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Music Memories: Lorenz Hart

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
American songwriter Lorenz Hart

Lorenz Hart was born on May 2, 1895. Hart was one of the great lyricists of the 1930s; with his composing partner, Richard Rodgers, he wrote dozens of songs that have become popular standards.

Hart's parents were German Jewish immigrants. Hart spoke German well enough that his first job in the theater was translating German plays into English for the Shubert brothers, who were among the major theatrical producers of the era.

In 1919, Hart met Richard Rodgers, and they began writing songs together. Their first efforts were for student and other amateur productions, but by the end of the year, they had their first song on Broadway. In this era, it wasn't unusual for shows to include songs by several different writers, and the now-forgotten musical A Little Romeo featured their song "Any Old Place With You."

They continued to place songs in Broadway shows for a few years, and in 1925, had their first success as the sole writers of a musical. The Garrick Gaieties was a revue, an evening of songs and sketches that commented on and parodied the issues of the day; the enduring song from this score was "Manhattan." They wrote another set of songs for a 1926 edition of the Gaieties; "Mountain Greenery" was the standout of that set.

Over the next fifteen years, Rodgers and Hart wrote more than two dozen Broadway musicals. Their best work came in the late 1930s, when their shows included On Your Toes, The Boys from Syracuse, and Pal Joey. Perhaps their most impressive achievement was 1937's Babes in Arms, which included the enduring standards "Where or When," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," "My Funny Valentine," and "Johnny One Note." And that was just Act I; you had to wait until after intermission for "The Lady Is a Tramp."

2 posters from Rodger Hart

Hart and Rodgers also ventured into Hollywood for a few years, writing scores to several movie musicals. Their best work for the movies, Love Me Tonight, stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald, and introduced the songs "Isn't It Romantic?" and "Lover."

Between Hollywood and Broadway, it was estimated that Hart was earning $60,000 a year in the early 1930s, quite a sum during the Great Depression. He threw much of his money into socializing, throwing large parties. He also began drinking heavily, occasionally disappearing for several days at a time on alcoholic binges.

Hart had always struggled with alcoholism and depression. He was homosexual in an era when that was not accepted, and he was unusually short, not quite five feet tall. By all accounts, he was harshly self-critical, and saw himself as an unlovable man, condemned to an unhappy life of solitude.

The last new Rodgers & Hart musical was 1942's By Jupiter. There were reports in mid-1942 that Hart, Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein would be working on a new musical together, but Hart dropped out of the project, which became the first in a string of successful Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, Oklahoma!

In April 1943, Hart's mother died. He had lived with her since the death of his father some years earlier, and was devastated by the loss. He began drinking even more heavily, and his periodic disappearances became longer and more frequent. He pulled himself together long enough to write a few songs with Rodgers for a revival of their 1929 show A Connecticut Yankee, including his last song, "To Keep My Love Alive."

Hart died on November 22, 1943, of pneumonia caused by exposure after another round of heavy drinking.

3 Rodger Hart movie posters

The cast album as we know it today was not yet common during Hart's career, so there are no complete recordings of the original productions most of his shows. There are recordings of revivals of the major shows, though: On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, and Pal Joey.

But then, in the era of Rodgers & Hart, the individual songs are arguably more important than any show as a whole. Today, we expect that the songs in a musical will be thoroughly integrated into the story, written in ways that are so specific to the character and the plot that it is often hard to pull them out of context and perform them independently.

That wasn't the case in the 1930s. Songs were less specifically tied to their shows; there would be a love song here, a comic number there, a rousing up-tempo song to bring the show to a close. Because Rodgers & Hart songs (and other songs of the era) were not inseparably integrated into their musicals, they have become part of the shared Great American Songbook in a way that today's theatre songs rarely do. The ten songs already listed in this post would be enough for Hart to counted among the greats, and we haven't even mentioned "Blue Moon," "I Could Write a Book," "Falling in Love With Love," "You Took Advantage of Me," "Ten Cents a Dance,"... the list goes on.

Many artists have recorded Rodgers & Hart songbook albums, some that you would probably expect (Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Short), and some that you might not (Dawn Upshaw, The Supremes). More collections of Rodgers & Hart songs are available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal.

For many years, the standard biography of Lorenz Hart was Thou Swell, Thou Witty (print), written by his sister-in-law, Dorothy Hart. More recent, and perhaps more honest in some regards than a family member might be, is Gary Marmorstein's A Ship Without a Sail (e-book | print).