If I had to choose one songwriting partnership as the crown jewel of the great American songbook—a paradigm of inventiveness, tunefulness, and consistent quality—it would be Rodgers and Hart. For twenty-five years, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart wrote the best songs for the stage. And throughout the 20th century, these songs became essential staples of American culture. This week, I’ll bring you the first of several shows exploring the songs of Rodgers and Hart, focusing on songs from roughly 1925 to 1935, including “Manhattan,” “Blue Moon,” and “Isn’t It Romantic?”
“We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy…”
Lorenz Hart was born in Harlem in 1895, the son of a successful business promoter and a distant relative of the famous German poet Heinrich Heine. The young Larry grew up fast, devouring book, plays, and all kinds of culture—although he never physically grew over five feet tall. He attended Columbia University for a stint, but left to pursue work in the theatre.
When he was in his early 20s, he got a job translating German plays for the Shuberts, the owners of the Broadway playhouse that bears their name. Although Larry Hart really wanted to be a lyricist.
When he was 23 years old, he was introduced to a 16-year-old aspiring songwriter named Richard Rodgers. The two kids hit it off right away, both with grand ideas of transforming the musical stage. Rodgers later wrote that when he met Larry Hart, quote “I acquired a career, a partner, a best friend—and a source of permanent irritation.”
Hart was by all accounts a difficult man to work with. Mercurial, hot-tempered, paranoid, gregarious, always with a cigar in his mouth—the exact opposite of the orderly Richard Rodgers in every way.
The pair had almost no success for their first five years together. Their only song to make it onto a Broadway show was “Any Old Place With You” from 1919, which ended up on a review called A Lonely Romeo. Rodgers was still a teenager at the time.
Then in 1925, they wrote the music for a review called The Garrick Gaieties, the show that put Rodgers and Hart on the map. The breakout number from the show was a love letter to the city they called home, and all of the cheap and not-so-fancy amenities it had to offer. The tune was called “Manhattan,” and on opening night, the audience demanded about 10 encores of it. Everyone was singing “Manhattan” together when the house lights came up.
Early Broadway Success
The Garrick Gaieties made Rodgers and Hart the songwriting duo to watch in 1925. They followed it up the following year with a string of minor hits like Dearest Enemy, This Girl Friend, and Peggy Ann. The pair even had a successful debut in London in 1926.
Their next big hit came in 1927 with a stage adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The Twain estate was reluctant to give the duo the rights, but Larry and Richard were adamant. Luckily for them, A Connecticut Yankee became a huge hit, running for over 400 performances.
One of its biggest songs from the show, “My Heart Stood Still,” was a tune they actually plucked from an earlier show of theirs. The show also produced the song “Thou Swell,” later recorded by singers like Nat King Cole, Blossom Dearie, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Their follow-up to A Connecticut Yankee was the 1928 musical Present Arms, which featured the now jazz standard “You Took Advantage of Me.”
Around 1930, stage musicals were beginning to compete with other forms of entertainment, including radio and film. A few of Rodgers and Hart’s musicals were being optioned budding “talkie” film industry. Their first was the musical Spring Is Here, which ran on Broadway in 1929 and became a film in 1930. That same year, their musical Heads Up, which was only a modest hit in New York, was bought by Paramount pictures to be turned into a film.
Spring Is Here was a bigger hit on Broadway than it was on the silver screen. The big hit from the show, besides the title song “Spring Is Here,” was the ballad “With A Song In My Heart.” It was written in 1929 in a rare moment of inspiration from the other professional and stoic Richard Rodgers. The tune was later featured in the 1950 film Young Man With A Horn, inspired by the life of trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Doris Day, who starred in the film, also sang the song with trumpeter Harry James.
Move To Hollywood
Around 1930, Rodgers and Hart were still located in New York, with many of their musicals being optioned for films. In 1931, with the Great Depression in full swing, Broadway was struggling. So that year, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart packed up their bags and headed to Hollywood to try their luck out west.
They weren’t suited to the Hollywood lifestyle, but they did enjoy the success of the film musical. Their first true Hollywood hit was the 1932 Paramount musical Love Me Tonight, starring Maurice Chevalier. The biggest song from the show was the ballad “Isn’t It Romantic,” introduced by Chevalier and co-star Jeanette MacDonald.
The duo also produced the 1933 film musical Hallelujah, I’m A Bum, starring Al Jolson as a lovable tramp trying to survive the depression. That film produced the standard “You Are Too Beautiful,” later performed by singers like Johnny Hartman and Sarah Vaughan. They followed this up with the film Mississippi in 1935, which produced the song “It’s Easy To Remember.” While these songs are still known today, the films are mostly forgotten to history.
The only Rodgers and Hart song not associated with a film or musical was the 1934 song “Blue Moon.” They wrote “Blue Moon” in Hollywood, and tried to put it in a couple films, but it never made the final cut. They finally released it in 1934 as their only independent number, and it became an instant classic. This song has been performed by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday to the doo-wop group The Marcels.
In 1949, Mel Tormé recorded a hit version of “Blue Moon” with Richard Rodgers present in the studio during the recording. Rodgers, however, didn’t approve of Tormé’s interpretation, especially his scansion of Larry Hart’s line “you heard me saying a prayer for / someone I really could care for.” Rogers was never one for taking liberties in general.
Return To New York
In 1934, Richard Rodgers, now out in Hollywood, was reading the newspaper one day, and came across an article where the author asked “what ever happened to Rodgers and Hart?” At that point, he knew that he had to make the return to Broadway. Upon their return, they collaborated with the theater impresario Billy Rose to create the circus-themed musical Jumbo, starring Jimmy Durante.
Jumbo turned out to be one of Rodgers and Hart’s biggest hit to date, producing such memorable songs as “My Romance” and “Little Girl Blue.”
Rodgers and Hart’s follow-up to Jumbo brought the pair in a new direction. The show On Your Toe, had the pair collaborating on both the book and the songs, creating something much more integrated and more successful. The show was about a ballet company, and even brought in famed choreographer George Balanchine to help combine classical ballet with the jazz-inspired music. On Your Toes featured the song “There’s A Small Hotel,” which has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and more.
With two big hits under their belt in the 1930s, Rodgers and Hart became even bigger stars of Broadway, writing even more popular songs throughout the late 1930s and into the 1940s. I’ll explore this latter part of their career on a later episode.