Stephen Sondheim said his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, had “infinite character.” Young Sondheim adopted the Hammerstein family and spent as much time with them at Highland Farm as possible. As a little girl, I daydreamed that Oscar was my father. I often communed with him, his characters, and lyrics within my vivid imagination. It satisfied my unconscious need to connect with something higher.
I had my own dad, Neil Adams McNall, who introduced me to all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. He was a Vermont farm boy who graduated from Cornell with a Ph.D in American History. The first in his family to go to college, he was a professor of history at Penn State when I arrived on the scene. He loved his garden on Sunset Avenue. It was his realm and gift to our neighborhood.
Dad and Oscar looked like brothers and possessed many similar characteristics. Both men were very moral, passionate about justice for all, possessed infinite soul, and loved words. The only difference is that I got on Neil’s nerves. If I had a dollar for every time my alliteration-loving dad declared, “Dammit, Dollie”, I’d be rolling in dough.
As an eternal optimist, I have already claimed the positives derived from having to go deeper to find the paternal nurturing that I craved as a child. As a parent myself, I have detached from the human drama of limitation, and claim innocence for us all. Even Oscar’s kids had their issues with Oscar’s parenting. But the beauty of searching for a higher and deeper connection to Life, means that we can find it when we really “climb every mountain” and “ford every stream” until we “find our dream.”
My dad was the perfect dad for me. What he gave and didn’t give me, led me to these mountaintop experiences where I am singing the R&H songs that I love. This weekend, I’ll be sleeping at Highland Farm B&B in Oscar’s study now known as The King and I Room. Gordon Porth, Carol Lindsay, and I will be singing in his living room with individuals who all have their individual relationship to the beautiful images which Oscar’s lyrics evoke. With Oscar’s fireplace blazing, our soulful singing will unite us all in a very special bond of fellowship.
Through my life-journey to find the parenting which soothed my yearning for approval and recognition, I was led to a man who gave our universal soul a songbook. He had listened carefully to Soul. Then he shared and believed in what he heard from the infinite source of harmony.
And on the way, I have come to know Oscar’s daughter, Alice Hammerstein Mathias. I had the privilege of having lunch with her and her nephew, Will Hammerstein, last spring at her home. She told me that her dad was always trying to find a new way to express love.
Maybe, he still is. Can you see why I truly believe that “a hundred million miracles are happening every day!”
Oscar Hammerstein II in his study (photo used with permission)
One third of Neil’s garden on Sunset Avenue in Pleasant Gap, PA