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8.120830 - RODGERS, Richard: Easy to Remember - Songs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (1925-1946)
EASY TO REMEMBER
'Tuneful and tasty, schmaltzy and smart;
That famous couplet by Irving Berlin goes a long way towards summing up the enduring appeal of the famous songwriting duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
For almost twenty years, from 1920–1943, they personified the savvy yet sentimental kind of tunes that poured off the Broadway stage.
Porter was more sophisticated, Kern more deeply harmonic, the Gershwins considerably jazzier. Still, when you look back on that period in time, no one captured it better than Rodgers and Hart. They gave voice to the feelings of everyday guys and gals, but they did it with a certain streetwise poetry (courtesy of Hart) and tuneful invention (thanks to Rodgers) that warranted John O'Hara's observation:
'If those of us who lived and loved and suffered through that time could have put our passions into words and music, it would have sounded just like Rodgers and Hart.'
This collection of artists from the period (in some cases, the original interpreters) puts us even closer to the sensation of hearing an era put into song. Want to know what America was like during the two World Wars? Then listen to the sound of Rodgers and Hart.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart came from two different worlds in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Hart, the older, was born in 1895 to a bohemian, artistic family governed by his warm-hearted mother, Frieda. Their home was a combination salon and saloon for artists of the day and Hart grew up in that kind of gemütlickheit environment.
Rodgers, on the other hand, was born in 1902 to a more rigidly conventional household where his doctor father held the reins. Music was a part of his growing up, however, and it wasn't long before his parents began encouraging their prodigy, who could play piano pleasingly by the time he was six.
At fifteen, Rodgers placed a song in a benefit show called One Minute Please. Another young man named Phillip Leavitt heard his work and thought he'd get along fine with an acquaintance of his named Lorenz Hart.
Despite the many differences in age, background, style between the two young men, they did click and started writing. By 1920, they has been asked to write the score for the musical Poor Little Ritz Girl. Unfortunately, most of their collaborations were cut by the time it opened on Broadway.
Rodgers, licking his wounds, went to Columbia University, where he and Hart honed their craft by writing the annual Varsity Shows. Soon, they were considered good enough to be invited to write the score for The Garrick Gaieties, a revue that the prestigious Theatre Guild was producing to raise money for the decoration of their new home.
The first tune on this collection, Manhattan, was the one that changed it all. In his autobiography, Richard Rodgers recalled how at the 17 May 1925 opening performance, 'the hairs stood up on the back of my head' as he sensed the audience's positive response to this number. The zesty Paul Whiteman treatment here gives the music full value, but deprives us, alas, of Hart's wiseguy lyrics rhyming 'what street' with 'Mott Street' and 'fancy' with 'Delancey'.
So impressive was their success and so quickly did the musical theatre world move in those days that by September they had opened a Revolutionary War musical, Dearest Enemy, best remembered now for "Here In My Arms", and by March of 1926, they scored an impressive hit with a perfect piece of period fluff, The Girl Friend. From it, you'll hear The Revelers (the most famous close-harmony group of the period) with the classic The Blue Room.
And then, two months later, they returned to the second edition of The Garrick Gaieties and topped their earlier triumph with the feisty, fetchingly rhymed Mountain Greenery. ('While you love your lover let / Blue skies be your coverlet …'), here performed by popular vocalist of the time, Frank Crumit.
Over the next four years, they wrote eight shows. Most were hits, a few were flops, but they indicated an amazing batting average, even though most of them couldn't be revived today because of their tissue-paper books wrapped around cardboard characters.
But there were some incredible musical gems hidden inside these shows. Peggy-Ann (1926) yielded Where's That Rainbow, sung here by the great Helen Morgan. A very young Bing Crosby croons his way through You Took Advantage Of Me from Present Arms (1928) and Twenties' favourites Franklyn Baur and George Olsen offer a pair of hits from A Connecticut Yankee, Thou Swell and My Heart Stood Still.
Rodgers and Hart rode out the rest of the Twenties boom years with trifles like Spring Is Here and Heads Up!, but their first show to follow the great stock market crash was a bizarre Florenz Ziegfeld spectacle entitled Simple Simon (1930). It began as a kind of fractured Mother Goose story-book engineered for the talents of Ed Wynn, but along the way, Rodgers and Hart kept being urged to add more contemporary numbers.
What audiences made of a cynical song about a taxi-dance can only be left to the imagination, especially as slurred by the alcoholic Lee Morse, who was finally fired. The brilliant Ruth Etting stepped into the show for the first time on opening night and stopped the proceedings cold with this tart, touching number: Ten Cents A Dance.
Rodgers and Hart came up with one more Broadway show during this period, an unsuccessful satire of Hollywood called America's Sweetheart, whose hit song was I've Got Five Dollars sung here (but not on stage) by the same Lee Morse whose drinking cost her Ten Cents A Dance, backed up here by classy sidemen like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.
But then, Rodgers & Hart heeded the siren song of the very place they had just been mocking and went west to California to provide the scores for a selection of new 'talkie' musicals.
None of the movies they were involved with became big hits, but they did yield some lovely songs, performed here by their original stars: Jeanette McDonald does Isn't It Romantic from Love Me Tonight (1932), Al Jolson brings his unique style to You Are Too Beautiful from Hallelujah, I'm A Bum (1932) and Bing Crosby croons It's Easy To Remember from Mississippi (1935). Jessie Matthews also introduced Dancing On The Ceiling in the British film Evergreen.
A great showbiz footnote rests with the popular standard Blue Moon, which originally appeared in a 1934 movie called Manhattan Melodrama as "The Bad In Every Man". As such, it was one of the last things John Dillinger heard before being gunned to death. With a more upbeat lyric change, it became a pop hit. Rodgers and Hart returned to Broadway in 1935 with the circus spectacle Jumbo and followed it with ten other shows which included many of their greatest hits.
From that prolific period we include Sophie Tucker's brassy rendition of The Lady Is A Tramp from Babes In Arms (1937), Mary Jane Walsh's plaintive I Didn't Know What Time It Was from Too Many Girls (1939) and the kooky blending of Betty Garrett and Milton Berle on Ev'rything I Got from By Jupiter. There are also two extended orchestral passages here of Rodgers' music used in a symphonic piece for orchestra/voice and a dance sequence designed for use without lyrics – All Points West (1937) and Slaughter On Tenth Avenue from On Your Toes (1936).
They indicate two things which spelled the end of this once unbeatable partnership. Hart was an increasingly unstable alcoholic who drank to hide his self-disgust over being under five foot tall, and homosexual. He began to be more and more unreliable, going on binges for weeks. Rodgers frequently had to check into hospitals alongside Hart to enable them to write.
These two works also show Rodgers wanting to create in a different direction – something bigger, more open, more expansive. He couldn't have guessed it at the time, but what he was looking for was Oscar Hammerstein.
When the Rodgers–Hart relationship finally crumbled, Rodgers turned to Hammerstein and they wrote Oklahoma!, which opened triumphantly in March 1943. To help take the curse off its giant success for Hart, Rodgers remounted one of their greatest hits, A Connecticut Yankee, six months later, hoping it would save his former collaborator from the grave. It didn't work. On opening night, Hart embarked on a bender that lasted for days. When he was finally found, he had developed pneumonia, which finally killed him on 22 November at the age of 48.
For several decades, Rodgers and Hart made magic together. But beneath the excitement of the music and the wit of the lyrics, it was the melancholy of Larry Hart's life which won out in the end.
Manhattan (introducing 'Sentimental Me')
The Blue Room
Where's That Rainbow
My Heart Stood Still
You Took Advantage Of Me
Ten Cents A Dance
I've Got Five Dollars
Isn't It Romantic
You Are Too Beautiful
Dancing On The Ceiling
It's Easy To Remember
The Lady Is A Tramp
All Points West
I Didn't Know What Time It Was
Ev'rything I've Got
Slaughter On Tenth Avenue
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