Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, and Helen Morgan in the 1936 film version of Show Boat
Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, and Helen Morgan in the 1936 film version of Show Boat

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The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II
Edited by Amy AschKnopf, 422 pp., $65

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To say he was earnest does not mean that he lacked the craft, wit, or subtlety of his colleagues. No rural simpleton envisioned South Pacific's "moon-happy night/Pouring light on the dew." In The Complete Lyrics, you can glimpse Hammerstein's saucy verbal playfulness ("When We Get Our Divorce" from 1925's Sunny) or his Cole Porter–ish melancholy ("In the Heart of the Dark" from Very Warm for May, 1939). Once teamed with Rodgers, he can even make his formerly wince-causing use of dialect carry a satiric sting, as in The King and I's "Western People Funny": "They think they civilize us/Whenever they advise us/To learn to make/The same mistake/That they are making too." Focusing on feelings, Hammerstein found ideas that even people unimaginably remote from Broadway's sensibility could share.

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