Hart, Lorenz

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HART, LORENZ (1895–1943), U.S. musical comedy lyricist. Born to immigrant parents, Larry Hart traced his descent through his mother from the German poet Heinrich *Heine. Hart graduated from the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1916. Although indifferent to academic studies outside literature and drama, Hart single-handedly changed the craft of lyric writing. He became the expressive bard of the urban generation that matured between the wars after he was introduced to a 16-year-old Richard *Rodgers by a mutual friend. Together the team of Rodgers and Hart created some of the greatest musicals of the first half of the 20th century. Hart was working in the theater for the *Shuberts, translating German plays, and Rodgers was writing variety shows at Columbia. The pair contributed to the Broadway musical Poor Little Ritz Girl in 1920 and by 1925 they had their own success on Broadway, The Garrick Gaieties, an intimate revue that was a counter to huge, flossy "girlie" productions. Rodgers and Hart believed that monotony was killing the musical and that songwriters had to integrate libretto, lyrics, and music. The two men were diametrically opposed in temperament, but not in artistic spirit. Rodgers was reserved, disciplined, and stern. Hart was emotional and earthy, quick with a joke, and effusively warm. Hart suffered from a mild dwarfism and was a homosexual at a time of great social repression. In his songs, Hart was interested in exploring a single moment of pure emotion. The pair's songs were written to work on two levels: they had to function within the plotline of the show and they had to transcend the show so that people could listen at home and appreciate the music. Hart's songs often worked on a third level. Unable to find a mate, Hart rarely wrote a requited love song. His output is dominated by dreams and fantasies, lovers dancing on the ceiling, funny, ugly valentines.

Nevertheless, the partners had a string of successes on Broadway, including A Connecticut Yankee in 1927, The Boys From Syracuse in 1938, On Your Toes in 1936, Pal Joey in 1940, and By Jupiter in 1943. Their songs became American classics: "The Girl Friend, Manhattan" ("We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too"), "Thou Swell," "You Took Advantage of Me," "I'd Rather Be Right," "Little Girl Blue," and "I Married an Angel," to mention a few. In the 1930s Hart wrote the lyrics for "Have You Met Miss Jones?," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Blue Moon," "My Romance," "Where or When," and "Falling in Love With Love" from The Boys From Syracuse. The latter, based on A Comedy of Errors, was the pioneer adaptation of Shakespeare for musical comedy. Most of these songs were delicately oblique for a Depression-era audience that did not embrace sentimentality, but Hart penned the poignant "My Funny Valentine," a tribute to a homely lover; it became a classic American torch song.

By 1940 Hart and Rodgers decided that more of the naturalism of contemporary literature and drama had to be infused in musical comedy. In collaboration with the celebrated novelist John O'Hara they adapted his Pal Joey. The theme of a nice-looking young white song-and-dance man who could flirt and have sex with women was not easily digested by the American public. Most of the songs in the production were harshly witty. An older woman sings, "Take him, but don't ever let him take you." The show had a mixed reception but a decade later it was revived to enthusiastic audiences.

When wartime came, Hart was out of step with a patriotic public absorbed with traditional American values. The folksy Oklahoma! held no interest for him as he sank deeper into alcohol and depression, and Rodgers turned to Oscar *Hammerstein for a collaborator. But in 1943 Hart and Rodgers reunited for a revival of A Connecticut Yankee. On opening night, Hart slipped away and vanished for two days. He died a few days later of pneumonia.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]