Richard Nisley

The Lonely Hart
Music - Classical Released - May 09, 2013

It came so easily: the partnership, the songs, the Broadway success. Richard Rodgers wrote the music, Lorenz Hart wrote the words.

They met while students at Columbia University. Says Rodgers: “Neither of us mentioned it, but we evidently knew we’d work together, and I left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.”

We'll have Manhattan,
The Bronx and Staten
Island too.
We'll try to cross
Fifth Avenue.
As black as onyx
We'll find the Bronnix
Park Express.
Our Flatbush flat, I guess,
Will be a great success,
More or less.

(from the song “Manhattan”)

They met in 1918. In 1919, they landed their first song in a Broadway musical. In 1925, they landed their first hit show: “The Garrick Gaieties.” In the 1930s they moved to Hollywood and wrote songs for the movies. Their greatest success, however, was on the Broadway stage: “A Connecticut Yankee” (based on Mark Twain’s novel), “Babes in Arms,” “The Boys from Syracuse” (based on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”), and their masterpiece, “Pal Joey.”

In the first half of the 20th century, producing a hit Broadway musical was tantamount to producing--in the second half of the 20th century--a best-selling album: many of the songs went on to become popular hit singles. At the height of the depression, Rodgers and Hart were each earning $60,000 a year in song royalties.

From 1919, when they began collaborating, until 1943 when Lorenz Hart died suddenly, Rodgers and Hart elevated the Broadway musical to an art form and produced many of the finest popular songs of the 20th century, including “The Lady is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Blue Moon” and “Where or When.” “Blue Moon” was twice a number-one hit record--in 1936, and in 1961 (for the Marcels). “Where or When” also resurfaced as a hit in the rock era, for Dion and the Belmonts:

It seems we stood and talked like this before
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can't remember where or when

(from “Where or When”).

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart could not have been more different. Rodgers was a disciplined workaholic who approached his craft with the routine of businessman, beginning promptly each day at 8 a.m. Hart, on the other hand, hated work, loathed routine, stayed up late, disappeared for days on end, and became an alcoholic. When they did work together it was magical: the songs seemed to pour forth effortlessly: 28 Broadway musicals and over 500 songs.

While Rodgers had few peers as a composer, it’s Hart’s lyrics that continue to beguile singers and audiences alike. According to one critic, Hart “had a remarkable talent for polysyllabic and internal rhymes,” and his lyrics have often been praised for their wit and technical sophistication.

I laughed at sweethearts I met at schools
All indiscreet hearts seemed romantic fools
A house in Iceland was my heart's domain
I saw your eyes, now castles rise in Spain!
I took one look at you, that's all I meant to do
And then my heart stood still.

(from “My Heart Stood Still”)

Hart was among the first composers of popular song to dispense with the eternal rhyming of June with moon.

My romance doesn't have to have a moon in the sky
My romance doesn't need a blue lagoon standing by
No month of May, no twinkling stars
No hide away, no soft guitars
My romance doesn't need a thing but you

(from “My Romance”)

Unlike Rodgers, Hart never married. While he was the life of the party, he usually went home alone. In later years, he spent much of his time in seedy bars. Stephen Holden of the New York Times writes: “Many of Hart’s ballad lyrics conveyed a heart-stopping sadness that reflected his conviction that he was physically too unattractive to be lovable . . . Although he wrote dozens of songs that are playful, funny and filled with clever wordplay, it is the rueful vulnerability beneath their surface that lends them a singular poignancy.”

My friend the night
Looks down on me
With gentle eyes of the stars,
My friend the night.

His touch is light on me;
His fingers are the summer breeze in its flight,
My friend the night.
When he lifts his voice in boisterous commotion,
He blows a gale of laughter in my ear.
He slaps me with a surging of the ocean
As a symbol of his devotion!
My friend the night
Looks down on me
And watches while I sleep.
He holds me tight,
My friend the night.

(from “My Friend the Night”)

Unlike Rodgers subsequent collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, who reveled in the role of country squire, Hart was a man of the city. Manhattan with its bustle and sophistication was his world.

She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theatre and never comes late
She never bothers with people she hates
That's why the lady is a tramp

(from “The Lady is a Tramp”)

“Many of his lyrics were the confessional outpourings of a hopeless romantic who loathed his own body,” writes Holden. “By all accounts, Hart, who stood just under five feet tall and wreathed himself in cigar smoke, saw himself as an undesirable freak.”

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favorite work of art

(from “My Funny Valentine”)

Spring is here--why doesn’t my heart go dancing?
No desire--no ambition leads me
Maybe because--nobody needs me.

(from “Spring is here”)

Hart suffered from depression throughout his life. His erratic behavior was often the cause of friction between him and Rodgers and led to a breakup of their partnership in 1943 before his death.

Once I laughed when I heard you say
That I'd be playing solitaire
Uneasy in my easy chair
It never entered my mind

And once you told me I was mistaken
That I'd awaken with the sun
And order orange juice for one
It never entered my mind

(from “It Never Entered My Mind”)

Comparisons between Rodgers and Hart and the successor team of Rodgers and Hammerstein are inevitable. According to Stephen Holden, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote arias while Rodgers and Hart wrote songs, that Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were musical dramas and Rodgers and Hart’s musical comedies.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s big five shows--“Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music”--will probably outlast Rodgers and Hart’s big four--”Babes in Arms,” “The Boys from Syracuse,” “Pal Joey” and “On Your Toes.”

However, it also seems likely that more Rodgers and Hart songs will live outside the theater than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s arias.

Probably no one has done more to perpetuate the Rodgers and Hart legacy than Frank Sinatra. Old Blue Eyes’ recordings of “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” “Spring is Here,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and many more constitute a passionate dictionary of romantic predicaments.

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