"The Wordsmiths: Oscar Hammerstein II and Alan Jay Lerner," by Stephen Citron. 422 pages. New York: Oxford University Press. $30
Between about 1915 and 1955, there was in the United States what is seen increasingly as a golden age of popular music, the best of it written for the New York stage. In its time, this work was often patronized for not being high art. But much of it was high art, and a series of books of recent years has taken its measure. More and more, the lyricists have been given their due, as in "The Poets of Tin Pan Alley," by Philip Furia, "Lorenz Hart," by Frederick Nolan, and "Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?" (a study of Yip Harburg by his son Ernie and Harold Meyerson), and others.
Stephen Citron in "The Wordsmiths" undertakes to study two Broadway lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner, in one book, a peculiar plan whose fragile premise is that both were capable of writing both books and lyrics. The book's chapters seesaw between Hammerstein and Lerner without establishing any significant connection between them.
The book's strength is Citron's analysis of the works of both men in relationship to that of the composers with whom they collaborated. Himself a lyricist and composer, he knows how a song works and brings insight into those he discusses. But most of it will pass over the heads of everyone but professionals. As a textbook for the graduate school of musical theater at the University of Nevada, this would be a valuable work.
The book has inaccuracies. Citron says, "Kalman, Romberg, Friml, and all the leading lights of operetta were of German
descent." Emerich Kalman and Sigmund Romberg were Hungarians, Friml was a Czech, and the one other "leading light" of operetta in America, Victor Herbert, was Irish.
Citron seems to have done little primary research. Much of this material is drawn from my 1990 biography of Lerner and Loewe, "Inventing Champagne." Without attribution, he quotes extensively from interviews I did with Burton Lane, four of Lerner's seven wives, and others. And then, in one of his few attributions, he is wrong. He writes that Lerner's last wife, Liz Robertson, "told Gene Lees, 'I wasn't going out with anybody . . .'" I have never met or spoken to Liz Robertson in my life.
Citron's judgments are generally sound, and he does not gloss over the failures of his subjects. Hammerstein and Lerner wrote some monumental flops, and although Lerner and Loewe's "Paint Your Wagon" was a success, it was a bad musical that was turned by Lerner, who produced it, into a worse movie.
Like Meyerson and Harburg, Citron extensively recounts and analyzes the plots of several of his subjects' musicals. This makes for yawnsome reading. And he quotes countless lyrics. Lyrics rarely read well. They're meant to be heard in the context of music.
This book is for the specialist and the hardier devotee of musical theater.
* Gene Lees is a lyricist and author of 11 books on music, including "Cats of Any Color" and "The Modern Rhyming Dictionary: How to Write Lyrics." His latest is "Leader of the Band," a biography of Woody Herman, due out late this year.