July 28, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today

One hundred years ago this evening Poor Little Ritz Girl opened at the now demolished Central Theatre on West 47th Street in Times Square. It was written by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, for whom it marked their official debut as authors of a Broadway musical. Until their partnership broke up in 1943, the next twenty-three years featured their names in the Playbills of some thirty shows—a remarkable achievement.

Lorenz Hart (foreground) and Richard Rodgers at the piano.

Many were revues (a couple were even revivals), but that does nothing to diminish their prodigious output. If I were to list even some of the hit songs they wrote, it would take up the full thousand words I allow myself for these essays. Suffice it to say that among them were “Babes in Arms,” Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Blue Moon” … and those are only a few of the “B’s.”

In my research, one item that called out to me was the discovery that on the opening night of Poor Little Ritz Girl, Richard Rodgers was only one month past his eighteenth birthday. By comparison at age twenty-five, Hart was the grand old man in their relationship. And how did Lew M. Fields, a major Broadway producer of the day put his faith and trust in an eighteen year old? I can’t really say, but would it surprise you to learn that he had already put his faith and trust in Rodgers the year before, when he hired the seventeen year old (along with his partner) to contribute the song “Any Old Place with You” for a Broadway revue titled A Lonely Romeo? It really shouldn’t, such was the obvious talent for a graceful melody by this gifted composer. It was no hyperbole when Alec Wilder wrote in his American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950 that “Of all the writers whose songs are considered and examined in this book, those of Rodgers show the highest degree of consistent excellence, inventiveness, and sophistication. After spending weeks playing his songs, I am more than impressed: I am astonished.”

The cover of the 1920 program for “Poor Little Ritz Girl.”

Rodgers and Hart first partnered when they were students at Columbia University writing amateur theatricals. While there, Hart studied journalism and wrote poetry, returning in the fall of 1919 to write the lyrics for the music composed by Rodgers, a Columbia College freshman, for the Columbia Varsity Show. They made a great team in spite of being vastly different in their temperaments. Rodgers was a highly disciplined task master, whereas Hart was wildly undependable and unpredictable. Sadly, much of Hart’s problematic behavior was due to the alcoholism that plagued him for many years (and which led to his early death at forty-eight). It was also the major reason for the breakup between he and Rodgers, which left Dick to find Oscar, thus cementing an even more important partnership for the American Musical Theatre. It was when Hart turned down writing a musical with Rodgers that would be based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow the Lilacs that the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein was born, producing their first enormous hit, Oklahoma!

Though it marked their Broadway debut as the authors of a Broadway musical, Poor Little Ritz Girl was not the first score for a show solely written by Rodgers and Hart. Songs by Sigmund Romberg, the composer responsible for some of the most successful musicals and operettas of the 1920s (The Student Prince, The Desert Song and The New Moon) were also included. It wasn’t until five years later in 1925 that Rodgers and Hart got their first solo credit for a full score with The Garrick Gaieties, a revue so successful that it led to further editions in 1926 and 1930. Enduring standards like “Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery” came out of these shows, and among the dozens of performers featured in them were the famed chanteuse Libby Holman, Sterling Holloway (later the voice of Winnie the Pooh), the comedienne and early television star Imogene Coca, and even such future acting gurus as Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg.

This sheet music is for a Rodgers and Hart song cut before the show opened (note Rodgers using a middle initial for what was only a brief time).

In their two-decade partnership, the sheer volume of hits Rodgers and Hart produced is staggering. Look at these titles: A Connecticut Yankee, Jumbo, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, I’d Rather Be Right, I Married an Angel, The Boys From Syracuse, Too Many Girls, By Jupiter and Pal Joey. I mean— come on! And in writing with Hart, Rodgers composed the music first, the opposite of how he would later collaborate with Hammerstein. At the time, Rodgers was relieved that Hart said no, as his old partner’s drinking habits had been putting an insurmountable strain on their relationship for a long time.

When Oklahoma! opened in 1943, it quickly became the biggest hit in Broadway musical history. Rodgers was not only happy with the result, but with the process of a new and different partner. He discovered that he liked Hammerstein’s habit of writing the lyrics first and that it helped inspire his melodies. This flexibility was akin to Rodgers being a switch-hitter in baseball, equally comfortable in both techniques, aiding in laying the groundwork that produced hit after groundbreaking hit. After Oklahoma! came the brilliant Carousel; then a slight detour with their experimental Allegro; followed by the enormously popular (and Pulitzer Prize winning) South Pacific, later followed by The King and I, television’s Cinderella, and finishing out with The Sound of Music, the partnership only ending with Hammerstein’s death from cancer at age sixty-five. There were a few misfires along the way like Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream, but also the hit film score to State Fair, which provided an Academy Award to the team for the Best Song of 1945—“It Might As Well Be Spring.” And to this date, Oscar Hammerstein is the only person named Oscar to ever win an Oscar. So there’s that.

State Fair (1945).

After Hammerstein, the next Broadway musical Rodgers wrote was 1962’s No Strings. Still suffering the loss of his partner, he went it alone, providing his own lyrics, which wound up bringing him the season’s Tony Award for Best Score over that season’s runaway smash, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (Although in my personal opinion, Rodgers winning over Frank Loesser was more a sentimental choice than an informed one).

There were partnerships of varying qualities in Rodgers remaining years. The “highlight” being a troubled one with Stephen Sondheim, the protege of Hammerstein’s. Though an unpleasant experience for both, it led to a worthy score with 1965’s Do I Hear a Waltz? Rodgers’ innate abilities never really left him, even if he doubted his prowess as he grew older and more insecure. He was still capable of a beautiful tune by the time he wrote I Remember Mama in 1979, fifty-nine years after Poor Little Ritz Girl. Songs for his final score, like “Lullaby” and “Time,” are as finely honed as anything he ever wrote.

As for Larry Hart, though not the craftsman Hammerstein was, he never failed Rodgers when it came to producing a tune that could pass the test of becoming a standard. Though the cheery book musicals he and Rodgers wrote have not quite stood the test of time (Pal Joey being the one notable exception), that is mostly due to the progressive values his successor brought to the partnership (Hammerstein was a book writer, or co-book writer, of all their shows). As erratic as Hart was, Hammerstein was a stable and settled man, confident of his talent and secure in his home life and business acumen.

If I have ended up comparing apples and oranges here, it was not my intention. There’s room in anyone’s fruit bowl (extending a tasty metaphor) for the songs Rodgers wrote with both Hart and Hammerstein. Or, as I would like to think, anyone who picked up a pen or pencil and embraced a Richard Rodgers melody. They were lucky, indeed.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."