Alec Wilder met Lorenz Hart in 1942, while listening to Mabel Mercer at Tony’s on 52nd Street in New York. At the time, Hart was working on All’s Fair, to become By Jupiter, his last show with Richard Rodgers. Years later, Wilder would write:
[Hart] told me that all his lyrics were concerned with character delineation and plot. He considered a lyric that ignored either of these to be unprofessional and untheatrical.
Gary Marmorstein, author of this new biography, explains that Hart’s words were “revelatory for Wilder, who was used to hearing the Rodgers & Hart songs unmoored from the contexts of their shows.” Those of us—that would be most of us—weaned, like Wilder, on unmoored Hart may now experience re-hitching the songs to the shows, and to the life. To imagine that this great master of wit and love felt pangs as each song left its family of character and context is to imagine only one of his varieties of loneliness.
Unmooring song from show, for theater writers, is both a blessing and curse. Let’s say a song enters the ranks of “standards”—as from Rodgers & Hart’s shows, one to four typically did. (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book” from Pal Joey; “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and “My Funny Valentine” from Babes in Arms; “This Can’t Be Love” and “Falling in Love with Love” from The Boys from Syracuse; “There’s a Small Hotel” from On Your Toes, to name a few.) Writers must then stand by as layers of context, subtext, and irony they had carefully built in are swept aside and the song begins its new, lone, yet thrilling, life.
Hart’s own life was thrilling, until it wasn’t. “Somewhere along the line,” Alan Jay Lerner wrote, “there obviously did come a time when the joy of his professional success became drowned in the lost misery of his handi-cap-ped life.”
Possessed from a tender age of breathtaking creativity (“pinwheel brilliance,” Rodgers called it), Lorenz (Larry) Hart was born in Harlem in 1895. His father, Max, was a “career con artist” who was boorish and unstable, his ventures ranging from scheme to scam: kiting checks, signing his wife’s name to shady deals, possible arson. Hart’s mother, Frieda, was seemingly devoted and fun-loving, though not fleshed out in this book, and she lived with him until her death in 1943. Teddy Hart, a younger brother, was a character actor; Larry wrote The Boys from Syracuse for him. The brothers shared a bedroom until Teddy Hart married in 1938.
Teddy and Larry Hart grew up on Byron, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Gilbert & Sullivan, and attended the Irving Place Theatre (where they saw shows in German) and Yiddish theater. Adolescent Larry Hart wrote song parodies, short stories, and summer camp musicals, already combining classical references with contemporary ones. He enrolled in Columbia’s School of Journalism, and then dropped out. Fluent in German and English, he translated for United Plays, earning $50 a week. (One such translation was Molnár’s Liliom, later adapted into Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein.) After the First World War, Hart, then 23, was introduced to 17-year-old Richard Rodgers. “The boys” got to work, but as Hart eyed the liquor earlier and earlier in the day, Rodgers’s mother predicted, “That boy won’t be alive five years from now.”
Their output, with shows running in the United States and in Europe, was jaw-dropping. In 1926, Lido Lady opened in London and Peggy-Ann in New York, along with Betsy Kitsel for Ziegfeld and The Girl Friend written with Herb Fields. In 1927, One Damn Thing After Another opened in London; A Connecticut Yankee opened here. Soon, Hollywood entered the mix.
Marmorstein’s research is thorough. The early lyrics, with which he is impressively familiar, exude Hart charm; but the 1920s (Connecticut Yankee excepted) were awash in tepid plots and now-vanished stars—not scintillating reading, though not the fault of the biographer. It’s also a handicap that Hart, voluble in life and prolific in scripts and lyrics, left no memoir, no stash of letters, to bring himself back to life. But through a kind of cumulative imagining, the reader’s sense of him grows. Many figures here are just . . . figures—and I don’t know what might have remedied this. But after a few hundred pages, swept up in the momentum of the story, I didn’t mind.