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Author Susan Loesser

Loesser, daughter of composer Frank Loesser, takes us behind the scenes during the golden age of the Broadway musical. Her father wrote the score for Guys and Dolls as well as the classic songs "Heart and Soul" and "Baby It's Cold Outside." Loesser's 1993 memoir of her father is "A Most Happy Fella."

14:38

Other segments from the episode on December 29, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 29, 2003: Interview with Jamie Hammerstein; Interview with Susan Loesser; Interview with Jim McHugh III.

Transcript

DATE December 29, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Jamie Hammerstein discusses his career and the career
of his father, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein
TERRY GROSS, host:

On this edition of our series, Songs from Hollywood and Broadway, we're
featuring interviews with family members of great songwriters. We're
listening to the overture from the Hal Prince revival of "Show Boat,"
one of the classic musicals with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. He collaborated
with composer Richard Rodgers on "Oklahoma!" "Carousel," "The King and I,"
and "The Sound of Music." In 1995, I talked about Hammerstein with his son
Jamie, who had just co-directed a revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein show
"State Fair." Jamie died of a heart attack four years later. He was 67. He
had directed many revivals of his father's musicals and handled the
Hammerstein estate. When we spoke, I asked him a very hypothetical question:
Say I was mounting a revival of "Oklahoma!" what would I need to get from
Jamie Hammerstein and the estate before starting my production?

Mr. JAMIE HAMMERSTEIN (Broadway Producer/Director): Total permission, and we
will put artistic strings on things so that would have final decision as to
who your director would be, who the major stars would be, if there are any,
and hopefully there wouldn't for "Oklahoma!" 'cause they're about young people
there. If you get stars, it's usually wrong. And we would have a casting
approval, director approval, lighting designer approval and we would use them.

GROSS: Now would I resent you for exercising this control over my production?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Well, it would tend--yeah, that could be. That could be.
A lot of people resent and they say we didn't allow the show to come in. And
really, the truth was, we really never gave them permission. They just hoped
we would give it to them later. And very often we don't sit over somebody's
shoulder. It depends on who it is. Nick Hytner is a director that I've
admired for a long time.

GROSS: When he did "Carousel" last year.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yeah. When he came with "Carousel," I said, `Whoop, we
don't have to watch over this guy. This guy is going to do what he wants and
we're going to let him do it and we're going to back him to the hilt because
that's the best way to protect ourselves is to back them to the hilt.' It
varies. We're in the theater. Mary Rodgers and myself have been in the
theater since we were children. It isn't as if we're not aware of what
artistic freedom means and how necessary that is to the people doing it.

GROSS: Mary Rodgers is Richard Rodgers' daughter?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yes.

GROSS: Your family really has quite a theater legacy. I mean, your father,
of course, was Oscar Hammerstein, the lyricist. Your grandfather was in
vaudeville?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yeah, he was a vaudeville producer. My great-uncle was an
operetta producer, and my great grandfather was Oscar I, who was an opera
impresario among other things; a real estate developer and vaudeville himself,
and an inventor.

GROSS: So theater was the family business when you were growing up.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yes, but you'd never know it. You'd never know it. It was
not what people imagine with Judy Garland running in with a tennis racquet. I
mean, it just wasn't--it seemed like--well, you know, it was the only life I
had as a kid, so it seemed perfectly normal to me. And my father wrote in his
study and for many hours every day, and he'd come out having, I'm sure,
sweated bullets all day. And he would come out and go, `Well, who's winning
the baseball game?' or, `You want a game of tennis?' or--you know, and you'd
never guess he'd been working for eight hours trying to find a rhyme for
`surrey,' you know.

GROSS: Well, did he walk around the house going, `Surrey, scurry. Surrey,
scurry'?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: No. He locked himself in or he walked in--down the--we had
a long yard where he would also pace, and he also for one of his--mother built
him a walk-around porch from his study so that in nice weather or even
reasonable weather he could take a walk by opening his study door. He always
worked walking and he was inaudible. I know he worked terribly hard, and I
know he was a perfectionist. There's no doubt in my mind about those things.
But he also could turn it off like a light and come out as one of the more
normal people you've ever met.

GROSS: Hmm. I guess that's unusual in theater, being that normal.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: It's unusual with a writer, I think. It's unreason--yeah, I
I think it's--yeah, I think it's almost supernatural myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The late Jamie Hammerstein, recorded in 1995.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "I Can't Give You Anything but
Love" and "I'm In the Mood for Love" are just some of the songs written by
Jimmy McHugh. Coming up, we talk about his life and music with his grandson,
Jim McHugh III. And more of our interview with Jamie Hammerstein, the late
son of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this edition, as part of our holiday series Songs from Hollywood and
Broadway, we're featuring interviews with family members of great songwriters.
Let's get back to our interview with the late Jamie Hammerstein, the son of
lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Our interview was recorded in 1995, four years
before Jamie died of a heart attack at the age of 67. He had directed
revivals of several of his father's shows and handled the estate.

(Soundbite of interview)

How old were you when your father became partners with Richard Rodgers?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: I was about 11.

GROSS: So what do you know about the story of how he started to work with
Richard Rodgers?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Well, Dick was approached by the Theater Guild to make a
musical out of "Green Grow the Lilacs." And he went to Larry Hart, and Larry
Hart said, `I'm not interested.' And Dick still thought he could persuade
Larry and went to Dad just in case and said, `If Larry quits on me in the
middle of this, will you save me?' And my father said, `If Larry doesn't want
to do it or quits, I will not only do it, but I'll let Larry's name stay on it
if you like. You know, I'll just sit in the back and do the work.' And then
Larry actually insisted that he didn't want to do it, and so Dick went back to
Dad and said, `No, this is yours.' And that's how it happened.

GROSS: It's always been so interesting to me and probably everybody else who
listens to musicals how different your father's lyrics were than Larry Hart's
lyrics.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Yeah, but I think the really interesting part about it is
how different Dick's music was.

GROSS: Yeah, right. Now, what do you perceive of how his music changed when
your father became a lyricist?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Well, you see, they're totally different people. I mean,
my goodness, I mean, Larry Hart and my father were night and day in the way
they looked at life. My father was an optimist. My father believed optimism
was the only useful thing to be, that pessimism was just a waste of time,
basically. And my father was not into writing song songs; my father was a
dramatist who was also a lyricist. And Dick is a dramatist who's also a
composer. And I think Dad gave Dick the chance to be a musical dramatist. I
think Larry wrote songs, and my father wrote characters and plot and
everything else in his songs. And I think that that changed Dick. Dick's a
pretty smart cookie, you know? I don't think it surprised him. I think he
knew what he was in for right off the bat.

GROSS: What did your father think of Larry Hart's lyrics?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Oh, he loved most of them. I mean, I think Larry Hart--see,
my father never had a great facility for strange and wonderful rhymes. Larry
Hart did. So it's like there's no competition involved; my father could never
write like Larry Hart. I don't think Larry Hart could ever write like my
father, no matter how hard either one of them tried. They couldn't do it.
And my father, not being a fancy rhymer, just wrote very honestly and very
easy-to-sing lyrics. But I think he spent his time saying exactly what he
wanted to say dramatically in what I think is the most difficult dramatic form
you can write in, which is lyrics. You have to make things come out
metrically. You've got to have rhymes, the right kind of rhymes, not too many
of them if it's a serious song. If it's a light song, maybe triple rhymes,
inside rhymes.

It is something which takes years to master, and I think my father mastered.
And just trying to say what you want to say in that form is deadly difficult.
You can get so seduced by a very clever rhyme. You can get so seduced by an
easy rhyme. And it just takes a little bit of the edge of what you're really
trying to say and it goes on some tangent, which isn't too far off, so let's
take that tangent and get it over with and go have a drink. And my father
would never do it; he'd keep on--he'd just throw out more and more lyrics till
he was saying what he wanted to say, and somehow it rhymed and it was
singable.

GROSS: The songs that your father wrote are still sung on and off stage. Do
you have a sense that he ever suspected the songs would endure and that the
musicals would endure in the way that they have?

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: No, I have a sense that he wouldn't have expected it to go
that long. He had a pretty good-sized ego in a gentle sort of way. I mean,
it was a very nice ego. I mean, you have to have an ego to have 11 years of
flops and keep on writing. That's a useful kind of ego. But I don't think he
would have dreamt of it. But I think there is an explanation. I do not think
it's, like, so surprising. Why is it we don't say, `My God, they're reviving
"La Boheme" at The Met'? What's the big deal? What's the difference?

The fact is that what happened during those years with--and you know, when I
grew up, I thought this is normal, you know. Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, my
father--I thought there would always be people like that. And that was the
golden age, and they created an art form. They didn't need to. They wanted
to make people happy and make some money. Probably that's what Puccini wanted
to do. But they created an art form, and it's going to be revived until
people get sick of it.

GROSS: Well, Jamie Hammerstein, I want to thank you very much for talking
with us.

Mr. HAMMERSTEIN: Well, thank you very much. It was very pleasant. Thank
you.

GROSS: The late Jamie Hammerstein, recorded in 1995.

Coming up, Jim McHugh III talks about the songs composed by his grandfather,
Jimmy McHugh. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jim McHugh III discusses his grandfather Jimmy McHugh's
career in music
TERRY GROSS, host:

On this edition of FRESH AIR, we're hearing from family members of great
songwriters as part of our holiday series Songs from Hollywood and Broadway.
Jimmy McHugh composed songs for movies and shows. His songs include "I Can't
Give You Anything but Love," "I'm In The Mood For Love," "Don't Blame Me" and
"On the Sunny Side of the Street." In 2001, I spoke with his grandson, Jim
McHugh III, one of the managers of the Jimmy McHugh estate.

Let's start with a recording of Jimmy McHugh at the piano with lyricist
Dorothy Fields recorded in the early 1930s. This was recorded to promote
their songs from their revue "Blackbirds of 1928," for which they wrote "I
Must Have That Man," "Doin' the New Low Down," "Diga Diga Doo," and "I Can't
Give You Anything but Love."

(Soundbite of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love")

Ms. DOROTHY FIELDS (Lyricist): (Singing) Gee, these records really do sound
swell, baby. Let's all say a prayer so they will sell, baby. Until that
lucky day, you know darn well, baby, we can't give you anything but love.

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: Now your grandfather, Jimmy McHugh, started as a song plugger, first
working for Irving Berlin and then for the music publishing company Mills
Music.

Mr. JIM McHUGH III (Photographer): Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: A song plugger was someone who sold sheet music by demonstrating the
song, and this was in the era when sheet music sales was the way of
disseminating music, at least the way of selling music. It was before the
popularity of records. What was your grandfather's approach to plugging a
song?

Mr. McHUGH: Well, my grandfather was a song plugger, and he was a song
plugger when he died and he was a song plugger when he was a little boy in
Boston. So when he started, they had these little pianos that were attached
to a bicycle, and they would ride around and play these songs on this piano on
the bicycle.

GROSS: This would be what? In the early 1920s?

Mr. McHUGH: No, earlier than that really. Yeah, I guess so, 1919, 1920. I
mean, he started very, very young. He was the rehearsal pianist at the Boston
Opera and then quickly realized that the commercial world was where he needed
to be and he left Boston and went to New York and worked for the Irving Mills
company and plugged songs.

GROSS: So let's get back to how he did it. So he rode around on a bicycle
that had a little piano attached to it?

Mr. McHUGH: Yes, he rode around on a little bicycle with a piano attached to
it. And then the other thing they would do, they would go into the music
stores and there would be a player piano there and they would play the piano
in the window and the thing that they sold was called the mechanical. That
was the--if it was "On the Sunny Side of the Street," that mechanical piece
that played that song was called the mechanical. So years later, when people
are getting revenue from songs, there's a type of income stream called the
mechanical and now it's about how songs are played on the radio. But at that
time it was this mechanical piece that went into the player piano. And that
was really the sort of the basis of his life, being a song plugger.

GROSS: And when he plugged songs by playing this piano while he drove around
on the bicycle, who would he do that to? Where would he stop and play?

Mr. McHUGH: Right. In those days there were a lot of people on the streets
and they would find--they would go up and down Broadway or they would go up
and down any populated street and they would stop on street corners and they
would play these songs. And I--so, interestingly, growing up at that time,
there were many other songwriters that would come around to the house,
whatever. And they were all from that era and they all had that mentality.
So if there would be a piano in a room, you--these guys would fight each other
to get to that piano stool because they were all song pluggers, so it was
funny. You'd couldn't keep these guys away from a piano.

GROSS: Let's hear a very famous song that your grandfather, Jimmy McHugh,
wrote with the lyricist Dorothy Fields for the revue "Blackbirds of 1928."
And this was some revue. It featured Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, the Mills
Brothers, Don Redman...

Mr. McHUGH: Bojangles.

GROSS: Yeah, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Mr. McHUGH: Yeah.

GROSS: So we're gonna hear "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," as performed
by Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington from this revue, "Blackbirds of 1928."
Tell us the story behind the song.

Mr. McHUGH: Well, it's really--it's a wonderful story. You know, my
grandfather, who was the musical director at The Cotton Club, was very
instrumental in having Duke Ellington perform there. And so they had gotten
the producers of the club to agree to have Duke Ellington perform, and now he
and Dorothy Fields had to write a song for Duke Ellington. So as they were
wont to do, they would walk the streets of New York and they would think of
ideas. And they were walking down Fifth Avenue and they stopped in front of
the Tiffany's jewelry store, and there in front of the store was a young man
and a young woman. And it was right in the middle of The Depression. And
they were looking at an extremely expensive diamond bracelet that was in the
window. And the young man put his arm around the young girl and he said,
`Baby, I can't give you anything but love.' And my grandfather and Dorothy
Fields heard this and they ran back to their studio and they wrote "I Can't
Give You Anything But Love, Baby." And, of course, it became a huge hit and
it was the first song that Duke Ellington ever played at The Cotton Club.

GROSS: Well, here's Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. And this recording is
from 1932.

(Soundbite from "I Can't Give You Anything But Love")

Ms. ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) I can't give you anything but love, baby. And
that's the only thing I've plenty of, baby. Dream awhile, scheme awhile, and
we're sure to find happiness and, I guess, all those things we've always pined
for. Gee, I'd like to see you looking swell, baby. Diamond bracelets,
Woolworth doesn't sell, baby. Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby, I
can't give you anything but love.

GROSS: That's Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters recorded in 1932, one of the
songs from "Blackbirds of 1928," written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields.
And my guest is Jimmy McHugh's grandson, Jimmy McHugh III.

I'm going to ask you about another song that was written by your grandfather,
Jimmy McHugh, and the lyricist Dorothy Fields. The song is "I'm In The Mood
For Love." There's a great story behind this song. I'd like you to tell it.

Mr. McHUGH: Well, really, this is a wonderful story. It was right in the
Depression and my grandfather had lost a lot of money. He had made some very
unwise investments. And he was in New York walking down the street one day
and he bumped into George Gershwin. And George Gershwin said, `Hi, Jimmy, how
are you?' And my grandfather told him, `I'm not so good.' And George
Gershwin said, `Well, how can I help you out?' And so my grandfather said,
`Well, I could really use a piano.' So George Gershwin said, `Well, I'm going
to get you a piano, Jimmy.'

So a couple of days later, there's a knock at his door and he opens the door
and there are some deliverymen with this beautiful piano with a little note
that said, `Good luck, Jimmy. George Gershwin.' And so my grandfather sat
down and started playing the piano, and the first song that he wrote on it was
"I'm In The Mood For Love," and it became immediately a huge hit and he was
back on top again. And we still have that piano. It's in the Jimmy McHugh
office in Beverly Hills, and we still have the note that says, `Good luck,
Jimmy. George Gershwin.'

GROSS: Well, I want to play a great version of that song by Louis Armstrong,
who was a good friend of your grandfather's. So here's Armstrong doing "I'm
In The Mood For Love."

(Soundbite of "I'm In The Mood For Love")

Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) I'm in the mood for love simply because you're
near me. Oh, funny when you're near me, I'm in the mood for love, baby.
Heaven is in your eyes, bright as the stars under. Oh, is any wonder, oh,
baby, I'm in the mood for love?

GROSS: That's Louis Armstrong's recording of "I'm In The Mood For Love,"
music by Jimmy McHugh, lyric by Dorothy Fields. My guest is Jimmy McHugh's
grandson, Jimmy McHugh III.

I want to get back to a little earlier in Jimmy McHugh's career when he
started writing songs with Dorothy Fields. And this is in the 1920s when
there were very few women songwriters. How did he hook up with her, and did
he ever talk to you about what it was like for him to work with a woman
lyricist at a time when there were so few women writing songs professionally?

Mr. McHUGH: This was one of the great relationships of his life, my
grandfather. He was a very poor boy who came from Boston, very courageous.
And Dorothy Fields was the daughter of a very wealthy theatrical family in New
York. And at that time she was teaching school. And her family was extremely
opposed to her being involved in the theater or writing songs or having
anything to do with any of that. And somehow the two of them sort of helped
each other in a way. I think that Dorothy told my grandfather, you know,
`Even though you're a poor boy from Boston, you can do this.' And I think my
grandfather told Dorothy Fields, `Even though your family's telling you you
can't do this and you shouldn't do this, you're brilliant at this and you can
do this.' And she gave him that strength to feel that it was OK for him to
have the ambitions that he had. So they really paired very well together, the
two of them.

GROSS: My guest is Jim McHugh III, the grandson of the songwriter Jimmy
McHugh. We'll continue the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Before we get back to our interview with Jim McHugh III, let's hear
The Mills Brothers recording of "Doin' the New Low Down," which was written by
Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Dorothy Fields for the revue "Blackbirds of 1928."

(Soundbite of "Doin' the New Low Down")

THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) Oh, make me play that crazy thing again, I've
got to do that lazy swing again, again, Hi-ho, doin' the new low down. Oh,
got my feet to misbehavin' now, Got a soul that's not for savin' now,
He-de-hey, doin' the new low down. That dancin' demon has my feet in a
trance, 'cause I'm dreamin' about a-goin' to a dance. Once you hear that
haunting strain again, I'll bet you'll go insane again. Oh, doin' the new low
down! (Singing scat) Hi-ho, doin' the new low down.

GROSS: "Doin' the New Low Down," written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields.
They also wrote "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "I'm In The Mood For
Love" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

Let's get back to the interview I recorded two years ago with McHugh's
grandson Jim McHugh III.

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: Did your grandfather Jimmy McHugh ever talk to you about his
songwriting process?

Mr. McHUGH: I think my grandfather believed a lot in--he was a very religious
man. He believed that his songs were spiritual gifts, I suppose you would say
today. He was a very devout Catholic. He often kept by the side of his bed a
pen and paper, and he felt that he would work on songs. And he would go to
sleep, and then in the middle of the night the songs would be delivered to him
and he would write down what the song was.

And there's actually a very interesting story. He and Harold Adamson were
working on a movie, Frank Sinatra's first movie, called "Higher and Higher."
And they had worked and worked and worked on this song and they just couldn't
get it. And my grandfather went to bed, and in the middle of the night he
woke up, he had the melody. And he reached for his pen and he reached for his
pad and the pad wasn't there. And so he wrote this song on a bed sheet and
went to sleep, and woke up in the morning and he called Harold Adamson; they
had a big meeting at the studio and he said, `I've got it! I've got it!
Let's go!' and they ran over to the head of the studio and they got in his
office and sat down at this piano and my grandfather couldn't remember a word
or a note, couldn't remember anything. So he panicked, and he called the
housekeeper at the house and he said, `Get that sheet that I wrote the song on
and get it over to me,' and she said, `Well, it's too late. It's already gone
to the laundry.'

So the head of the studio sent his driver in full livery, with boots and a cap
and this huge Packard car, over to the laundry and they got this sheet and
brought it back to the studio, and they put it over the piano. And Jimmy
McHugh sat down and played "I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night," which was a
huge hit for Frank Sinatra in his first movie, "Higher and Higher."

GROSS: What a great story.

Mr. McHUGH: Isn't it? I mean, it's wild. I mean, it's wild. And I know
that's true. My grandfather told it to me many times. But I think in terms
of how he wrote songs, he just wrote songs. He got up in the morning thinking
about it. He went to bed at night thinking about it. He plugged them, he
wrote them, he hummed them. He got other people to do that. He was one of
those extraordinary kinds of personalities, like many great artists, that they
just are that way. Their life is about that. He wasn't a particularly
self-reflecting person. I don't think he gave much thought to how he did
things or why he did things. It was a different time, too.

GROSS: And you said that your grandfather told you the story behind "I
Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night" many times. What was it like when you got
to, like, the third time of hearing the story? Would you say, `Yeah, you told
me that story already'?

Mr. McHUGH: Well, no, no. You never said, `You told me that story one more
time.' We would go over, and he had this big house in Beverly Hills and a big
living room and piano. And he had his chair, and you would sit, and then he
would tell you the stories with his bourbon. He always had a highball, and he
was always dressed, always in slacks, always in a tie. And like your radio
show, he would say, `Well, let me just, you know, play you "I Couldn't Sleep a
Wink Last Night,"' and he would go over and play you a few bars and then he
would come back. And that was his life. And then if you left the room and
somebody else came in the room, then you would get the "I Couldn't Sleep a
Wink Last Night" story. So he was fascinated by his own story, let's say. He
was funny.

GROSS: Did that get tiresome for you?

Mr. McHUGH: Well, maybe a little tiresome, but not really. And then he'd
always give me 5 bucks at the end of the day. And so I knew if I hung out,
I'd get the 5 bucks, you know?

GROSS: That's really funny.

Jim McHugh III is the grandson of songwriter Jimmy McHugh and one of the
managers of the McHugh estate.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with Billie Holiday singing the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields song
"On the Sunny Side of the Street."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're having some technical problems, but we'll get you that song in a
second. So here comes Billie Holiday.

(Soundbite of "On the Sunny Side of the Street")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Grab your coat and get your hat. Leave your
worry on the doorstep. Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.
Can't you hear a pitter-pat? And that happy tune is your step. Life can be
so sweet on the sunny side of the street. I used to walk in the shade with
those blues...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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