May 2, 1895– Lorenz Hart
“Once you told me, I was mistaken, that I’d awaken, with the sun and order orange juice for one. It never entered my mind.”
In Autumn 1979, I appeared in a musical revue, Rodgers & Hart. In that show, I had the very good fortune to sing I Could Write A Book, Isn’t It Romantic?, and Where Or When. I understand that I was quite good in this production. Not surprising; I do have a way with a song, a dance, and a quip, plus audiences love me.
Hart wrote over 500 songs with the most sophisticated lyrics for the most enthralling melodies. But, this is a sad story.
Hart agonized over his life. He felt that he was an outsider. He believed that his vocation was to watch and make note of the beautiful people and then put ravishing words in their perfect mouths so that they would sound smart, sly and sexy when they sang his songs.
Richard Rodgers, one of the greatest of all Broadway composers, enjoyed long collaborations with the two most amazing pre-Stephen Sondheim lyricists of the American Musical. Hart and Rodgers were both bright Jewish boys from Manhattan who both went to Columbia University, but there the similarity ends.
When they first met, it was love at first sight. Hart was 23 years old, Rodgers was not quite 17. Rodgers:
“I left Larry Hart’s house, having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.”
He worked with Hart, from 1919 until Hart’s death in 1943. Next, he teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II, starting with the groundbreaking Oklahoma! in 1943 and lasting until Hammerstein left this wretched world in 1960, right after The Sound Of Music opened on Broadway. Rodgers’ earlier work with Hart gives his music a particularly non-Hammerstein flavor. The two lyricists could not be more different.
Written 70 to 95 years ago, mostly for now forgotten Broadway shows and films, Rodgers’ and Hart’s brittle, world-weary tunes include: Manhattan, Blue Moon, The Lady Is A Tramp, and Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered, along with many, many, many more. Today these songs sound both current and timeless. They are filled with confident wit, a dash of cynicism and a big dose of confidential despair. Rodgers’ melodies make you remember, but the subject and style of these songs come straight from Hart’s heart.
Their shows were rather inconsequential even when the songs were winners. They worked together on 28 musicals that are rarely revived nowadays. Some are especially excellent; On Your Toes (1936) was a landmark musical because it was the first to center on a ballet. It has the revelatory Slaughter On Tenth Avenue sequence, an contribution by George Balanchine. Balanchine stayed with Rodgers and Hart for other shows: Babes In Arms (1937), I Married An Angel (1938), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), all were entertaining, with sparkling scores and creaky books.
Babes In Arms gave us so many great songs, including Where Or When, The Lady Is A Tramp, Johnny One Note, and I Wish I Were in Love Again, but the greatest might be My Funny Valentine. The song became a popular standard, appearing on over 1300 albums performed by over 600 artists, including Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey, Miles Davis, Etta James, Nico, Chaka Khan, Elvis Costello, Sting and Rickie Lee Jones. In 2015, the Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring Chet Baker’s vocals was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for the song’s “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy”.
Pal Joey (1940) was their most controversial and influential show. The book was based on The New Yorker stories of John O’Hara about a seedy nightclub emcee and the women he seduces and abuses. It was a sordid story for the era, and the audiences and many critics found it to be uncomfortable. It starred Vivienne Segal and Gene Kelly, and despite the mixed-reviews, the show ran for 10 months, the third-longest run of any Rodgers and Hart musical. When it was revived 12 years later, it was big success with rave reviews. But, poor Hart, who had been devastated by the reviews, was long gone. It remains the most produced of their musicals.
All the songs are great in Pal Joey, especially the mordant masterpiece, Hart’s own favorite, Zip, a witty take on stripper Gypsy Rose Lee:
Zip! Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today.
Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?
Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night.
Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right.
Zip was performed by Segal in the original and the 1952 revival. In other productions it has been performed by Elaine Stritch, Kay Medford, Dixie Carter, Bebe Neuwirth, and Ann Reinking.
Hart was a diminutive, rather unattractive, cripplingly self-conscious man. Lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner wrote:
”Hart was a man who seemed deprived of the happiness his lyrical gifts gave to others.”
Hart was profoundly alcoholic. He was also gay and more than glad to be unhappy. He found little enjoyment in his experiences with other men. Terrified of intimacy, he would wait for his sex partners to fall asleep, and then creep out of bed and curl up on the floor of his bedroom closet to sleep. Hart’s acquaintances claimed that he went to special “private parties”, but never joined the action. Hart liked to watch. It was less stressful than joining in. He sought solace in the company of hustlers and an occasional chorus boy. His erratic behavior, drinking, and gay ways moved the very heterosexual Rodgers to choose another songwriting partner in Hammerstein, breaking their long fruitful collaboration.
Offered the chance to write what would become Oklahoma!, Hart smartly declined. It is hard to imagine a less Hart-ish musical. After the 1943 opening night performance of that landmark show, Hart went to Sardi’s (the famous showbiz hangout) and told Rodgers: ”This is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen in my life. It’ll be playing 50 years from now.”
Rodgers and Hart were not done yet though. They collaborated one more time. In 1943, they did five new songs for a revival of their 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee. The last lyric ever Hart wrote was for one of my favorites of his songs, To Keep My Love Alive, sung by a noble lady who tires easily of her men, dispatching with 15 husbands and attending 15 early funerals:
Sir Philip played the harp; I cussed the thing
I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing
And now he plays where harps are just the thing,
To keep my love alive.
In the days before the opening night of A Connecticut Yankee, Hart had been on a drinking and hustler binge. When he arrived at the theater for the opening, an exasperated Rodgers refused to let him enter. Hart sat in the November rain on a curbside drinking and crying. Two days later, with pneumonia, he was taken to a hospital where he died three days later. He was just 47 years old. Now he plays where harps are just the thing. His last words were: ”What have I lived for?”
His sad story was told as a happy tale in the film Words And Music (1948) with Mickey Rooney as Hart. This MGM biopic didn’t get to any of the truth, except, maybe, Hart’s height. It has no redeeming value other than great Golden Age of Hollywood stars doing first rate renditions of those terrific Rodgers and Hart songs: Cyd Charisse, June Allyson, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, and Vera-Ellen. The film was a box-office hit, but with no trace of Hart’s gayness to be found in the screenplay. Still, I watched it last year on TCM.
There are sly intimations of his gayness in many of Hart’s lyrics. The following is from On Your Toes:
Mother warned me my instincts to deny.
Yet I fail.
The male is frail.
The heart is quicker than the eye!
She said, Love one time, Junior,
Look at the Lunts!
I’ve fallen twice, with two at once.
Passion’s plaything, that’s me, oh me, oh my!
But at least
I’m quite a beast.
The heart is quicker than the eye!
Many of Rodgers and Hart songs are standard repertoire for popular singers and jazz instrumentalists, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, and Lady Gaga. Hart really was the expressive bard of the urban generation between the first two world wars.
For decades, Hart’s bitter sophistication paired well with my very own sensibilities and my whiskey-voiced interpretations of the songs. When I had my own act, I had several Rodgers and Hart songs in my repertoire. In the 1990s, I used It Never Entered My Mind as an audition song; it fit my range and disposition rather perfectly. Maybe I should dust it off for one more go of it.