May 2, 1895- Lorenz Hart
In Autumn 1980, I appeared in a musical revue, Rodgers & Hart. I had the very good fortune to sing: I Could Write A Book, Isn’t It Romantic & Where Or When. It was my understanding that I was quite good in this show. I do have a way with a song, a dance & an audience.
Hart wrote over 500 songs with the most sophisticated lyrics for the most enthralling melodies. But this is a sad story. Hart agonized over life. He felt that he was an outsider. He believed that his occupation was to observe the beautiful people & then put ravishing words in their perfect mouths so that they would sound smart & sexy.
Richard Rodgers, one of the greatest of all Broadway composers, enjoyed long collaborations with the 2 most prominent lyricists of the American Musical. He worked with Hart, from 1919 until Hart’s death in 1943. He teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II from the start of the groundbreaking Oklahoma! in 1943 until Hammerstein left this wretched world in 1960. Rodgers’ earlier work with Hart makes their tunes particularly non-Hammerstein in flavor.
Written 70 to 95 years ago, mostly for now forgotten Broadway shows & films, these brittle & world-weary tunes include: Manhattan, Blue Moon, My Funny Valentine, The Lady Is A Tramp, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered, & many many more. Today these songs sound both current & timeless, filled with confident wit & confidential despair, songs about hearts ready to break, melt or explode. Rodgers’ melodies make you remember, but the subject & style of these songs come straight from Hart’s heart.
Hart was very diminutive, rather unattractive, & cripplingly self-conscious. Lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner: “Hart was a man who seemed deprived of the happiness his lyrical gifts gave to others.”
Hart was profoundly alcoholic. He was also gay & 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, & then creep out of bed & curl up on the floor of his bedroom closet to sleep. Hart’s acquaintances confirmed that he went to special private parties, but strictly as a voyeur. Hart liked watching. It was less stressful than joining in. He sought solace in the company of hustlers & an occasional chorus boy. His erratic behavior, drinking, & gay ways moved the very heterosexual Rodgers to choose another songwriting partner, breaking their long fruitful collaboration.
Offered the chance to write what would become Oklahoma!, Hart sensibly declined. (It’s hard to imagine a less Hart-ish show.) After the 1943 opening night performance of the landmark musical, Hart walked into Sardi’s & 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 & Hart collaborated one more time though. In 1943, they did 5 new songs for a revival of their 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee. The last lyric Hart wrote was To Keep My Love Alive, sung by a noble lady who tires easily of men, with 15 husbands & 15 early funerals:
“Sir Philip played the harp; I cussed the thing.
I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing.
& now he plays where harps are just the thing,
To keep my love alive.”
Just before the opening of that show, Hart had been on a drinking & hustler binge & when he arrived at the theater an exasperated Rodgers refused to let him enter. Hart sat in the November rain on a curbside drinking & crying. 2 days later, with pneumonia, he was taken to a hospital where he died 3 days later. He was just 47 years old. Now he plays where harps are just the thing.
His sad story was told as a happy tale in Words & Music (1948) with Mickey Rooney as Hart. This MGM biopic didn’t get to any of the truth, except Hart’s height, & it has no redeeming value other than great Golden Age stars doing first rate renditions of the terrific Rodgers & Hart songs: Cyd Charisse, June Allyson, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, & Vera-Ellen. The film was a box-office hit with no trace of Hart’s gayness to be found.
For decades, Hart’s bitter sophistication paired well with my own sensibilities & my whiskey-voiced interpretations. When I was performing, I had several Rodger’s & Hart songs in my repertoire. It Never Entered My Mind fit my range & disposition rather perfectly. Maybe I should dust it off.