attack after spending the evening celebrating the 100th performance of his other Off-Broadway producer credit Over the River and Through the Woods.

 

We can only guess what kind of celebration he would have thrown for a show that reached the 4,000 performance milestone.