Rodgers and Hart

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Rodgers and Hart

American composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and lyricist/librettist Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) were one of America's most successful composer/lyricist teams in the golden age of American songwriting. Their works for the musical theater produced a cornucopia of lasting songs. From the beginning of a collaboration that began in 1925 and lasted until Lorenz Hart's death in 1943, Rodgers and Hart shared the goal of writing music for the theater that joined lyrics and music with dramatic and emotional coherence. By the time of their last work together, their experiments in musical theater had prepared the way for Rodgers's later great musicals with Oscar Hammerstein II—works such as Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), in which the interaction of lyrics, libretto, music, and dance reached a new level. Rodgers and Hart's best known shows are The Boys from Syracuse (1938), for which the songs "Falling in Love with Love" and "This Can't Be Love" were written, and Pal Joey (1940) which includes "Bewitched (Bothered, and Bewildered)," one of their most popular songs.

Both Rodgers and Hart were born in New York City, and both had evinced an early interest in music and theater. Rodgers studied at Columbia University from 1919 to 1921 and then, from 1921 to 1923, at the Institute of Musical Art, later known as the Juilliard School of Music. He began writing for amateur musical theater productions while still a student, and in 1918 he met Lorenz Hart, a Columbia student majoring in journalism. Rodgers and Hart shared an interest in a style of writing that would integrate words and music in an artistically successful manner. Rodgers's first published song, "Any Old Place with You," interpolated in A Lonely Romeo (1919), was a collaboration with Hart. They continued to work together until their 1925 success with The Garrick Gaieties, a revue which included the now classic and still immensely popular "Manhattan." By the time of their show A Connecticut Yankee in 1927, Rodgers was much in demand as a Broadway composer, and Hart was acknowledged as an accomplished lyricist whose only serious competitor was Ira Gershwin.

From 1926 to 1930 the pair produced 14 shows for both New York and London, along with individual songs for other productions. Following the Wall Street crash in 1929, financing for musical theater in New York became difficult to obtain; thus, like many other Broadway composers and lyricists, Rodgers and Hart turned to Hollywood. From 1930 to 1934 they wrote songs and background music for many films, and were memorably responsible for the score of the smash-hit Love Me Tonight (1932) for Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. In 1935 they returned to New York and unleashed a spate of new shows. One of the most notable of their new endeavors was On Your Toes in 1936, for which Rodgers wrote his first extensive orchestral music, the ballet score, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." This ballet was George Balanchine's first choreography for a book musical, and its importance to the plot presaged the significant "Dream Ballet" which would later be so important in Oklahoma! (1943). The string of Rodgers and Hart hits continued with Babes in Arms (1937) and The Boys from Syracuse (1938).

With Pal Joey in 1940, they departed from conventional musical theater practice and built the production around a much darker subject than Broadway was accustomed to contemplating. Pal Joey was based on John O'Hara's New Yorker stories about Joey Evans, an opportunistic, small-time entertainer. Joey gets a job at a nightclub where he begins a relationship with fellow entertainer Linda English, but when a wealthy older woman, Vera Simpson, notices him, he leaves Linda. Vera builds a glitzy nightclub, Chez Joey, for her lover, but soon tires of him, ultimately leaving Joey to move on to greener pastures. The best known song from Pal Joey is "Bewitched," a song whose suggestive lyrics were shocking at the time. The show introduced not only adult themes and provocative lyrics to Broadway, but addressed a segment of American life unfamiliar to musical audiences. Although Pal Joey ran for 374 performances following its opening on December 25, 1940, critics were ambivalent about it. However, the revival in 1952 and the 1957 film starring Frank Sinatra were more successful, assuring Pal Joey a secure place in the musical theater repertoire.

In 1942 Rodgers and Hart wrote one final show together, By Jupiter, set, as was The Boys from Syracuse, in ancient Greece. Starring Ray Bolger, it ran for 427 performances, the longest run of any Rodgers and Hart Broadway collaboration. Rodgers attempted to interest Hart in one more project together, a musical adaptation of Lynn Riggs's play, Green Grow the Lilacs, but Hart was unenthusiastic about the suitability of the material and declined to participate. His refusal coincided with the escalation of difficulties—largely the consequence of Hart's futile and self-destructive battle with alcoholism and homosexuality—that had plagued the partnership for years, and the situation was now nearly impossible for Rodgers to cope with. Throughout their 25-year collaboration, Rodgers had usually composed the music first, then asked Hart to write the lyrics. This approach enabled Rodgers to work when Hart was available, while the music Rodgers had already written would stimulate Hart's interest. As Hart's health deteriorated, however, his ability to keep appointments, appear at rehearsals, or revise material also failed. He died only a few months after the show he turned down, Green Grow the Lilacs, opened under the new title Oklahoma! on March 31, 1943, beginning an unprecedented run of 2,212 performances and a fruitful new partnership for Rodgers with Oscar Hammerstein II.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart created some of the most beloved of American songs for their shows, of which "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Blue Moon," "Mountain Greenery," and "With a Song in My Heart" are just five of many dozens. Written primarily in the 32-measure form popular with Tin Pan Alley's songsmiths, and not generally essential to character or plot development, they were easily excerpted from the shows in which they originally appeared to become standards, recorded time and time again over the years by top vocal artists. Their style combined Hart's witty lyrics, brilliant interior rhymes, and wry twists of meaning with Rodgers's expressive approach to harmony and his highly individual rhythmic choices. Even though Rodgers and Hart's shows are infrequently revived, the individual songs taken from them have become a cornerstone of the musical theater and popular song repertoire.

—Ann Sears

Further Reading:

Hart, Dorothy, editor. Thou Swell, Thou Witty: The Life and Lyrics of Larry Hart. New York, Harper & Row, 1976.

Hart, Dorothy, and Robert Kimball, editors, with an appreciation by Alan Jay Lerner. The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Hishchak, Thomas S. Word Crazy: Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim. New York, Praeger, 1991.

Marx, Samuel, and Jan Clayton. Rodgers and Hart: Bewitched, Bothered, and Bedeviled. New York, G. P. Putnam, 1976.

Nolan, Frederick. Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway. New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Rodgers, Richard. Musical Stages: An Autobiography. New York, Random House, 1975. Reprinted with a new introduction by Mary Rodgers. New York, Da Capo Press, 1995.