Article abstract: The first musical-comedy lyricist to receive equal billing with the composer, Hart was among a small group of early musical-comedy writers who led the way in combining diverse theatrical traditions of romance, spectacle, satire, and musical revue into a distinctly American art form.
Lorenz Milton Hart was born May 2, 1895, in the Lower East Side of New York City. His parents, Frieda Isenberg and Max Hertz, were Jewish German immigrants. Max, who changed the spelling of his name in the United States, was an outgoing, free-spending businessman with political links to Tammany Hall. Frieda was a frustrated actress. Besides Lorenz, or Larry, as he was called, the Harts had one other child, Theodore Van Wyck Hart, who as Teddy Hart became a well-known actor in theatrical comedy.
Sparked by Frieda’s love for the theater, the Harts began taking the boys to plays and shows when they were quite young, and the children responded by writing and acting comedy skits at home and in school. Larry attended Columbia Grammar and DeWitt Clinton schools and the summer camp-schools the Weingart Institute and Paradox Lake Camp. There, he was active in literary societies, as editor, literary reviewer, and humorous essayist for the school papers, and as actor and writer of school dramatics. One summer, Larry, a voracious reader, brought to camp a trunk full of books, including a fifteen-volume set of the works of William Shakespeare. He also loved music, listening eagerly to opera, light opera, and vaudeville, but especially to operettas by W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan and the new musical shows by Jerome Kern, P. G. Wodehouse, and Guy Bolton.
At the camps, Hart and his friends joked that the size and weight of his brain prevented his body from growing. He never grew taller than about five feet, and his head was somewhat too large for his body. Although he was not dwarfish in this disproportion, he was sensitive about his appearance, especially in regard to its effect on women. His face, however, was intelligent, lively, and animated, highlighted by intense, dark eyes. In photographs, he often gazed at the camera from under rather straight, dark eyebrows, as though totally absorbing whatever he perceived. In later years, his hairline receded, increasing the impact of the intelligent eyes and forehead. His other facial features were also regular and handsome. He moved quickly, laughed easily and heartily, and frequently rubbed his hands together in a characteristic nervous but gleeful gesture. He is most often described as dynamic, charismatic, restless, witty, and generous. With his charm and liveliness, he was usually the center of attention, and people often overlooked his small size completely.
When Hart was twenty-three and Richard Rodgers sixteen, a friend brought the two together to work on a fund-raising benefit. By this time, Hart had attended Columbia University, primarily to participate in the varsity shows program there. (At that time, the university varsity shows were somewhat like Off-Broadway shows later. They were publicly performed in hotel meeting rooms and little theaters and were reviewed by professional critics seeking new talent.) Hart had also written some comedy routines for minor vaudeville entertainers but was making little headway in his career. Within an hour of their meeting, Rodgers and Hart knew that they had compatible ideas about music and that they would work together as composers. Their fund-raiser was successful, and one of its songs, “Any Old Place with You,” was purchased by Lew Fields for inclusion in a Broadway musical, their first professional success.
When Rodgers enrolled at Columbia, he and Hart continued their collaboration in the varsity shows Fly with Me (1920) and You’ll Never Know (1921), both of which were moderately successful. In these amateur productions, the two were perfecting their theatrical skills and learning to complement each other’s talents. Altogether, they wrote about twenty-five amateur shows before the brilliant success of The Garrick Gaieties of 1925. This was a fund-raiser for the Theater Guild, intended for only two performances, but the cheers of the audience and the rave reviews by the critics prompted the guild to give it a regular run, and it became the hit of the 1925 theatrical season, continuing for 211 performances. From this revue came “Manhattan,” Rodgers and Hart’s first major hit song. On the strength of this success, they were able to get backing for the professional production of their musical comedy Dearest Enemy (1925). With Herbert Fields as librettist, they had written this show several years earlier but could not find a backer. The story was based on a Revolutionary War incident, and producers were afraid that the public would be cool toward a comedy by unknown writers and based on history. The production of Dearest Enemy was the professional debut of the songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart.
The year 1926 was busy for the new team. Dearest Enemy was followed by three more highly popular and profitable shows, which established Rodgers and Hart as commercially successful writers well worth the investment of major Broadway producers such as Billy Rose, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Charles Dillingham. The three shows were The Girl Friend, with its hit song “The Blue Room,” The Garrick Gaieties of 1926, featuring “Mountain Greenery,” and Peggy-Ann. The striking fact about these four shows was their diversity. Rodgers and Hart wanted to avoid becoming stereotyped in a particular form of comedy, and they actively sought out stories and shows that offered fresh opportunities. These four shows of 1926 were a light operatic period piece, a bright, contemporary romantic comedy, a satirical revue, and a somewhat surrealistic fantasy based on Freudian dream theories and violating most of the traditions of staging, lighting, and use of chorus. Peggy-Ann received high praise from critics for its originality. Also produced in 1926 were three other, less successful, shows, two in London. From the 1926 shows came the songs “The Blue Room,” “Mountain Greenery,” and “My Lucky Star.”
A Connecticut Yankee (1927) confirmed Hart’s preeminence as a lyricist. In his youthful, exuberant shows, he delighted in unexpected and unconventional rhymes, especially feminine, approximate, and run-on rhymes, as in “We could find no cleaner re-/ Treat from life’s machinery/ Than our mountain greenery/ Home.” Although most critics and audiences welcomed this sophisticated and witty departure from the moon/June clichés, others considered such cleverness too facile or too heavy-handed and forced. Some complained, too, that Hart’s satirical tendency was too brittle, too pervasive, that he could write nothing else. In A Connecticut Yankee, Hart proved that he was not simply a facile rhymer. He showed his linguistic deftness and his ear for dialect in songs such as “Thou Swell” which mixed Shakespearean words with New York slang and New England cadences. The result was delightful. He also proved his ability to handle simple rhymes and tender sentiment in the graceful love ballad “My Heart Stood Still.”
Following A Connecticut Yankee came an unhappy period. Some good songs came out of 1928 and 1929: “My Lucky Star,” “You Took Advantage of Me,” “Spring Is Here,” “With a Song in My Heart,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” “Dancing on the Ceiling”; nevertheless, the next seven shows ranged from average to failure. Hart’s father died in 1928. The stock market crash in 1929 substantially halted Broadway musical production for several years. During the Great Depression of the...
(The entire section is 3210 words.)