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A CurtainUp Book Review
The Hammersteins

There's no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad show.— Oscar Hammerstein I, circa 1887, commenting on the falling attendance at his Olympia Theatre which were sending his fortunes zagging ever downward.

Give him a plush red curtain, and he'll build a theatre around it. — falling attendences didn't stop Hammerstein's passion for theatrical enterprise; to wit, this quote from son Arthur
The Hammersteins
Are you one of chronic worry warts, easily thrown into a funk by the latest report about the death of the printed book or live theater? Cheer up. Neither of these beloved invalids is quite ready hit the dust. To prove it there's Oscar Andrew Hammerstein's beautifully designed, lavishly illustrated and engagingly written The Hammersteins, a Musical Theatre Family. This isn't a mommy-daddy-granddaddy dearest family memoir but a genuine multi-generational history by an accomplished member of the present generation of Hammersteins. The handsome book's 226 pages are, packed to overflowing with interesting facts, illustrated with black/white and sepia photos; also scads of fascinating theatrical ephemera.

Much as I've become a devotee of reading digitizalized books and documents on my Kindle (faster, more concentrated and easier on the eyes), the pleasures of a book like The Hammersteins comes not only from the text but from its feast of visuals, especially as artfully arranged by the book's designer Elizabeth Driesbach. If this book were available in e-reader format, it would be like watching a musical from a seat with a mostly obstructed view and in section of the theater where the sound is either muffled or too harsh.

The prime audience for a book like this — musical theater enthuiasts and students — will be familiar with much of the information, especially once the chronologically organized text focuses on Oscar Hammerstein II, one of the modern theater's most prolific and influential lyricists. However, even the familiar material is fresh and interesting thanks to the way the author has astutely merged the personal with the public and the business side with the creative side of the Hammerstein saga. Within the broad context of a family odyssey spanning almost two centuries, it's all somehow more absorbing than ever. With the Hammerstin songs an integral part of the American musical songbook, the reader's enjoyment will be punctuated by having Oscar Hammerstein II's lyrics pop into the ear at the mere mention of a song title.

As promised by that elegant red curtain and top hat on the front cover, this is indeed a story about a family whose name and musical theater go together like ham and eggs, lettuce and tomatoes — and, yes, Rogers and Hammerstein. The entreprenarial derring-do of the first Oscar Hammerstein, who was an inventor as well as a real estate mogul and tireless champion of operas and operettas, makes this a business adventure story as well as a musical family memoir, a tribute to the ability to harness practical ingenuity and determination to creative dreams, even in the face of zigzagging fortunes.

The four Hammersteins we get to know best are Oscar Hammerstein I, his sons Willy and Arthur and lyricist Oscar II. Given the stylish writing and organization of this volume, the familial creative gene pulses strong whatever the endeavor.

With no skimping on illustrations and high quality paper, it seems a shame that there's no family tree either at the beginning or the end of the text. And while I'm quibbling, why suddenly save on space by printing the index in a hard-on-the-eyes index?

Many of Oscar Hammerstein II's most famous works were created at the Bucks County retreat, Highland Farm. which he and his wife Dorothy loved and where their many famous friends were always welcome. It was the view of the beautiful hills and dales that inspired "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." It was here too Oscar mentored a talented yougnster named Stephen Sondheim.

The Hammersteins are long gone from Highland Farms but the farm is prospering as a Bed and Breakfast. What fun it would be to pack up your troubles and read The Hammersteins in the place where so many memorable tunes first burst into bloom.

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