Friday, June 25, 2010

My Funny Valentine

Last night featured a 2 1/2+ hour immersion into the wonderful world of Rodgers & Hart. This was another retrospective at the Smithsonian put together by Robert Wyatt, whose programs are enjoyable although he loses track of time, so had to end with Babes in Arms and never got to The Boys From Syracuse and Pal Joey. Eileen adds that he commits every fault every presenter fears--knocks out the video, puts on the wrong CD number, and ignores the clock.

Nevertheless, his audio and video clips, plus his gloss on the careers of Dick Rodgers and Larry Hart, make the evenings memorable. He started with two blockbusters--Lena Horne doing "My Funny Valentine" -- probably the saddest and most delightful lyrics Hart ever wrote and then his last song, "To Keep My Love Alive," which features the most sublimely wicked lyrics probably ever sung on Broadway--in this case, by Hart's great friend, Vivienne Segal. He didn't get to it but she was the original singer of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" in Pal Joey. I also would have loved to have heard some stories of the interplay between Rodgers & Hart and John O'Hara, from whose stories, of course, Pal Joey derived.

I knew Hart was a strange case but did not realize that from 1935 on until he died in 1943 (at 48), he sank farther and farther into alcoholism. Wyatt did not mention that both Rodgers and Hart were bi (as was Cole Porter), but in Hart's case, he was so short with such a large head that he never did find the love he sought and that search is at the heart of his lyrics. It also seems clear that he was a true genius, in view of the speed with which he wrote. Rodgers was, too, and also not the nicest guy on the block, despite the ease with which he turned out melody after melody, first with Hart, then on a heavier basis with Oscar Hammerstein II, and lastly on his own, as he composed from age 14 until his 70s.

But the songs...There's a Small Hotel and I Don't Remember When and Blue Moon and Mountain Greenery (which he didn't get to, either. The picture you get, too, of Broadway in the 20s and even later in the 30s, even after talking pictures began to diminish the huge number of productions (264 in one year in the 20s!) on the New York stage. There's so many songs that when you hear them, you remark that you never knew that was by Rodgers & Hart. Remember Jimmy Cagney as George M. Cohan dancing up the proscenium as FDR in I'd Rather Be Right? Yes, they wrote it.

They did shows with Balanchine as choreographer and were a bit in awe of his reputation until he told them he'd design the dance in any way they wrote the music and lyrics. As with the other composers and lyricists, they had an early 30s period in Hollywood, when the stage was in the doldrums. There too, they succeeded. Of course, for their first five years, they had only flops until The Garrick Gaieties sprung them in 1925 with We'll Take Manhattan, written originally for some summer camp musical or Columbia varsity show.

They even were the first with an integrated show--integrating the songs and the plot, that is. It was a flop, alas, called Chee-Chee, so we had to wait for the Rodgers & Hammerstein kick-off, Oklahoma, for the first successful one. Hart, incidentally, who was dead before Oklahoma opened, turned down the chance to do it, based on Green Grow the Lilacs. I like to think he thought he was too corny, not that some of his own shows weren't. They did Billy Rose's Jumbo at the old Hippodrome. Wyatt doesn't know New York that well, so we shouted out that it was located at 44th St. and Sixth Ave. I didn't have the heart to add that for about a half-century it's been a parking garage.

Larry Hart's nephew was in the audience. There was also mention of Larry's brother, the comedian Teddy Hart, one of the many memorable stage folks I once was introduced to at The Lambs with my dad. He had been an original star in The Boys From Syracuse, and outlived his brother by about 35 years.

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