Cockeyed Optimism

Things are tough, no two ways about it. The economy stinks. Depending on which way you measure these things, we are in the worst economic times since 1946 (the bust following the World War II boom) or the Great Depression. Most Americans aren’t old enough to remember those times, and the ones who are old enough would rather not dwell on them.

Our country is still mired in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, since this is an election year, the only thing we can expect from Washington is a dazzling assortment of political posturing, hissing, and spitting. Oh . . . joy.

Well, it might be fun to wallow in depression, but I can’t do it. Instead I keep hearing the lyrics of “A Cockeyed Optimist” in my head:

I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead,
But I’m only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head.

I hear the human race
Is fallin’ on its face
And hasn’t very far to go,
But ev’ry whippoorwill
Is sellin’ me a bill,
And tellin’ me it just ain’t so.

Those words were written by Oscar Hammerstein II, who died fifty years ago in August 1960. They are sung by a U.S. Navy nurse on an island in the Pacific in the middle of World War II in the legendary musical South Pacific. Thousands of miles from her home and family, caring for the wounded, this young woman could easily cave into despair but celebrates hope instead.

Hammerstein wasn’t blindly optimistic. He’d lived through the Great Depression and World War II. His career was a stunning success early then slowly drifted toward has-been status. He didn’t give up, continuing to write the lyrics and books of shows that went nowhere. And then . . . he and Richard Rodgers teamed up and literally transformed the Broadway musical.

As John Steele Gordon wrote in the New York Times in 2008: their musicals were “complex, often surprisingly dark, and profound explorations of the human condition.”

Carousel had a deep spiritual side and explored life after death. The King and I dealt with feminism and human rights way before those issues were talked about in popular entertainment. The Sound of Music confronted the tyranny of the Nazis. South Pacific covered not only World War II but inter-racial love, echoing Hammerstein’s earlier collaboration with Jerome Kern on Showboat.

Hammerstein wasn’t oblivious to the darker aspects of existence. And yet . . . he still wrote songs and shows of hope.

Billy Bigelow (Carousel), a small-time criminal, is reconciled with his family in a fashion reminiscent of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. The king (The King and I) sacrifices himself to the oncoming enlightenment and modernization of his country — something that he brought about. The Von Trapp family (The Sound of Music) escapes the Nazis, sacrificing everything but their love of each other and freedom. And Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse in South Pacific, overcomes her prejudices.

It’s been fifty years since Hammerstein gave us a new song or musical. But his words continue to be true:

. . . But I’m stuck like a dope
With a thing called hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart!
Not this heart…

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