Respect for Rodgers and Hart

This morning we confer all honor and praise to composer/producer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and lyricist Lorenz Hart (1895-1943).

The son of a successful doctor, Rodgers’ journey into show biz was unlike that of many of the folks we have written about here, who (by necessity) pursued what might be called “the vaudeville track” into show business. A Queens native, Rodgers had the benefit of education at Columbia and Julliard (then known as the Institute of Musical Art). He played piano since the age of six and began composing tunes as a teenager, inspired by heroes like Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern. At Columbia, he met and began embryonic collaborations with both his future collaborators Lorenz Hart (with whom he worked from 1919 to 1943, 25 years) and Oscar Hammerstein II (with whom he worked from 1943 to 1960, 16 years).

At the start of his career, Rodgers was a musical director for Lew Fields, which gave him the opportunity to work with stage stars like Nora Bayes and Fred Allen (the latter of whom I prefer not to imagine singing). Their first hit was the held-over Theatre Guild benefit revue The Garrick Gaieties (1925), which featured Sterling Holloway, Libby Holman, and those inveterate song and dance men (sarcasm) Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner. Lew Fields’ son Herbert wrote the books for their early shows The Girl Friend (1926) starring Puck and White; Peggy Ann (1926), an adaptation of Tillie’s Nightmare with Helen Ford and Lulu McConnell; A Connecticut Yankee (1927), based on the Mark Twain classic; Present Arms (1928) with Charles King and Busby Berkley (who also choreographed); and Chee-Chee (1928) with Helen Ford as the title character and Philip Loeb. There was also the Ziegfeld show Betsy (1926-27) with Belle Baker, Dan Healy, and Al Shean; the Dillingham show She’s My Baby (1928), with book by Kalmar and Ruby, and a cast that included Bea Lillie, William Frawley, Irene Dunne, and a young Geraldine Fitzgerald; Spring is Here (1929) with Charles Ruggles, Thelma White, and Inez Courtney; and Heads Up (1929) with Ray Bolger, Victor Moore, and Jack Whiting.

The latter show was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 1930 with Victor Moore retaining his part, and Buddy Rogers and Helen Kane also starring. The year proved a kind of watershed for the team, for they also wrote the songs for the Ed Wynn blockbuster Broadway revue Simple Simon, which also had Will Ahern, Ruth Etting, and Harriet Hoctor. This was followed by America’s Sweetheart (1931), directed by Monty Woolley, with Inez Courtney, Jack Whiting, Dorothy Dare, and Gus Shy. In 1932 came Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, and C. Aubrey Smith. That same year, Rodgers scored the rare George M. Cohan movie (with Jimmy Durante and Claudette Colbert) The Phantom President, and, the following year, the delightful and strange Jolson vehicle Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, which we wrote about here.

Mid-decade saw another step up: in 1935 Rodgers and Hart wrote songs for the W.C. Fields/Bing Crosby team-up Mississippi, as well as Billy Rose’s smash Hippodrome musical Jumbo (adapted into a 1962 film). This was followed by On Your Toes (1936), co-written with George Abbott, featuring choreography by George Balanchine (with whom Rodgers had previously collaborated on a ballet) and a cast that included Ray Bolger and Monty Woolley. The 1939 film version starred a young Eddie Albert and Vera Zorina.

Of course I am going to be partial to their 1937 show Babes in Arms, with its Rhode Island setting (I’m from Rhode Island) and its vaudeville revival premise. The original show starred Mitzi Green, Ray Heatherton (Joey’s father) and the Nicholas Brothers. The character of “Baby Rose” inevitably reminds of both Baby Rose Marie and the Hovick Sisters. The original version had left-wing and racial themes that were scrubbed out of subsequent adaptations and revivals although a restoration of those would certainly be welcome at present. The famous 1939 MGM movie (directed by Busby Berkley) of course starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and launched the whole “Kids Save the Day By Putting on a Show!” subgenre.

The team next collaborated with George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart on I’d Rather Be Right (1937) and wrote the book as well as the songs for I Married an Angel (1938), directed by Joshua Logan, and choreographed by Balanchine, before turning out their next well remembered classic The Boys from Syracuse (1938). This adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, reunited them with George Abbott and starred Eddie Albert and Jimmy Savo, with Ronald Graham and Teddy Hart playing their twins, as well as Muriel Angelus, soon to co-star in Preston Sturges’s The Great McGinty, and (true fact!) Burl Ives, among others in the cast. The cast of the 1940 film version, directed by Eddie Sutherland included Allan Jones and Joe Penner (self-twinned through the magic of cinema), Martha Raye, Alan Mowbray, Charles Butterworth, Rosemary Lane, Eric Blore, and a host of other great character actors in the ensemble.

Abbott also directed their next show Too Many Girls (1939) with Desi Arnaz, Eddie Bracken, Van Johnson, Hal Le Roy, et al. This was followed by Higher and Higher (1940) with Jack Haley, June Allyson, Vera Ellen, etc. And then — perhaps their most significant and mature contribution as a team — Pal Joey (1940), with a book by John O’Hara, based on his stories. Gene Kelly played the titular rake in the original Broadway production, supported by Vivienne Segal, Jack Durant, and June Havoc. Frank Sinatra played Joey in the 1957 film. The team’s last completed work was By Jupiter (1942), which starred Ray Bolger.

Wait! We haven’t mentioned their whole reason for existing: their songs! The best known may be “Blue Moon” (1934), used in several MGM musicals and later covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, The Marcels, Sam Cooke, and Bobby Vinton. The chord progression became a kind of formula for doo wop and early rock and roll songwriting. “The Lady is a Tramp” and “My Funny Valentine” were both originally in Babes in Arms. The touching “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” was in Jumbo. The Depression era classic “Ten Cents a Dance” was in Simple Simon and became associated with its singer Ruth Etting. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” was in Pal Joey. And scores of others.

Hart passed away as work was beginning on Oklahoma!, although he had withdrawn from the project by the time he died, and as a consequence Hammerstein took over the lyrical chores. Hart was a closeted, depressed gay alcoholic with a passion for cigars. The latter detail is the only one to make it into the 1948 musical bio-pic about the team Words and Music, in which Mickey Rooney, in one of his best performances, portrays Hart, and Tom Drake plays Rodgers. Hart’s early death came about as a result of his despondency over the death of his mother. He caught pneumonia after a night out drinking in the biting November cold. His passing occurred on November 22, 1943, 20 years to the day before that of John F. Kennedy. (That bit of trivia is entirely without significance, I suppose, but let’s make some. The common denominator is of course Frank Sinatra. Was HE responsible? After all, this is the age of cockamamie conspiracy theories. Let’s float that one, see how far it gets.)

At this point I’m going to do the unthinkable and shortchange the second phase of Rodgers’ career with Hammerstein, due to the fact that is has been amply lauded everywhere else, is already well known, and it, by design, veers decisively away from my preferred vaudeville aesthetic. But, inevitably I will get to OH2 eventually. As I’ve written, I swim against the current in preferring State Fair to their other shows.

Rodgers (whose date of birth was 120 years ago today as I write this) also produced and co-produced a number of important Broadway shows he didn’t write the music for, including I Remember Mama (1944), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), John Loves Mary (1947), the 1948 revival of Show Boat, and others.

For more on show business history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,