“Baby, it’s cold outside!” At least it is, here in Montclair. But that didn’t stop the music yesterday night! As a treat, my wonderful husband David, who knows I’m a huge Oscar Hammerstein fan, planned an excellent adventure for us: We found our way via car and light rail to an enchanting evening of Rodgers & Hammerstein music. What a joy! As a huge bonus, the songs were punctuated by insights on the storied writing team from journalist Todd S. Purdum. A lifelong musical theater enthusiast, Todd’s just penned, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution. A few writing tidbits to guide and inspire us all:
Oscar and Rodger had a complex, even distant, relationship as writing partners. They often met together to outline a story and plot it out, but they rarely actually created together. Each created in his own favored work space and at his own pace.
Oscar wrote painfully slowly, but he was incredibly disciplined and kept at it doggedly. It often took him weeks to fashion the lyrics to a single song. He’d begin with a theme and then build words around it, rejecting and replacing them. “Happy Talk” from South Pacific, an airy bubble of a song, started out with the word “gravy” in it. Even fabulous writers have lame first drafts!
Richard was known for working with lightning speed. Once Oscar gave him lyrics, he sat down at his piano and the notes flowed, but he felt his speed was deceptive and had strong views on creativity. He believed inspiration didn’t strike instantly: When you experience something beautiful, a sunset or a bird’s song, you store it away – you absorb it and combine it with other experiences and when they reach a melting point , an idea or theme suddenly hits you.
One example: He was admired for having dashed off the haunting melody to “Bali Hai” from South Pacific at lunch one day. But Richard later said that he’d actually been turning it over in his head for months before the moment when everything came together.
Oscar had a string of flops to his credit. Although he and Richard penned many glorious shows together: South Pacific, Carousel, and Oklahoma! to name a few, Oscar joined the super-productive partnership at a time when his writing career was on the downswing.
A few takeaways: Even wonderful writers struggle, resist, and recover – so keep going! Beautiful creations often start out flatfooted: It takes hard, grinding hours of effort to make them soar. Inspiration may strike in a flash, but it’s the product of a slow burn. And everyone’s writing process is different: it doesn’t matter how you work but how long you’re willing to work.
Bravo, Oscar and Richard. Bravo, David! Inspired and emboldened, let’s all write on!