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In Hammerstein's Words, 'Something Wonderful'

Show Boat, Carousel, Oklahoma! and The King and I — they aren't just entertaining shows, they're musicals with substance. And the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II are one big reason why.

Editor Amy Asch has spent the past seven years poking around archives and libraries, poring through boxes of sheet music, and leafing through scripts to come up with the definitive collection of Hammerstein's lyrics: a new coffee-table book that covers the master's career from his first college lyric to his last song — "Edelweiss," from The Sound of Music.

There are 850 song lyrics in The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. And get this:

"When I counted them up," Asch says, "it seemed as if about a quarter had never been published before."

Among the just-discovered treasures in this new trove are lyrics written for — but never used — in classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

"They wrote more than they needed," Asch says. "They would write something and then realize a more effective way to do that moment. So, they'd write a new song for that character and that occasion."

'Suddenly Lovely' And Other Expressions Of Passion

Take the moment when South Pacific's Lt. Cable rhapsodizes about Liat, the island girl he'd just had sex with for the first time. It took Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers several attempts to come up with a satisfactory song. Their first try was called "My Friend," and it went like this:

Joshua Logan, South Pacific's director and co-author, wrote in his memoirs that when he heard the song, "I was so let down that I blurted out my first feelings. 'That's awful! That's the worst song I ever heard! Good god, that's terrible!' They looked at me in shock; no one had ever spoken to them like that before, I'm sure."

And so, Asch explains, Broadway's most celebrated songwriting partnership made a second attempt using another melody.

That song, called "Suddenly Lovely," didn't work, either — at least not in South Pacific. The problem? It didn't exactly capture the dramatic moment.

"It's kind of a chipper melody," Asch explains. "It's not passionate, I don't think. It's happy, it's bouncy, but it's maybe not what a man says to the girl that he just made love to.

Still, Hammerstein went back to the drawing board and wrote a completely new lyric to the same tune — returning with a ditty he called "Suddenly Lucky."

It's a better lyric, sure. But is it appropriate for a Marine, after having made love to a young girl, to sing a song called "Suddenly Lucky?"

"I don't know how that would have gone over in 1949," Asch says. "It is ... unintentionally amusing to us, for sure."

With time running out before the out-of-town tryout, Rodgers remembered an unused tune one of his daughters had loved, and Hammerstein wrote a lyric to it.

"They needed to nail that song," Asch says, "and in the last burst of inspiration, they wrote together the beautiful 'Younger Than Springtime.' "

From 'Lovely' To Bright And Breezy, Without Missing A Beat

So what about "Suddenly Lovely" — or "Suddenly Lucky," or whatever it became?

Well, a couple of years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein were in New Haven, Conn., previewing a new show called The King and I, when they realized that Anna, the heroine, needed to sing a song to her young students in the first act.

And one of the stars of South Pacific came to Rodgers and Hammerstein's rescue, says Asch.

"Mary Martin said to them, 'You remember that little dance, that little music we used for a warm-up in South Pacific? You just did it for rehearsals. That would be a great tune."

And so "Suddenly Lovely," which had already turned into "Suddenly Lucky," turned into "Getting to Know You" — one of the signature tunes of The King and I.

If getting to know Oscar Hammerstein better strikes you as a lovely thing, there are many more stories like that one in The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.