The following is written by Barry Friedman and Ken Rogerson.
On October 14, 1941, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II sat on matching mustard-colored wool upholstered Adrian Pearsall high-back lounge chairs, inside the offices of the Sidney Rabinowitz Literary and Talent Agency, 854 Seventh Avenue, three floors up from Carnegie Deli.
They could smell corned beef.
“Look at this,” Rodgers said, picking up the February 3, 1941 issue of Life magazine from the attached end table, pushing it towards Hammerstein.
“Why are you waving a magazine in my face?”
“Goebbels, Goering,” he said, tapping the cover. “These two get more press than Gable. Guaranteed, Oscar, they’ll have a show about them someday—comedy, musical, something—within ten years, mark my word.”
“About Nazis? You’re crazy. Who’d watch?”
“You’d be surprised,” Rodgers said, tossing the magazine back to the table. “Here,” reaching into his coat pocked, “have a root beer barrel.”
“I don’t want a root beer barrel.”
“Why do you keep offering me hard candy everywhere we go?”
“Because it’ll keep your mouth moist.”
“I don’t want my mouth moist. How old are those things, anyway?”
“What difference does it make? You never take one.”
“I don’t like root beer barrels, I keep telling you.”
“Fine,” said Rodgers, putting it back in his pocket. “Sit with a dry mouth in the meeting. I care?”
Shirley Pitshetsh, wearing both a scowl and a Shirl P necklace, sat at the reception desk, typing, a Chesterfield dangling from her mouth. A Ben Shahn drawing—a print of Immigrants, NYC, 1937–38—was on the wall behind her. To her right, on the door, under the nameplate “S Rabinowitz” was a yellow legal sheet with the words, “Why make things easy when with a little work you can make them difficult?”; to her left, on the door, under another nameplate “S Rabinowitz” was a white legal sheet with the words: “I’m spending the kids’ inheritance now.” On the walls throughout the office were framed Playbills: “THE OTHER BOROUGHS” … “SACCO & VANZETTI: THE MUSICAL” … “ENCHANTING ECUADOR” … “THE WOMEN OF PHILLY” … “HELLO, HITLER!” … “BORSCHT BELT REVIEW” … “HECKSAPOPPIN!”
“Are we sure about these guys?” Rodgers asked, getting up and pacing the floor, eying the Playbills.
Hammerstein put his foot on the edge of the coffee table between the two chairs, took out a handkerchief, and began wiping a smudge off his shoe.
“You worry too much.”
“Tsk! Tsk!” said Pitshetsh, snapping her fingers, pointing to Hammerstein. “Off!”
“Besides, we’re not in demand right now,” he said, looking at Rodgers but smiling at Pitshetsh, removing the offending foot. “My cousin swears by them.”
Rodgers looked back at Hammerstein. “Your cousin is a mime! And these guys gave him good advice?”
“What’d they tell him?”
“They told a mime to talk?”
“Just in the second act. What can I tell you? He makes a living. Not the world, but he works.”
“Look at these shows, Oscar. None of them lasted a month.”
Rodgers took his glasses from his inside coat pocket, looped the wire rims over both ears, and leaned close.
“Listen to this. The Times said, ‘Whoever was responsible for Hello, Hitler! should be made to take a written exam before being allowed back in civilization. How this show got produced is a mystery not just for theatrical aficionados, but for mankind itself.’ Why would anyone frame a review like that?”
“There’s no such thing as bad press,” said Hammerstein, “that’s why.”
“There is now,” said Rodgers, still reading. “This is the worst production ever mounted in the history of the Great White Way. Had he seen it, George M. Cohan would have opened a vein and rued the day he didn’t become a plumber instead of a showman.’ ”
“Such material?” asked Hammerstein, fidgeting.
“What?” said Rodgers, returning to his chair. “I’m chafing—”
“Oh, stop complaining. And don’t make a scene today.”
“Ah … ‘make a scene.’ Clever. Write that down. We can use it.”
“Look at those shows, Oscar, seriously,”
Rodgers said, pointing to the posters.
“So they’ve had a few misses.”
“A few misses?” Rodgers cried. “Archbishop Ferdinand wishes these guys had been shooting at him—”
“Shhh!” said Pitshetsh, without looking up from her matte-finished Remington Noiseless No. 7, as she inserted a new sheet into the spool.
“What happens to you in life, do you think, makes you that miserable?” said Hammerstein, almost whispering.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
“Listen, Dick, if you think about it, these two guys—the brothers Rabinowitz—the two of us, there’s something poetic here, I’m telling you. We got four Jews talking about Oklahoma. This is America.”
“That’s my fear, Oscar. The Jews think we’re Goyim and the Okies think we’re Christ-killers.”
“Just do me a favor, let ME do the talking in there, okay? Nobody’s ever tried a show like this—the story, the narrative—so let me explain it. I’m the word guy.”
“And what, cause I’m the composer, I can’t talk? Listen, Oscar, I brought you into this business—”
“Brought me into this business?” asked Hammerstein. “I got one word for you, my friend—Showboat. Need I say more? And, besides—”
“SHHH!” yelled Pitshetsh.
“And, besides,” said Oscar, whispering, “I’m the one who saved you from that lush, the Italian—”
“Lorenzo Hart,” Rodgers interrupted, “why won’t you say his name? HART, HART, HART,” he said, increasing his volume. “Say it!”
“Ah, don’t talk to me. But let me just say this to you: If not for me, you’re writing jingles for Bismarck Herring, you’re—”
The “I’m spending the kids’ inheritance now” door opened with a jolt. Rodgers and Hammerstein could hear the banging of hands against a table, papers shuffling, voices overlapping … “You call that dancing?” “It’s a visual medium!” “Why does there have to be the clickety-clack ALL the time? I’m getting a migraine!” “I’m leaving!” “Don’t forget your shoes with the noisemakers on them.” “It’s called ‘tap’!” “Tap, schmap!”
A man walked out, holding sheet music, his jacket. Handsome, nattily dressed, he nodded to both Rodgers and Hammerstein and left the office in a flourish, the door closing behind him.
“That couldn’t be,” whispered Rodgers to Hammerstein, “could it?”
“Somebody who looks like him, surely.”
The intercom buzzed.
“Gentlemen,” said Pitshetsh, putting down the phone, “the Sids will see you now. The boardroom is right through …” She pointed over both shoulders. “There. You can go through either office.”
“Excuse me, uh, Miss Pitshetsh,” asked Hammerstein, walking towards her. “Who was that who just left?”
“Uh, let me check. That’s uh … uh,” she said, moving folders to get to her calendar. “Fred something … Astop, Azure, Astaire, Aston. Who can tell one dancer from another?”
The “boardroom” at the Sidney Rabinowitz Literary and Talent Agency was the kitchen. A box of Entenmann’s Chocolate Donuts, a bag of Chock full o’Nuts, coffee, a jar of olives, capers, three packages of JESTS antacids, and two cups, both marked Sid, were on the counter. On top of the refrigerator was a half-eaten bundt cake. As Rodgers and Hammerstein walked in, they had to step over the phone cord that stretched across the floor that led to the Formica table, where the two Rabinowitz Brothers, both bald, sat.
“Morning, morning,” the Rabinowitzes said in unison, both with napkins tucked inside their shirt collars, not getting up—a platter of bagels, bialys, cream cheese, capers, herring, lox, and assorted pastries on the table in front of them. The Oklahoma! script, protruding out of a manila envelope, was under a package of Nova Scotia lox and assorted bottles of Dr. Brown’s Soda. The envelope had five neat coffee ring stains on it, purposefully arranged to look like the Olympic logo.
“Oklahoma, v’ere da vind comes schveeping down da plain … OY!” the two Rabinowitz Brothers sang in over-emphasized Jewish accents. “Welcome. Huh, get it?” asked one of the Sids.
They all shook hands.
“Funny,” said Rodgers, forcing a smile.
“Hungry?” asked the other Sid.
“No,” said Rodgers.
“I could eat,” said Hammerstein, but seeing Rodgers roll his eyes, added, “Maybe not.”
As they sat on the two vinyl aluminum chairs opposite the two Sids, Rodgers whispered, “They both look like Bert Lahr.”
Hammerstein kicked him under the table; Rodgers heard his seat make a hissing sound when he shifted his weight as if he was passing gas—the vinyl was cracked.
“You sure, boys? The gravlax, to die for,” said one of the Sids. “Piece of rugelach?”
“We’re good,” said Rodgers. “Excuse me, but—”
“We know,” said one of the Rabinowitz Brothers. “I’m Sidney— you can call me Sid—I’m the older brother. This nebbishy-looking thing over there with the sturgeon in his mouth,” pointing with his bagel, “is my brother, also named Sidney, but you can also call him Sid.”
“Same name?” asked Rodgers.
“Yes, long story. We come from a long line of Sids. Our father, his father, his father’s father—all Sids. There are Roman numerals, but who can remember? I think I’m seven, he’s eight.”
“Really? All Sids?” asked Hammerstein.
“Well, there’s an Uncle Seymour somewhere, back in the old country, Poland, but we don’t talk like to talk about him. Black sheep. He’s got problems.”
“So what did you think of the script?” asked Rodgers, impatiently.
“Boys, boys, such a rush,” said the Sid who appeared to be the younger one, a dollop of cream cheese on his chin.
Sid, the elder looking one, ran his finger over the exact spot on his own chin to alert his younger brother of the offending infraction. In trying to remove it, Sid, the younger, inadvertently smeared it down the side of his face.
“Better?” he asked his older brother.
“Perfect,” said Sid, the elder.
“Okay, now, the play, Mr. Hammerstein?” Sid, the younger, said, pointing to Rodgers.
“I’m Rodgers,” Rodgers said.
“Your little pyesseh here, your little show, is cute, very cute, but I’m wondering … Oklahoma? I know it’s your first show together, and you worked with that Hart fellow before—a delightful man, I’m not afraid to tell you. Anyway, so you pick a state—none of my business—but it’s too far away. Oklahoma? It’s like near Utah, right, or Canada? They got Indians, there, yes?”
“Yes,” said Hammerstein.
“Well, you don’t have enough Indians in the play, which we need, but we can talk about that later.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein exchanged glances.
“What my younger brother is trying to say,” Sid, the elder, said, “is perhaps you could write about a state closer.”
“Exactly,” said Sid, the younger, “like Jersey or Pennsylvania. Connecticut even would be good. But Oklahoma … too far, different time zone, too, yes?”
“The play is a metaphor,” said Hammerstein, “a—”
“Metaphors don’t put asses in the seats, my friend,” said Sid, the elder, pointing his index finger to the seats they were all sitting in.
“Oklahoma,” said Hammerstein, “is a representation for the burgeoning west, the spirit of expansion. It’s the beginning of a state, a nation, really, into a new century. Remember, this is 1906—old ways of life ending, new ones beginning. There are issues of class and wealth, conflicts of farmers and cowboys and identity. It’s about love; it’s about nothing short of the American Dream.”
“Fine, whatever,” said Sid, the younger, dismissing the statement with a wave. “The point is, you have an entire show based on who is going to take—what’s her name—Leslie—”
“Laurie,” said Rodgers.
“Laurie … to the dance—Curly or Jed.”
“Jed, Judd, whatever. I mean who cares who takes who to a dance? Where’s the story in that? ‘I’ll go with you. No, wait, I’ll go with you!’ Play’s over, see what I mean, as soon as they get there and start dancing? And Curly, the name, I don’t know. We represented a Curly once, worked with these two idiots, Mo and somebody else. They’re going nowhere, so we dropped them, but the point is the name—CURLY—sounds like a fagala. Can you change it?”
“Can we change—”
“Oh, and before I forget,” interrupted Sid, the elder, “and I’m sorry for interrupting but … uh, let me find it, let me find it, let me find it …” he said, pulling the script from the envelope. He flipped through its pages. “It’s here somewhere … Here, here, here,” he said, folding back the script and pushing it towards Hammerstein. “Poor Judd is dead,” he said, tapping it repeatedly.
“What is the problem?” asked Rodgers.
“No good. Nobody dies in this show! We could have kids coming, so there’s no stabbing, no death. I don’t want tears. Maybe Judd is sick and just can’t go to the dance because of—”
“Allergies?” offered Sid, the younger.
“Allergies?” asked Hammerstein, his voice rising.
“Yes, allergies. It’s Oklahoma, it’s dry. He could be suffering from allergies.”
“I know,” said the Sid, the elder. “Instead of that, what if he gets hurt during one of those cow riding competitions?”
“Cow riding?” chucked the Sid, the younger. “It’s bull riding. Nobody rides a cow.”
“What, am I a cowboy now? Look, you like allergies, go with allergies. I’m not going to get emotionally involved—just nobody dies. I need death in this show, nu? Oh, oh, almost forgot. Let’s have the wind ‘blowing’ down the plains instead of ‘sweeping.’ Sweeping sounds pretentious.”
“Frankly—I’m sorry, but again, which one are you?” Sid, the elder, asked Hammerstein.
“I’m Oscar Hammerstein.”
“I’m a blunt man, so I will just ask, Mr. Hammerstein: How much research did you do on this show, or did you just pull it down from, you know, luft … air, because it doesn’t all ring true.”
“Hold on a minute!” said Rodgers, banging both hands on the table. “You dare to question the integrity of an award-winning composer and lyricist?”
“Don’t be such a prietzteh,” said Sid, the elder. “What … you’re such big shots, you can’t take a little criticism, you won’t consider some changes to your precious tome? You, Hammerstein, you can’t get arrested. And you, Rodgers, you drove that poor Hart to drink with the way you worked. I’m just saying not everything here,” he said, tapping the script, “makes sense.”
“Fine,” said Rodgers. “Like what?”
“My brother has a list.”
“A list?” asked Hammerstein.
“Indeed,” Sid, the younger, said, picking up the envelope that held the script, reaching inside, and pulling out a wax paper rye bread bag adorned with logo, phone, and address of Light’s Bake Shop. Rodgers noticed rye bread seeds falling out of the bag.
“Okay, number one,” Sid, the younger said, reading from the back of the bag, “the first song.”
“What about the first song?” asked Rodgers.
“What about the chorus?” asked Hammerstein.
“Okay, ‘Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, ’ ” Sid, the elder, sang, “no problem. But ‘I’ve got a wonderful feeling, Everything’s going my way’? You give away the ending. We need suspense. How about, ‘I hope, I hope, things will turn out my way … butttttttttt who’s to say?’ ”
Hammerstein started to respond—
“And the line,” Sid, the younger, continued, “about the ‘little brown mav’rick winking her eye’—it’s creepy.”
“Central Park at night creepy,” said the Sid, the elder, grabbing his chest.
“And the whole song about the fringe—”
“The surrey with the fringe on top, yes?” asked Hammerstein.
“New York audiences are not going to know from surreys or fringes—taxis they know. I think we put a taxi in the show. Trust us, nobody in New York is going to know that Oklahoma doesn’t have them. If not a taxi, you know what would be good? A jitney. And maybe—hey, I just thought of this—we’ll sell ad space on the cab, jitney whatever we decide.”
“Brilliant,” said Sid, the younger, punctuating the air with a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-ray soda.
“It’s 1906!” said Rodgers, “there WERE no taxis in Oklahoma.”
“You never heard of suspending disbelief?” asked Sid, the elder. “You’ve got elephants in corn fields. Your whole play is meshuga and you’re giving me textual accuracy? Who lets corn grow so high to begin with? Who measures, who says to the elephant, ‘C’mere. I want to see how tall the corn is. Stand still?’ And another thing, it’s from Green Grow the Lilacs, yes?”
“Yes,” said Rodgers.
“Who’s Lynn Riggs? Such names—Curly, Lynn.”
“They’re male names,” said Hammerstein.
“Who names a boy Lynn, who names a boy Curly?
Must be the heat down there,” said Sid, the younger. “You couldn’t give these guys names like Doug or Carl or Sheldon?”
“There’s no elephant, first of all,” said Hammerstein, interrupting, “it’s—”
“I know, I know,” Sid, the elder, said, dismissing him with a wave, “it’s a metaphor,” he added with an over-the-top theatrical voice.
“To continue,” said Sid, the younger. “The subplot with Will Parker? His girlfriend, this Ado Annie person, she spreads her legs for anyone with a horse and a hat and he still wants to marry her? She just ‘cain’t say no’? She’s a whore and, again, this is a family show; so I don’t need sluts in my show! The broad comes back after sleeping with half of Kansas City and he says nothing? What kind of yutz does that? Anyway, in 1941, we got a war going on. I want strong men. This Will is a Shmendrik.”
“Now,” said Sid, the elder, “I, personally, have a problem in that you have no football in your show.”
“Football?” Hammerstein and Rodgers asked simultaneously.
“Yes, stay with me,” said Sid, the elder. “People think Oklahoma, they think two things: dust and football. Dust you got, but football. Ah ha! Now, I did some checking. The team won seven games in 1905.”
“So what’s your point?” asked Hammerstein.
“You have nothing in here about that—even today, it’s a good team, yes? And yet,” said Sid, the younger, taking the conversation over from his older brother, tossing the script on the desk, “you have bupkis about it.”
“We are NOT writing about football,” Rodgers said, slamming the table, looking at Hammerstein. “That’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
“A voice he has,” says Sid, the elder. “Listen to me: people like sports as much as they like fringes with surreys or surreys with fringes. More, actually, Mr. Bigshot composer. And I think they would adore a little music number in, say, a locker room with strapping men in shorts and towels who are singing.”
“No football!” Hammerstein repeated, nodding his head in Rodger’s direction.
“Okay, let’s do this,” said Sid, the younger, motioning everyone to relax, “football practice. We compromise. Curly—or whatever we decide to call him—at the beginning of the show is going to try out for the team. And that’s where he notices the height of the corn and the animals who are squinting at the sun—or whatever they’re doing. He’s on his way to practice. And you can even have your elephant, too. When he makes the team, he meets Lyla—”
“Laurie” says, Hammerstein, correcting him—
“Who—I don’t know—is a …” said Sid, the younger, looking to his brother for help.
“Cheerleader,” said Sid, the elder.
“Yes! And Jed is on the team, too. Could you write that?”
“Judd!” said Rodgers.
“No, no, no, no, no!” said Hammerstein.
“No!” said Rodgers, slamming the table, knocking a bialy off the tray. “No football, no jitney, no men in shorts. NO! In fact, no to all of this. This meeting is over!”
“Over!” Hammerstein said, getting up.
“Whoa, whoa, what’d we say?” asked Sid, the younger.
“Don’t go ’way mad. Okay, no jitney,” said Sid, the elder, watching Rodgers and Hammerstein stand up. “We’ll compromise. Where you running?”
“How do you two stay in business? How did you two get IN to business?” Rodgers asked. “You’re morons!”
“Morons, you say,” Sid, the elder, said, slamming the table. “My grandfather, the first Sid, was in the business before your Oklahoma was even a state, when the Indians were running around with bows and arrows and squaws and teepees. He represented Ruggero Leoncavallo in America, I’ll have you know, so don’t tell me about business sechel. You know the name, Leoncavallo?”
“Yes, of course,” said Rodgers. “He wrote Pagliacci. Your grandfather represented him?”
“Before the split.”
“Yes, when Leoncavallo came to this country with the opera and my grandfather, may he rest in peace, told Ruggero—he called him Reggie—for it to be a hit, for it to have legs, to get rid of the clown.”
“Get rid of the clown?” asked Hammerstein. “He didn’t like Pagliacci? Is your whole family mad?”
“And how many flops have you written in a row, Mr. Hammerstein?” asked Sid, the elder. “Seven, eight? And we didn’t write a show with the best song at the beginning and another one that makes people have to spell—O-K-L-A … and then ends with ‘OK’— not great, not excellent, but just ‘OK’! We didn’t do that. These two want to make a musical out of fakakta Oklahoma and we’re the crazy ones?”
“We’ve been in this business almost thirty years,” said Sid, the younger, “and we know a hit when we see one, and this one, Mr. Rodgers,” he said pointing to Hammerstein.
“Hammerstein!” screamed Hammerstein
“Hammerstein … is not it. What, what, what … you think Hollywood will come one day after you win a Tony for this dreck and they’ll make a movie of this someday and they’ll cast … uh, Shirley Temple—”
“Yes,” said Sid, the elder, “and maybe Will Rogers. And then you’ll get Pulitzers. You’re dreaming. You walk out of here and you’re finished in this business. Finished! You think you’re the only two we ever advised? Before they came to us, Fatty Arbuckle was thin, Mae West was a prude, Jolson performed in white face. But you two don’t need our help? Fine, but you walk out, my two landsmen, you’ll be lucky if you can get a job working the lounge on the SS America.”
“Gentlemen,” said Hammerstein, “we are leaving. And we will leave with our dignity in tact; you will stay with cream cheese on your chin.”
Sid Rabinowitz, the elder, rose, his napkin still attached.
“You’ll be back!”
“A fire on both of you,” said Sid Rabinowitz, the younger, also standing.
As Rodgers and Hammerstein made their way out of the board room, Shirley Pitshetsh had her Remington turned upside down. Her smoke-stained fingers had a red and black ribbon wrapped around them.
“Excuse me, Mr. Hammerstein,” she said, as he walked past her towards the door, “you’re the writer, yes?”
“Yes, Miss Pitshetsh, I am,” he said, looking at Rogers, smiling. “You know my work?” he asked, coming towards her.
“Yes, yes, wonderful. I love the one with the crippled Schvartze in the cart.”
“Crippled …” Hammerstein asked himself. “Oh, no, no, no, you mean Porgy and Bess.”
“Uh, no, Miss Pitshetsh, I didn’t write that one. That was the Gershwin Brothers.”
“I knew it. They sound like Jews,” said Pitshetsh, smiling. “I like that one. Shame you didn’t write that.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Ah, I’m sure you write good, too. Listen, anyway, as a writer, do you know how to change one of these things?” she asked, pointing to the ribbon.
“Watch the steps,” Rodgers said, as they walked down the three flights. “They’re steep.”
“By the way, you want a root beer barrel?”
“Oh, for the love of God,” said Hammerstein, taking one, unwrapping it, and putting it in his mouth. “You happy?”
“It’ll keep your mouth moist.”
“So, now, what do we do about the show?” Hammerstein asked, looking back at his partner.
“We need a dream sequence, a ballet in Act One.”
“Yeah, sure and let’s get Agnes DeMille to choreograph it and infuse it with sexual tension and annoy the Baptists while we’re at it. Face it, Dick, we got no legs, no jokes, no chance with this one,” he said, as he opened the glass door and stepped outside.
The city was palpitating.
“Look at that, Oscar. Listen!” Rodgers said, grabbing his partner’s arm, looking down Seventh Avenue towards the theatre district. “Is that beautiful or what?”
“Heaven,” exclaimed Hammerstein.
“You hungry?” Rogers asked, still smelling the corned beef from the deli.
“I could eat.”