Hammerstein Scion Weighs In on Sondheim, Scandal and the Burden of a Famed Name

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsIf it’s Wednesday, it must be Michael’s. The scene at 55th and Fifth was bustling with activity and the usual rising decibel level, which isn’t exactly a reporter’s best friend. With several tables today occupied by theater folk (Margo Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer), my lunch with Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein seemed particularly well-timed. We’d not met before, but when Judy Twersky, who knows everyone who has ever written a book and has been responsible for connecting me with some of this year’s most interesting ‘Lunch’ dates, including Charles Spencer and Bunny Ranch proprietor Dennis Hof, suggested we meet, I knew Andy and I would have plenty to talk about. I wasn’t disappointed. An aside here if I may: I bet you never thought you’d read a sentence that mentioned those two guys in the same breath. I never thought I’d write one, but it’s an illustrious example of how all roads lead to Michael’s.

Diane Clehane and Andy Hammerstein
Diane Clehane and Andy Hammerstein

I thought I’d be chatting with Andy, the grandson of Oscar Hammerstein (who loathes the ‘III’ tag) mainly about his book, The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family (Black Dog & Leventhal), but little did I know Andy has plenty of other irons in the fire. (More on all that later.) The book chronicles the rise of one of Broadway’s most creative families when Oscar Hammerstein emigrates to America in 1864 and establishes himself as a successful cigar merchant, before turning his attention to music and the theatre. Among his many accomplishments: turning Times Square (then Longacre Square) into the theatre capital of the world. His sons, Willie and Arthur, carry on the tradition and nurture such talents as Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, Houdini and Charlie Chaplin.

Willie’s son Oscar II became the most successful lyricist of all time, writing the story and words to countless Broadway shows including Oklahoma!, The King and I and The Sound of Music. Andy told me he never set out to write a book, “I was just researching the family.” But after 25 years of combing the family archives (“I just kept collecting more!”) and two years of writing, Andy produced a fascinating portrait of the Hammerstein legacy wrapped around a collection of photographs, theatre blueprints, letters and programs—some of which have never been seen before.

I was riveted by the account of Stephen Sondheim’s emotional connection to the family. It turns out the legendary composer had a heinous home life and became extremely close to Oscar II. When Stephen’s mother bought a house near the Hammerstein family home in Bucks County, P.A., she changed the course of musical theatre—and Stephen’s life. ‘Stevie’ didn’t endear himself to the Hammerstein kids because of his wicked temper. “He was horrible!” Andy told me, but he did grow close to Oscar (who taught him to play chess among other things) and became something of a surrogate son to him. Many years later, in 2010, Andy invited Stephen to speak to his class at Columbia, where Andy is an adjunct professor. When school got wind that an “exalted god” would be in their midst, the powers that be moved the talk from Andy’s classroom to a large auditorium. “He was very generous to me,” recalled Andy. “When he started to talk, he sounded a lot like my father and grandfather and I started to tear up. I told him, ‘You’re like family!'”

When I said it all sounds like the makings of a great mini-series or documentary, Andy told me he’s adapting the book for cable television. “I retained the dramatization rights to my family’s story,” said Andy, while polishing off the last bite of his Cobb salad, “which made my publishers very unhappy.”

Chances are he’ll do the same thing with his next book, Carefully Taught, which sounds like a page turner and, I think, has the makings of a hit on the big or small screen. (Paging Steven Spielberg!) Carefully Taught offers a fascinating look at the battle between FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Oscar Hammerstein, who, Andy told me, “was the biggest checkbook liberal of the 1950s.” His grandfather funded the defenses of many artists on the McCarthy-era blacklists and would frequently be seen out dining with the accused as a show of support. Subsequently, he was subject to wire taps and all kinds of surveillance. Andy is also writing a Broadway musical, Bone, adapted from Russell Banks’ novel, Rule of the Bone. “Table reads will begin in a few weeks.” Oh, and in his spare time, he told me he’d like to build an amphitheater in Black Rock City with his brother, Simon Hammerstein. “We go to Burning Man every year—I’d like to bring Shakespeare to the desert!”