This is the fourth in a weekly series celebrating the immense Jewish contribution to popular music over the last century.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were introduced by a mutual friend in 1919. Dick was 16, Larry 23. Rodgers wrote later: ‘I left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.’
Both were from well-to-do Jewish homes in New York, but there was not much other similarity in their upbringings.
Rodgers’s forebears had all arrived from Russia in 1860, well before the great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. His father, Dr William Abraham Rodgers, changed the family name from Rogazinsky. His mother Mamie was the daughter of a merchant. The couple married in 1896 and lived with her parents. Richard was the second of their two sons, born in 1902. The household was a miserable one, with Dr Rodgers in constant conflict with his domineering mother-in-law. Rodgers recalled in his memoirs the ‘sheer hell’ of dinner times, with bickering, yelling or unnatural silences. The situation left him with a ‘deep feeling of tension and insecurity’.
Presumably there were some happy moments because his father used to sing songs from the latest Broadway operettas while his mother accompanied him on the piano. When Richard was still only two or three, he could pick out a melody on the piano.
Hart’s parents Max and Frieda were immigrants from Germany. Max Hart, originally Hertz, was short, with a thick accent, and had coarse manners. (Once he urinated out of a window.) He claimed he was in respectable real estate, but he was something of a con man, mixed up in shady deals, convicted of grand larceny and fraudulent use of the mails, but both times freed on appeal. He showed no shame, and Larry enjoyed telling people that his father was a ‘crook’. Max Hart was not short of cash, which he spent lavishly on his family, and Larry and his brother Teddy (who was to become a star of musical comedy) were sent to the best schools. The Harts kept an open house for the boys’ friends, endlessly providing food, drink, laughter and conversation. Hart’s biographer Frederick Nolan wrote that Frieda ‘didn’t seem to mind [the gang’s] stripping her front parlor of furniture and turning the room into a sort of debating hall where politics, literature, poetry, and girls were hotly discussed until dawn’.
From early adolescence Hart was writing lyrics and sketches, and made use of his German background to translate German plays for Broadway at 50 dollars a week. From this training ground he started moving into semi-professional areas of the theatre, most significantly the annual Varsity Shows at Columbia University, where he was a journalism student.
By the time Rodgers was nine he was composing melodies at the family piano. He was about 13 when he first heard the music of Jerome Kern. As I wrote last week, Kern composed music for the ‘Princess Theatre shows’. One of the first was Very Good Eddie, which Rodgers saw many times. He realised that he was witnessing a historic moment in the American theatre: ‘Somehow I knew it and wanted desperately to be a part of it.’ By the age of 15 he had decided that the musical theatre was to be his profession.
He provided tunes for a few amateur shows but he badly needed a partner who could write lyrics. In the spring of 1919 a friend had an inspiration: Larry Hart, then a journalism student at Columbia University. He took Dick to the Hart home, and they clicked.
They wrote songs for a series of amateur and student productions and made their professional debut with the song Any Old Place With You, featured in the 1919 Broadway musical comedy A Lonely Romeo. Here it is performed by Damon Kirsche and the Fred Barton Orchestra in 2013.
Success did not come instantly to the pair. In 1920 they were asked to create a complete score for a show called Poor Little Ritz Girl, but they were devastated when eight of the 15 songs they wrote were cut and replaced by numbers written by the vastly more experienced (and well-known) team of Sigmund Romberg and Alex Gerber. Producer Lew Fields did not even tell them until they arrived for the opening night. Rodgers wrote later: ‘I can still feel the grinding pain of bitter disappointment and depression.’
They pressed on with amateur and college shows, gaining good reviews but little to live on. Hart was content to take handouts from his father but Rodgers felt under pressure from his family to find a career.
In 1925 he was on the point of giving up and was interviewed by a Mr Marvin for a job selling children’s underwear. Marvin offered him a starting salary of 50 dollars a week, and Rodgers asked for 24 hours to think about it. That evening, as he was having dinner with his parents, he had a phone call offering him and Hart the chance to write the songs for a benefit show called The Garrick Gaieties. Rodgers did not take the salesman job, and one of the songs he and Hart wrote for the show was Manhattan, a love song to their home city. I chose this version by Ella Fitzgerald so that you can savour the delicious lyrics.
The critics found the show fresh and delightful, and suddenly Rodgers and Hart were a Broadway songwriting force.
Their output was phenomenal. At their pinnacle they wrote four new shows a year, each with as many as 20 songs.
Among their early successes was A Connecticut Yankee in 1927, which featured the song My Heart Stood Still. Here it is played on a (signed) piano roll by Rodgers:
and here it is performed by Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra with stills from the Broadway production.
Later they were asked how they wrote their songs. Hart told a reporter: ‘We map out the plot. Then Dick may have a catchy tune idea. He picks it out on the piano – I listen and suddenly an idea for a lyric comes. This happens often. On the other hand, I may think of a couple of verses that will fit into the show. I write them out and say them over to Dick. He sits down at the piano and improvises. I stick my oar in sometimes and before we know it, we have the tune to hang the verses on. It’s like that – simple!’
Did they ever quarrel? In his introduction to The Rodgers and Hart Song Book, Dick wrote that Larry ‘loathed changing any word once it was written down. When the immovable object of his unwillingness to change came up against the irresistible force of my own drive for perfection, the noise could be heard all over the city. Our fights over words were furious, blasphemous, and frequent, but even in their hottest moments we both knew that we were arguing academically and not personally. I think I am quite safe in saying that Larry and I never had a single personal argument with each other.’
Here is a clip of them working together from a rather odd short film from 1929 called Makers of Melody. It’s staged, but it’s lovely to see them.
You can see the complete film here, with another version of Manhattan, and The Blue Roomfrom their 1926 show The Girl Friend.
In 1930 they wrote Ever Green which premiered at the Adelphi Theatre in London. It starred Jessie Matthews and included the song Dancing on the Ceiling, which she sings here.
In 1930 the Depression hit Broadway hard, and like many others involved in the theatre Rodgers and Hart moved to Hollywood. Their first film was Spring Is Here (1930) for which they wrote With a Song in My Heart. Here it is performed in the film by Lawrence Gray and Bernice Claire.
With a Song in My Heart became the theme music for the BBC radio programme Two Way Family Favourites, which I wrote about here.
In 1932 came Love Me Tonight, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. It included Lover, played here by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra with Jack Fulton:
and Isn’t it Romantic, here from the film:
In the 1933 film Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, Al Jolson sings You Are Too Beautiful:
In 1934 the pair wrote the song Blue Moon, for which Hart produced four sets of lyrics before it was released. I chose this version because of the wonderful name of the performers, Chick Bullock and his Levee Loungers.
Their last film was Mississippi in 1935, in which Bing Crosby performed It’s Easy to Remember (And So Hard to Forget).
In 1935 they returned home to Broadway and to their greatest successes, which I will write about next week.