rodgers and hart -- 8/4/23

Today's selection -- from Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer. Before he teamed with Oscar Hammerstein in the legendary Broadway partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers had an equally extraordinary partnership with Larry Hart. Rodgers and Hart would be a "twenty-four-year partnership that produced twenty-eight stage shows and more than five hundred songs, dozens of which fans and critics refer to as timeless." 
"Rodgers and Hart … had broken through in May 1925 with The Garrick Gaieties, a show billed as 'a bubbling musical satirical revue of plays, problems and persons.' What began as a two-night fundraiser for the Theatre Guild morphed into a sensation. At the conductor's podium Rodgers watched the audience 'cheering, yelling, stomping, waving and whistling' as the show ended. He turned back to the musicians and had them reprise the number that had caused the audi­ence's euphoria, a song called 'Manhattan.' 'The cast sang it, the musicians sang it, even the audience sang it,' he recalled. 'After about ten curtain calls, the house lights went on, but still no one wanted to go.' Today 'Man­hattan,' a paean to the charms of all five boroughs, remains a standard. Rodgers was only twenty-three years old; Hart, thirty.

"The following year the pair debuted two more addictive songs: 'Moun­tain Greenery' from the second installment of The Garrick Gaieties, and, from a show called The Girl Friend, a miracle of a tune called 'Blue Room.' Simplicity itself, the melody has an unhurried beauty, capturing the en­chantment of lovers who want nothing more from life than to be together. While the lyrics come off as informal and conversational, Hart had put much thought into conjuring just the right nonchalance. After speaking with another young lyricist named Ira Gershwin at a Writers Guild meeting in March 1926, Hart was eager to follow up, writing to him, 'It is a great pleasure to live at a time when light amusement in this country is at last losing its brutally cretin aspect. Such delicacies as your jingles prove that songs can be both popular and intelligent.' 

"Rodgers was sixteen when his brother's friend took him one block from his family's home on West 120th Street to meet Hart at the West 119th Street brownstone the lyricist shared with his parents. That Sunday Rod­gers played some of his own compositions on the Hart family piano. He'd been influenced by the comic operas his mother loved, such as The Merry Widow, The Spring Maid, and The Chocolate Soldier. 'This is what I was weaned on, and these were the happy moments in my childhood,' said Rodgers, who grew up in a house of constant turmoil. His quick-tempered father, Will, hated his in-laws, who lived with the family. 'People literally didn't speak to each other in that sad house,' wrote Rodgers's daughter Mary, 'except when they were screaming.' Her father recalled, 'And I turned to this, this kind of melodic construction, the way you turn to food.' 

"Hart said he loved Rodgers's melodies. The lyricist shared his ideas about the relationship of words and music, what kinds of thoughts and emotions could be expressed on the stage, and what kind of music would be needed to support them. The pair dissected the Princess musicals and shared their dissatisfaction with the current crop of shows. 'He felt that musical shows were cowardly, responded only to formula, and said nothing,' Rodgers recalled.

"And so began a twenty-four-year partnership that produced twenty-eight stage shows and more than five hundred songs, dozens of which fans and critics refer to as timeless.

"Socially Hart was ebullient, an antic spirit; Hammerstein said he was 'always skipping and bouncing. In all the times 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.' Mary Rodgers had a distinct visual memory of him smoking a big black cigar and rubbing his hands together energetically, a trademark ges­ture of his. (Theresa Helburn also recalled him 'beating his hands as he walked up and down.') 'Because of his height,' wrote Mary, 'I thought of him not only as younger than Daddy (though he was, in fact, seven years older) but almost as a child. He certainly had a child's sense of delight and irresponsibility.' 

"Hart lavished gifts on friends, though some sensed a compensatory component in his generosity, as if he did not expect his affection to be re­turned without bribes. Hart had a handsome face and brilliant, dark eyes, but, standing slightly less than five feet tall and sporting an oversized head, he did not like his own appearance. He was a closeted gay person who dis­appeared into alcohol-soaked debaucheries with increasing frequency. Even at the start of his partnership with Rodgers, Hart was frequently missing in action. He could never focus on writing before noon. He would say he had to go downstairs for a cigar and proceed to vanish for the rest of the day. The youthful Rodgers accepted that half of his job was to locate Hart and keep him from drinking. Rodgers found 'it was never wise to leave him alone because he would simply disappear and would have to be found all over again.' At times Rodgers would force Hart to sit and play tunes to stimulate him. 'Larry would not write the word "hello" unless I was in the room with him,' said the composer."



Laurie Winer


Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical


Yale University Press


Copyright 2023 by Laure Winer


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