Hart, Lorenz Milton

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HART, Lorenz Milton

HART, Lorenz Milton (b. 2 May 1895;d. 22 November 1943), lyricist.

Lorenz Milton Hart was born in New York City to an upper-middle-class, German-Jewish family. He spent his childhood and most of his adulthood living with his family in a large brownstone house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His love for theater began at summer camp in the Catskills. Hart studied journalism at Columbia University, but his real passion was for amateur theatrical groups. Hart wrote, performed, and directed for Columbia's Player's Club. Ironically, one of his fellow thespians at Columbia was Oscar Hammerstein II, who would replace him as Richard Rodgers's collaborator. After leaving Columbia, Hart worked for the Shubert organization as a translator of German plays and operettas. Early in 1919 he met Rodgers, a prodigious high school senior. Their first composer–lyricist collaboration, "Any Old Place with You," was performed as part of a Lew Fields revue, A Lonely Romeo , in August 1919, launching a brilliant, complicated partnership that lasted over two decades.

While Rodgers went on, after Hart's death, to work with Hammerstein and, later, a number of other lyricists, Hart worked exclusively with Rodgers. The two men quickly moved from writing songs and scores for amateur shows to writing for sophisticated Broadway revues, then to writing the scores for some of the classic musicals of the 1920s and 1930s. The team spent the 1920s writing for Broadway, but with the advent of sound film, Hollywood producers were eager to attract hit composers. Unfortunately, the team was assigned to some forgettable musical projects that did not inspire their best work. Rodgers and Hart then returned to Broadway in the mid-1930s and created a string of hit musicals including On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), and Pal Joey (1940), filled with songs that would become standards.

Hart's best lyrics, easily separated from the context of the shows for which they were written, are the most confessional of any major Broadway bard. They reveal a man who hated his own appearance and ached at his separation from the conventional heterosexual romance that lies at the heart of popular song. His best lyrics are cries of unrequited desire and love. Hart was under five feet tall with an disproportionately large, prematurely balding head. Again and again, his lyrics describe people whose looks are "unphotographable." He was hardly the only homosexual in the theater during his career—his most celebrated lyricist peers, Cole Porter and Noel Coward, were also gay, as were many performers, directors, designers, and choreographers—yet Hart could neither deny

nor accept his homosexuality. On the one hand, his most constant companion, Milton "Doc" Bender, was also his procurer; on the other, young men who had sex with Hart attested to his self-loathing about his homosexuality. Hart's negative self-image was complicated by his professional relationship with the extremely straight, disciplined, uptight Rodgers, whom he called "the Principal." Hart was anything but disciplined, often disappearing for days at a time and turning in his contributions at the last minute. Fortunately, he could write his brilliant lyrics quickly and with little need for revision. If anything, his work came too easily for him. No doubt Hart's self-hatred and complex relationship with his partner exacerbated the alcoholism that would finally destroy his career and lead to his death at the age of forty-eight.

In the Golden Age of Broadway song, lyrics were expected to be virtuosic displays of wit and poetic invention. Hart's lyrics are filled with surprising rhymes and clever, ironic figures of speech. He was more versatile than Cole Porter, more literate than Irving Berlin. Part of the complexity of Hart's lyrics is the pleasant but acerbic aftertaste: his best lyrics for both ballads and patter songs focus either on love as a fantasy never quite fulfilled or on love that is unhappy, but better than nothing. Real love, for Hart, is often painful, and most love is unrequited. As playwright Jerome Lawrence once observed, Hart "is the poet laureate of masochism." It is appropriate that Rodgers and Hart's masterpiece is the very cynical Pal Joey, the saga of an affair between a "half pint" hustler and a world-wise society woman who has no illusions about what Joey can and cannot provide.

By the early 1940s, Hart's drinking and disappearances were seriously threatening the most successful song-writing team of the period. Their last collaboration, By Jupiter (1942), had to be written in Doctor's Hospital in New York while Hart was drying out. Hart had no interest in writing lyrics for what would turn out to be Oklahoma! (1943), so Rodgers, with Hart's blessing, collaborated with Hammerstein. Some think that the enormous success of this legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration was the final blow in Hart's downfall. After Oklahoma! Rodgers collaborated one final time with Hart on an extensive revision of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). Though Hart was unusually sober and disciplined during the composition, perhaps trying to prove to "the Principal" that he still could be a collaborator, he arrived at the opening so drunk that he had to be escorted from the theater. He died of pneumonia on 22 November 1943.


Clum, John M. Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

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

Hart, Dorothy, and Robert Kimball, eds. The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart. New York: Da Capo, 1995.

Marx, Samuel, and Jan Clayton. Rodgers and Hart: Bewitched, Bothered, and Bedeviled, An Anecdotal Account. New York: Putnam, 1976.

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

John M. Clum

see alsomusic: broadway and musical theater.