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With a Song in My Hart – Remembering a Broadway Great

As predicted the recent Tony Awards were a grand celebration of the musical that has monopolized all the year’s attention while breathing new life into Broadway. Hamilton may point to the future of musical theater even the giants of the past still weigh on the entertainment landscape, including Hollywood. Phil Berk, the HFPA’s resident expert, remembers one of them.

The closest Broadway’s legendary lyricist Lorenz Hart came to Golden Globe recognition was when Frank Sinatra won a best actor Golden Globe for Pal Joey. That landmark musical, not the movie version, was the apotheosis of Hart’s twenty-year collaboration with Richard Rodgers.

Hart of course was dead before the HFPA gave their first awards, but his legacy lives on in many Hollywood movies from the thirties. And ignobly in the MGM biopic Words and Music in which Mickey Rooney played him. 

Stephen Sondheim, the dean of Broadway composers, in his published memoir Finishing the Hat, dismisses Hart as the “laziest of preeminent lyricists,” and why? Because he mis-stressed syllables, convoluted syntax, and sacrificed meaning for rhyme. When the HFPA met with Sondheim in 2007 for Sweeney Todd, he mentioned the book he was writing which he admitted “isn’t as much fun an writing a musical.”

Seven years later when we interviewed him for Into the Woods when asked which current Broadway shows he particularly likes he replied, “I never comment on other work because if you praise one and don’t mention another then people’s feelings are hurt.”

Too bad he didn't use that same discretion before disparaging Hart. 

The Rodgers and Hart songbook is the non-pareil of Broadway standards. Where or When, My Funny Valentine, The Lady Is a Tramp, Johnny One Note, I Wish I Were in Love Again, Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered, Blue Moon; Lover, Isn't it Romantic, If they asked me I could write a book, Blue Room, This Can’t Be love, With a Song in My heart – the list is endless. 

How many standards can Sondheim lay claim to? Maybe one? (“Bring in the Clowns”.) Maybe Hart was never as fastidious as Sondheim, but those standards feature gorgeous melodies that only Rodgers could compose and witty romantic lyrics that only Hart could write. 

Yet Sondheim calls him "the sloppiest of lyricists." Recently revisiting the scores of his three masterpieces (The Boys from SyracuseOn Your Toes and Pal Joey), I was astonished that Sondheim could be so wrong. 

And even more outraged that no one had ever come to Hart’s defense!

Until now, that is, when I learned what the late Irving Berlin had to say on the subject. “The important thing for all songwriters," he said, "is how long do the songs last? Go back to Manhattan, which was written over fifty years ago. They still play it. It's better today. It's timeless, because there's still a Manhattan. Larry wrote about Manhattan the way other people are still trying to write about New York, but can’t.”

Sondheim himself has questioned the permanence of Broadway musicals. And Berlin agrees with him. By his estimation most of the books for old musicals are best forgotten, but the popular songs that came out of them have lasted. “You can't divorce those lyrics from Rodgers' melodies. They're not just lyrics, they're songs. If Larry had written those lyrics and just printed them, they'd mean nothing. And if you took Rodgers' melodies, as fine as they are, and just played them as orchestral numbers, they wouldn’t last four hours, but they are songs.”

And as songs they’ve survived almost a century.

“Larry Hart was not only a lyric writer but a word writer. He could be very simple. And very moving. His songs have lasted for a reason, which has nothing to do with whether you rhyme well or whether you read or write music.” Who knew Irving Berlin was such a magnanimous human being! But then he had been taught by a master, Jerome Kern.

When Kern was once asked, “Where does Irving Berlin place among American songwriters,” his famous reply was, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music." By the way, Hart never received award recognition for any of his film work. But he can lay claim to having written with Richard Rodgers the greatest original song score of all time: Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight, which introduced the title song, Love me Tonight; LoverMimi, all memorably sung by Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald.

You can catch it on TCM.