“Amusing, breezy, contagious, energetic, fresh, gay, impudent, joyful, sophisticated, unhackneyed, versatile, witty, youthful, zestful”—such are the critical reactions to the works of Rodgers and Hart. Perhaps Lorenz Hart’s failure to grow up physically and emotionally, a failure that destroyed him personally, was also what gave his lyrics and plots those fun-loving qualities that contributed to his success professionally. Youthful vitality and wit are the first characteristics common to all the shows of Rodgers and Hart. Hart evidenced a satiric turn of mind from his earliest attempts at writing, and he kept it until his death; Rodgers commented that Hart “really didn’t know how not to be clever.” All their plots, those they wrote and those they set to music, were witty satires, in which Hart’s irreverent lyrics could play their role.
Another characteristic of Rodgers and Hart’s shows is their variety. Both partners believed in avoiding formulas, other people’s or their own, and in never doing the same thing twice in a row—or twice at all, if possible. Subject matter for their shows includes anything from grand opera, the Depression, and long-distance bicycle racing to Freudian dreams, Chinese eunuchs, and Amazons. In the six librettos that they wrote themselves, there is a somewhat more consistent use of show business themes. Nevertheless, they made a deliberate policy of turning to a story quite different from whatever they had just completed, no matter how successful. For example, the political satire I’d Rather Be Right was followed by the fantasy I Married an Angel, which was followed in turn by the Shakespearean farce The Boys from Syracuse.
A third important characteristic of Rodgers and Hart’s artistry was their effort to make the musical comedy a more completely integrated musical drama, in which the songs advanced the plot and portrayed character. As youngsters, both were impressed with the Kern-Bolton-Wodehouse musicals, in which the plots were not episodic or situational but were motivated by the characters, and the songs were not interludes but were part of the drama. Both writers wished to emulate and indeed surpass what they had admired. Their first Broadway comedy, Dearest Enemy, was such a drama, and the history of their songs and librettos is the history of improvements in song as drama.
Dearest Enemy was based on an incident in U.S. history: Some ladies of New York entertained the officers of British general William Howe’s staff with cakes and ale, enabling American forces to make a strategic retreat. The show was turned down by several producers who could not imagine the commercial success of a musical based on American history. Rodgers and Hart, however, could see the possibilities of an element of sexual enticement in the delay of the British, and the situation allowed them to counterplay a genuine love affair between a young American girl and a British officer against a strategic flirtation by an older woman. Two contrasting love songs were used to emphasize the differences between these relationships: “Here in My Arms” and “Old Enough to Love.” Tired of the traditional love ballad, typically a stock love song with little appropriateness to the singer, the composers were looking for new ways to sing about love. “Old Enough to Love” allowed two variations on the theme: First, it was a love song between mature adults rather than ingenues, and second, it ironically used a tender lyric as a medium for a harsher emotion. (The latter was a technique that Rodgers and Hart used again in many later shows.) Furthermore, Hart suited the dialect of each song to the character singing it. In translating “The Lady in Ermine” a few years earlier, he had researched the eighteenth century, and in writing Dearest Enemy he was able to draw on this research in creating dialogue and lyrics that suggested the period. Dearest Enemy was one of the first musical comedies to achieve such authenticity. In general, comedy had simply placed a modern story in period costumes and settings. Besides the period dialect, Hart also used simple, ingenuous language for the girl’s song and more complex, sophisticated language for the woman’s. Thus he began his adaptation of lyric to the portrayal of dramatic character. Dearest Enemy also introduced the type of spunky, resourceful females that typically populate Rodgers and Hart musicals.
Although The Girl Friend was one of Rodgers and Hart’s most popular and profitable productions, it did not add a great deal to their growth as artists. Peggy-Ann was the next significant step in their career. Based on a popular play, Tillie’s Nightmare, in which the heroine had a series of comic dreams, the Rodgers-Hart-Fields team reinterpreted the dreams as Freudian fantasies. It was one of the first musical comedies to use Freudian theory. It also made use of a non-Broadway, balletic style of dancing, which along with the music was an integral part of the dream action. The dream, in turn, constituted the main plot, for the frame story was simply a young girl’s coming to terms through her fantasies with the unromantic realities of her everyday life. In accordance with the Freudian background, the songs featured sexual innuendo to a degree unusual for the time, as in...
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