Richard Rodgers, the Broadway composer whose centenary was celebrated with the fireworks of theatrical huzzahs on June 28th, enjoyed long collaborations with the two most prominent lyricists of the American musical. He worked with his first partner, Lorenz Hart, from 1919 until Hart's death, at 48, in 1943. And he teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II from the epochal "Oklahoma!" in 1943 to Hammerstein's death, at 65, in 1960.
Rogers' Hart phase should be the apprentice work, leading to the fullness of the Hammerstein years. Yet if you listen with alert ears and a clean-slate mind, you might think that the R&Ham songs had come first; for they are ripe with sentimental Americana, fashioned in long melodic lines for big, fluty voices, and grounded in the turn-of-the-century operetta form. They seem far more innocent, more remote from our day, than the R&Hart oeuvre.
Read the words to those tunes ideally, in "The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart," currently out of print but well worth tracking down. Listen to the songs ideally, on the 1956 double-album, "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers & Hart Song Book," the most magnif of Ella's eight Verve song books, with sensitive charts by Buddy Bregman. Or you could just punch the buttons on your mental juke box, and ascend to rapture.
Written 60 to 80 years ago, mostly for forgotten shows and movies, these bouncy, brittle, worldly and world-weary tunes "Manhattan," "Blue Moon," "My Funny Valentine," "Where or When," "The Lady Is a Tramp, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," dozens more sound both today and timeless. They sing (with confident wit) and speak (with confidential despair) about tough hearts ready to break, melt or explode. Rodgers' melodies get you humming, then dreaming, but the subject and style of these songs, their matter and meter, come straight from Hart's heart.
THE AMERICAN TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
The movies give us two glimpses of Hart: both fictional, tantalizing, sad. The better known is an MGM bio-pic, the 1948 "Words and Music," with Tom Drake as Rodgers and Mickey Rooney as Hart. There we learn that Hart was short, agitated, unreliable, full of mischief and misery and that if only Betty Garrett had accepted his offer of matrimony, he might have lived his full span. It happens that Hart did propose to Vivienne Segal, who starred in R&Hart's "Pal Joey"; and she did refuse, telling friends, "I mean, I never even kissed Larry." The film omits Hart's real-life alcoholism and homosexuality but then, most 40s musical bio-pics (see, or rather avoid, plague-like, the Porter "Night and Day") had only a coincidental connection with their tunesmiths' lives. The films were devised as cavalcades of songs and stars, and that's the interest in "Words and Music": a couple dozen R&Hart numbers, most of them well performed (though sometimes at odd tempi), many with the infrequently sung verses accompanying those renowned refrains.
The other, weirder film is "Makers of Melody," an early-talkie (1929) short that purports to depict R&Hart's laborious, five-year rise from uptown anonymity to midtown stardom. (An little irony: after shooting the film, R&Hart went to Hollywood, where, with the exception of the buoyant "Love Me Tonight" and the ambitious misfire "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," they spent another five, largely frustrating years.) This time, the songwriters play themselves; and though it may be due to our boys' limited acting skills, there seems an undertaste of distaste that Dick shows Larry. Hart is humiliated in the script, in Rodgers' withering comments and, for one scene, in the couture: he wears a plaid suit, collar buttoned up, that looks like a kid's pajamas. Hart is the bad wittle boy, Rodgers' the annoyed adult. If these self-portraits are at all accurate, they suggest a reversal of the two men's original relationship, which began when Hart was a bon-vivant 24 and Rodgers a precocious 17.
Born in 1895, Larry claimed to be descended from the German-Jewish poet Harry Heine, the student of Hegel who converted to Protestantism and changed his name to Christian (!) Johann Heinrich Heine. His most famous poem, "Lorelay," set to music by Friedrich Silcher, has some of the melancholia (if not the elfin wit) that marked many Hart lyrics: "I do not know what haunts me,/ What saddened my mind all day;/ An age-old tale confounds me,/ A spell I cannot allay." And a quatrain Heine wrote for his wife Therese "You're lovely as a flower,/ So pure and fair to see;/ I look at you, and sadness/ Comes stealing over me" is echoed in Hart's pathetic, lifelong obsession with women. His need for them was exceeded only by his belief that they were put on earth to beguile and reject him. (Was Hart homosexual? Yes. A homosexual who was in love with women and was serially devastated that they were only amused by him.)
His mother was cultured, his father defiantly not. Max Hart was a round (300-pound!) boisterous sort who did favors for Tammany Hall and, if he was too lazy to go to the bathroom, he'd take a whizz out the dining room window. Lorenz had Papa's appetite for excess and Mama's love of lore. He had his mother's height too: a shade under five feet. Edith Meiser, who would star in Rodgers and Hart shows, described Larry as "the American Toulouse-Lautrec ... an enchanting man. He had such appeal.... He had this enormous head and a very heavy beard that had to be shaved twice a day... And he was always rubbing his hands together. That was his great gesture when he was pleased." Meiser makes this exuberant dwarfish lad sound like the Rumplelstiltskin of the Upper West Side.
If Hart's impression was cartoonish, it was surely an animated cartoon. Everyone noticed his energy and felt its force. In Meryle Secrest's book "Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers",Hammerstein is quoted as saying of Hart, "In all the time I knew him I never saw him walk slowly. I never saw his face in repose. I never heard him chuckle quietly. He laughed loudly and easily at other people's jokes and at his own too. He large eyes danced and his head would wag." A young man of ravenous intelligence, he was well-schooled and smartly self-taught. He attended Columbia University, where, he said, he "majored in Varsity Shows" those larkish musical comedies, written mostly by undergraduates, that occasionally attracted the attention of the producers whose offices were 70 blocks further down Broadway.