In a way, there’s nothing special about an Oscar Hammerstein II song — no particular way with a melody, no harmonic fingerprint of chord changes that could betray its authorship.
That’s because, as anyone who’s ever been near a Broadway theater knows, Hammerstein was the lyricist half of any number of partnerships responsible for hits spanning decades.
But David Charles Abell has a point to make about Hammerstein, and he makes it beautifully in his two-hour-plus all-Hammerstein revue with the Philly Pops. In stitching together a couple of dozen songs with spoken biographical details, Abell argues that here was artistic force so potent that his gift for storytelling and lyricism inspired composers like Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers to do their very best work.
You also had to feel Friday night at the show’s opening in Verizon Hall that there’s a particular brand of American optimism pulsing through Hammerstein’s words. The Philly Pops has evolved artistically in the past few years, and especially since Abell took over in 2020. An outing with the ensemble, though, still means a trip in a time machine, and with three excellent singers and the 122-voice Philly Pops Festival Chorus, we found ourselves pining for a spot up on a hill.
Vocalists Liz Callaway and Damian Humbley took on the song within the lone accompaniment of pianist Jeff Smith, snuggling up to the curvy contours of the melody. The sentiments of the 1937 song, especially as they are set to Jerome Kern’s misty music, are an idealized vision of American domestic ambition (and far more human and relatable than Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”). “The Folks Who Live on a Hill” has drawn interpretations from Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé to Bette Midler and Eric Clapton.
The American Dream wasn’t open to everyone (then, in 1937, or now), a point implicitly made by the inclusion of Hammerstein’s most substantive piece of social criticism. Sandwiched in between Don Walker’s orchestration of Richard Rodgers’ “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” came “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
The 1949 song from South Pacific says that hate and fear of “people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade” isn’t inherent to human nature, but learned.
The show’s creators were pressured to remove the song from the musical, but Rodgers and Hammerstein stood their ground, as Abell said in comments to the audience. Some Georgia lawmakers viewed it as a threat to the American way of life, and introduced legislation banning entertainment with “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”
Hammerstein — born in New York City and a Doylestown resident for the last two decades of his life — was no radical, of course. His ear for the meaning and rhythms of text was as pure an American art form as this country has ever known.
With vocalists Callaway, Humbley and Rosena Hill Jackson, the Pops’ show Friday cycled through operetta, Broadway and more. There were no standouts among the performances, which included “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “All the Things You Are” or “Why Was I Born?” — though Callaway had clarity and charm, and Jackson a sound that was both lithe and velvety. Humbley had a clarion tenor that molded itself to precise emotional moments.
Abell didn’t neglect the orchestral aspect of the evening. The Pops was string-rich for this program in the loveliest way and the ensemble was embedded with strong solo moments from oboist David Schneider, flutist Frances Tate, harpist Andre Tarantiles and horn player John David Smith.
What impressed most, though, was the overall sound, buoyed by Abell’s smart taste for inventive orchestrations — the sound of an unbounded optimism that spoke to a better America, wherever it might be.
Additional performance: Sunday at 3 p.m. in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $40-$164. phillypops.org, 215-893-1999.