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Lorenz Hart

Lorenz Hart

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Also Known As: Lorenz Milton Hart Died: November 22, 1943
Born: May 2, 1895 Cause of Death: complications from pneumonia
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Music ... lyricist librettist
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BIOGRAPHY

Music aficionados are generally divided into two camps when discussing the work of composer Richard Rodgers. There are those who feel his best work was written in collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, especially as the pair are credited with re-inventing and re-structuring the musical comedy form from the early 1940s through the 1950s. Then, there are the partisans of Rodgers' work with lyricist Lorenz Hart, a partnership that yielded songs noted more for their emotional content than for psychological depth.

Like many of the great composers and lyricists of the early part of the 20th Century, Lorenz Milton Hart was the child of immigrants. He was born on May 2, 1895, the second son (and first to survive infancy) of German-born parents. While at summer camp, he began his show business career as an actor, appearing in productions at the Weingart Institute in the Catskills. The earliest extant verse written by Hart is a poem commemorating his parents' twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in 1911. While attending Columbia Grammar School and later Columbia University, Hart met and was befriended by future songwriters like Herbert Fields and Arthur Schwartz. In 1916, he began his lyric career in earnest, translating German songs into English. He went on to contribute lyrics to Columbia's 1919 varsity show and to camp songs written in tandem with Schwartz. That same year, he and a teenaged Richard Rodgers wrote their first song together, "Any Old Place With You", featured in the Broadway show "A Lonely Romeo".

With their partnership off and running, the pair set to work on their first score for "Poor Little Ritz Girl". During the show's try-out in Boston, however, the producers substantially revised the show and by the time it reached Broadway, most of the Rodgers and Hart songs had been dropped and the score was supplemented with work by Sigmund Romberg and Alex Gerber. It would be another five years before the duo had their first hit, "Manhattan", which was featured in "The Garrick Gaieties". For the remainder of the decade, the prolific team produced scores for at least two shows (and sometimes as many as four) each year. The 1926 edition of "The Garrick Gaieties" yielded "Mountain Greenery". Other shows were generally of the period, with sketchy plots upon which the score was hung. Some (like "Betsy") folded quickly; others (i.e., "A Connecticut Yankee") were hits that ran for hundreds of performances.

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would beckon and Rodgers and Hart were hired to contribute songs to the feature adaptation of "Follow Thru" (1930), a vehicle for Charles Rogers, Nancy Carroll and Jack Haley. When the final film was released, only one of the four Rodgers and Hart songs, "I'm Hard to Find", was included. Ironically, the film opened in NYC and L.A. the same week as "Leathernecking" (also 1930), the uneven screen version of their Broadway hit "Present Arms". First National hired the songwriters for three films, but after the first, "The Hot Heiress" (1931), tanked at the box office, the contract was nullified. Rodgers and Hart then moved to Paramount to provide the songs for the superb "Love Me Tonight" (1932). Directed by Rouben Mamoulian and teaming Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald as a tailor and a princess, respectively, it is considered by many critics as one of the best movie musicals ever made, a pure integration of music and story. The score includes the now classic "Isn't It Romantic?" and "Mimi" and marked the apotheosis of their Hollywood experience. They even appeared briefly in the film, with Rodgers as a photographer and Hart as a banker with the single line, "No!".

Many of the subsequent films to which Rodgers and Hart contributed songs were star vehicles of varying quality. Al Jolson headlined "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!" (1933), noted more for S N Berman's script written in rhyming couplet than for the score (although the title song garnered some notice). "The Phantom President" (1933), a political satire with George M Cohan, featured what most feel is sub-standard work by the writing team. (In fact, Cohan proved to be a difficult presence on the set and hardly inspired Rodgers and Hart to their best efforts, although they later wrote the 1937 stage show "I'd Rather Be Right" which featured Cohan as Franklin D Roosevelt.) "Evergreen" (1935), however, had Jessie Matthews in a dual role as a stage star and her daughter and strong songs by Rodgers and Hart, especially "Dancing on the Ceiling". Bing Crosby headed the cast of "Mississippi" (1935), which lacked a full score but included hits like "Down by the River" and "Easy to Remember but So Hard to Forget". By the time of the Carole Lombard misfire "Fools for Scandal" (1938), Rodgers and Hart had grown weary of films. They only worked on one later picture, the lackluster "They Met in Argentina" (1941).

Returning to the NYC stage in the mid-30s, Rodgers and Hart had the first of a string of hits with the Billy Rose-produced "Jumbo" (1935), starring Jimmy Durante and including the lilting ballad "My Romance" and the popular "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World". Within two years, they had two more hits, "On Your Toes" (1936), notable for its "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet choreographed by George Ballanchine, and "Babes in Arms" (1937), which includes such standards as "Where or When" and "The Lady Is a Tramp". "The Boys From Syracuse" (1938) with a book by George Abbott, turned Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" into a jaunty musical comedy, featured Hart's brother Teddy in a leading role and introduced "Falling in Love With Love".

By the 40s, however, Rodgers was wearying of Hart's growing alcoholism. "Pal Joey" (1940) proved to be a great success and provided Gene Kelly with a star-making turn in the title role (although Frank Sinatra landed the role in the 1957 feature). "By Jupiter" (1942) turned mythological figures into fodder for musical comedy. Among the songs in its score was the ironically titled "Nobody's Heart", which also reflected the lyricist's frustration in his own personal life ("Nobody writes his songs to me/no one belongs to me.") The final collaboration between Rodgers and Hart was a revival of "A Connecticut Yankee" (1943) for which they wrote what is considered their final song, "To Keep My Love Alive". Rodgers had offered Hart the opportunity to collaborate on "Green Grows the Lilacs" (later "Oklahoma!") but Hart was not physically or emotionally up to it. Rodgers began his partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II and shortly after the opening of "Oklahoma!", Hart was hospitalized and succumbed to complications from pneumonia.

Theater music generally works on at least two levels. Hart's songs, like most Broadway music written in the first half of the 20th century, especially, were meant to serve plot functions, exploring an emotion or commenting on the show's actions. They were also written to transcend the theater and move into the realm of popular music which audiences could play or listen to at home. Hart's lyrics, however, also function on another level and mirror his own concerns. Suffering from a form of dwarfism, Hart was short, with a head that seemed too large for his body. Openly homosexual, he also lived through the period of repression that coincided with Prohibition. Hart was never able to find a lover and many of the lyrics of his songs deal with unrequited love or with romantic fantasy figures. In "My Funny Valentine", Hart's lyrics are hardly complimentary ("Your looks are laughable, unphotographable") but they are overlooked by the singer ("Don't change a hair for me/Not if you care for me"). At other times, there is regret ("I Wish I Were in Love Again") or confusion ("This Can't Be Love"). Even one Rodgers and Hart song standard not featured in a musical, "Blue Moon", is addressed to a fantasy: "You heard me saying a prayer for/somebody I really could care for/And then there suddenly appeared before me,/the only one my arms will ever hold." Hart, however, was never able to fully marry his ideals with reality. Instead, he sought out refuge in parties and alcohol, with the latter a contributing factor in his untimely death at age 47. He was portrayed by Mickey Rooney in the highly sanitized 1948 biopic "Words and Music".

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