The Melody Makers 5: Rodgers and Hart, Part II


This is the fifth in a weekly series celebrating the immense Jewish contribution to popular music over the last century.

RICHARD Rodgers and Lorenz Hart returned from Hollywood to a triumph with the 1935 Broadway spectacular Jumbo. It was conceived by showman Billy Rose, who took over the failing Hippodrome theatre, a 5,000-seater said to be the largest the world. It took so long to get the show up and running that The New Yorker observed, ‘Well, they finally got Jumbo into the Hippodrome. Now all that remains is to complete the Triborough Bridge and enforce the sanctions against Italy.’ It had trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, clowns, and an elephant in front of which Jimmy Durante lay down at the end of each performance so that it could place its foot on his head.

There were several hit songs in the show including The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, sung here by Donald Novis, who was in the Broadway production:

Rodgers and Hart followed this the next year with the innovative On Your Toes, a landmark in musical theatre. It included Rodgers’s ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, choreographed by George Balanchine. It was the first Broadway musical to make dramatic use of classical dance and incorporate jazz into its score. This is the ballet from the film of the show, made in 1939:

I couldn’t resist this performance by the very wonderful Liberace:

and this may be the most unlikely rendition ever, by The Shadows in 1969.

On Your Toes also included There’s a Small Hotel, which was originally written for Jumbo but dropped before the opening. This is by Jack Whiting from the 1937 London production.

Dick and Larry were on a roll, but there were clouds on the horizon.

Hart was a depressive who hated his own appearance. He was less than 5ft tall with a head too big for his body and a receding hairline. He believed that no one, especially no woman, could love him. He was asked by a reporter about his love life. ‘Love life?’ Larry replied. ‘I haven’t any.’ Then he was a confirmed bachelor? ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Nobody would want me.

He lived with his widowed mother Frieda and he was bisexual or homosexual, though he never acknowledged the fact, going off to Miami or Mexico for his encounters. Biographers have speculated that he was in love with Dick Rodgers. If so, it must have been tormenting, as Rodgers was a great one for the ladies. He married Dorothy Feiner in 1930 and they had two daughters, a third dying at birth. According to Rodgers’s biographer Meryle Secrest, his womanising was well-known in theatrical circles, though his marriage survived.

Hart did have women in his life, and he proposed to a few. Frances Manson, a story editor at Columbia Pictures, refused on the grounds that she might end up drinking as much as he did. An opera singer, Nanette Guilford, said, ‘He was absolutely adorable, and to know him was to love him. I loved him. But he never believed me. He didn’t believe any woman could fall in love with him.’ The woman he cared for most was actress Vivienne Segal, to whom he proposed unsuccessfully several times.

Another problem was alcohol. Rodgers was a fairly heavy drinker but could not hold a candle to Hart. Larry was out drinking and partying late every night and never out of bed till midday, inevitably hungover; the self-disciplined Dick was ready and eager to work hours earlier. Periodically Hart would vanish for days on benders. He broke promises about delivery of lyrics or dialogue. Dick grew into an angry taskmaster, and he resented having to be one. Larry bitterly referred to Dick as ‘the principal’ with ‘a sour-apple face’; Dick referred to Larry as ‘my favorite blight and partner’. Hart’s lyrics, once light-hearted, became more melancholy.

Whatever the difficulties in their partnership, the hits continued to roll off the production line.

Babes in Arms in 1937 brought My Funny Valentine, sung here by Barbra Streisand:

The Boys from Syracuse (1938) was loosely based on Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. One of the stars was Larry Hart’s brother Teddy. It featured Falling in Love with Love, performed here by Gordon Macrae:

In the 1939 show Too Many Girls, Hart had changed his view of the New York he had written about so affectionately in 1925’s Manhattan. Fourteen years later his lyrics ran:

Broadway’s turning into Coney,
Champagne Charlie’s drinking gin,
Old New York is new and phoney—
Give it back to the Indians.

A rare flop was Higher and Higher (1940) which ran for an initial 84 performances. It is remembered for the mournful song It Never Entered My Mind (the lyrics are here), given a lovely performance by Johnny Hartman:

At the end of 1940 Pal Joey premiered on Broadway. In a departure from the usual frothy musical comedy theme, the title character, Joey Evans, is amoral and manipulative. One reviewer wrote: ‘Although Pal Joey is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?’ Hart was devastated. The show included Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered, performed here by Rita Hayworth in the 1957 film adaptation:

The next musical, By Jupiter in 1942, was another success but Hart was now lost to alcohol. Rodgers was keen to turn the 1930 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs into a musical. By his account, he called a meeting and told Hart: ‘I want you to have yourself admitted to a sanitarium. I’ll get myself admitted, too. We’ll be there together and work together. But you’ve got to get off the street.’

Larry made it clear that he was not checking himself into any sanitarium, and that he was on his way to Mexico.

‘Larry, if you walk out now, someone else will do the show with me.’

‘Anyone in mind?’

‘Oscar [Hammerstein] will write the lyrics.’

‘There’s no better man for the job. I don’t know how you put up with me all these years. The best thing would be for you to forget about me.’

He walked out of their meeting. According to Hart’s biographer Gary Marmorstein: ‘Dick sighed, the burden of tolerating an increasingly truant, irresponsible partner over the course of twenty-four years having been lifted in an instant. And then he wept.’

Hart, with his mother, attended the triumphant opening night of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the St James Theatre on March 31, 1943. He embraced Dick at the after-show party: ‘This is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, and it’ll be playing twenty years from now!’

The success of Oklahoma! hurt Hart’s pride, but a worse blow followed. Less than a month after the premiere his mother died. He could not face her funeral two days later and the ceremony had to be delayed until he was found in a bar.

During the summer, while Hammerstein was working on another project, Hart agreed to help Rodgers prepare a revival of A Connecticut Yankee. He got sober and his mind was as quick and clever as ever. He gave Vivienne Segal the new comic showstopper To Keep My Love Alive, sung here by Mary Testa.

By the time the show was in rehearsal, Hart was seriously back on the bottle. Vivienne had turned him down again – apparently he had proposed because he was afraid ‘they’ would send him away because of his drinking. She said she told him she would always be a good friend but that was all. ‘I mean, I never even kissed Larry.’

The opening night was at the Martin Beck Theatre on November 17, 1943. Rodgers had got wind of the fact that Hart planned to be there, and a small task force was assembled to waylay him. Somehow he evaded them and got into the auditorium, where two minders were stationed. When the light went down Larry appeared in the gangway at the back of the stalls. The first act went off without problems, and at the interval Larry repaired to a bar. It was raining and he had left his coat in the cloakroom. When he came back he was wet through and falling-down drunk. He started speaking and singing along with the lines, becoming louder and more agitated. When he could not be ignored the two watchdogs bundled him, shouting and struggling, into the foyer. His brother Teddy’s wife Dorothy, hearing the commotion from her seat, came out and took him in a taxi to their apartment. He passed out on the sofa but by the morning he had gone. He was missing until the following evening when he was found literally in the gutter, sitting on a kerb outside an Eighth Avenue bar, freezing, soaked to the skin and so drunk that he could not move. The next day he was taken to hospital with pneumonia. The Harts and the Rodgerses and other friends stayed with him. A friend of a friend contacted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who authorised a supply of penicillin, not yet available to the public, to be allocated by the War Production Board. It was no use and he went into a coma. According to a nurse, Hart’s last words were: ‘What have I lived for?’ On the evening of Monday November 22 there was an air raid alert and the lights of New York went out. In the darkness a doctor came out and told the waiting friends: ‘He’s gone.’ Hart was 48 years old.

Rodgers and Hammerstein will feature again in a later article.

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