From the Hart: The Life and Lyrics of Lorenz Hart

“From the Hart”

Songs by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

Lorenz Hart – John Guerrasio
Female 1 – Louisa Maxwell
Female 2 – Lucy Kerans-Hunt
Male 1 & Richard Rodgers – Peter Straker
Male 2 – Matthew Barrow

David Kernan – Deviser and Compiler
John Kane – Writer
Caroline Clegg – Director
Neil McArthur – Musical and Vocal Arranger
Richard Peakman – Choreographer
Nigel Hook – Set Designer
David W. Kidd – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 18 August, 2007
Venue: New End Theatre, Hampstead, London

Today the writing of lyrics is a lost art. Unless you are Stephen Sondheim, you probably couldn’t care less about the words to a song. These days lazy near-rhymes are the fashion because as long as the lyric fits the line as approximately as possible, the rest doesn’t seem to matter. In modern popular songs nobody bothers to listen to lyrics any more and even in stage-shows false rhymes get by. Sondheim trained under the wing of Oscar Hammerstein II, former writing-partner of composer Richard Rodgers, and school-friend of Rodgers’s other lyricist, Lorenz Hart. Rodgers and Hart wrote some 550 songs together for 28 shows and several films at a time when standards were high and there was plenty of talent around. Theirs was also the period of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Noel Coward, a time – the 1920s to the 1940s – when lyricists really knew how to write proper lyrics with wit and precision.

Just as Richard Rodgers found it easy to write a good melody, so Lorenz Hart knew about constructing verse – he was generally known as the ‘Poet of Broadway’, choreographer George Balanchine called him the ‘Shelley of America’, and his middle name was, after all, Milton. He excelled in his ability to use interior and exterior rhymes, had a facility for employing the language and the slang expressions of the day and could write at the drop of a hat or on a producer’s whim. When impresario Florenz Ziegfeld told them he needed a not too highbrow song during a rehearsal for “Simple Simon” (1930) they went away and came back an hour later with ‘Ten cents a dance’, which survives to this day as a classic song.

They were both professional to their fingertips, or Hart was once he got started. Rodgers, tall, dark, slim, handsome and heterosexual had discipline, whereas Hart, short, fat, unattractive and gay, was something of a wreck. His drinking finally scuppered his relationship with Rodgers but from when they first met in 1918 until Hart died of pneumonia in 1943 aged 47 they produced some of the most enduring popular songs ever written. Their catalogue of hits is a remarkable one and, while many of their theatre songs now hardly ever see the light of day, the number of those that we still hear and play is quite staggering. Just look through the list of the thirty-something songs in David Kernan‘s compilation for New End Theatre because everyone is a winner: ‘Johnny One-note’, ‘This can’t be love’, ‘I wish I were in love again’, ‘With a song in my heart’, ‘My romance’, ‘My heart stood still’, ‘There’s a small hotel’, ‘The lady is a tramp’, ‘Bewitched, bothered and bewildered’, ‘Mountain greenery’, ‘My funny Valentine’ and ‘Where or when’ – and that’s just scratching the surface.

It’s amazing to think that ‘Manhattan’, Rodgers and Hart’s paean to New York City was written as long ago as 1922 for a not-produced show called “Winkle Town”. It had to wait another three years before it emerged in public in the pair’s first big hit show, “The Garrick Gaieties”. Another song went through four sets of lyrics before emerging finally as ‘Blue Moon’. It was originally written as ‘Prayer’ for Jean Harlow to sing in the MGM movie “Hollywood Party”, but neither the actress nor the song appeared in the film. It received a new lyric, as the title song for the Clark Gable film “Manhattan Melodrama” but was cut, given another new lyric and appeared in the film as ‘The Bad in Every Man’. Then it was finally written as ‘Blue Moon’, by which time Hart hated the song. It became, however, one of their most memorable numbers.

It could be that Hart disliked the song because it expressed, as many of his songs did, unrequited love. It is said that Hart was always in love with his musical partner but could do nothing about it, and never enjoyed any lasting personal relationship. His lyrics often reflected unhappiness in a litany of lost loves, such as: “Blue Moon / You saw me standing alone / Without a dream in my heart / Without a love of my own.” ‘He was too good to me’ (from “Simple Simon”, 1930) opens with “There goes my young intended / The thing is ended / Regrets are vain / I’ll never find another half so sweet / And we’ll never meet again.” And the song ‘You are too beautiful’ (from “Hallelujah, I’m a bum”, 1933) has the lines “You are too beautiful for one man alone / For one lucky fool to be with / When there are other men / With eyes of their own to see with.”

A man thinking about a woman usually sings this last song. In “From the Hart” John Guerrasio, who plays Lorenz Hart in the show and contemplates the loss of a male lover performs it. The conceit of the show is that four performers arrive to rehearse a show about Hart at which point Lorenz appears and starts to give them notes about their pronunciation. Hart was a stickler for accuracy but then, when it came to writing lyrics, he was a perfectionist. Fellow-scribe Alan Jay Lerner, who was encouraged in his writing by Hart, called him “a diminutive giant”, someone he “came to know well enough to love him, feel the pain of his loneliness, and silently weep for a man who seemed deprived of the happiness his lyrical gifts gave to others.”

The joy of Hart’s work is conveyed all too well in deviser David Kernan and writer John Kane’s biographical show. You couldn’t find a more enjoyable collection of songs than in this compilation. The four performers, Peter Straker (who intermittently plays Richard Rodgers), Matthew Barrow, Lucy Kerans-Hunt and Louisa Maxwell bring out the best in the songs, executing them with verve and obvious passion for the material, but then they are working with some of the best popular songs ever written. John Guerrasio as Lorenz Hart is something of a coup. Short of getting Danny DeVito to play the role, I can’t imagine anybody else who looks and probably sounds like Hart. The diminutive Mickey Rooney played Hart in the bowdlerised biopic “Words and Music”, and there the resemblance ends. Guerrasio conveys the charm, the charisma and certainly the talent of the man. And behind that mask of cheerfulness there’s always the ultimate sadness of a man who shared a flat with his brother (until Teddy got married) because he couldn’t bear to go home to a dark, empty apartment.

The New End’s tiny stage is transformed by designer Nigel Hook into a 1930s rehearsal space in Manhattan with the walls covered in sheets of paper and musical scores – Hart always had a pocketful of lyrics written on bits of paper. The back of the set is a corner of Sardi’s, the famous New York theatrical restaurant. Choreographer Richard Peakman keeps his cast on their toes with some nifty footwork, and Neil McArthur and Dave Berry provide the requisite musical accompaniment on piano and bass. Caroline Clegg’s pacy direction provides Hampstead with one of the best summer shows this season.

  • From the Hart continues at New End Theatre, 27 New End, London NW3, until Sunday 2 September: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3.30. Tickets on 0870 033 2733
  • New End Theatre

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