We'll Have Manhattan: The Early Work of Rodgers and Hart

Getting America singing


By Dominic Symonds
Oxford University Press, £22.99

In 1938, Time magazine suggested that "nobody has ever fused words and music more effectively than Rodgers and Hart." Possibly. But there is no doubt that their partnership helped set the standards and style of that much-loved embodiment of popular American culture, the "musical".

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart first met in spring, 1919; Hart was 23, Rodgers a lad of 16. A few years later, they began a professional collaboration that, until Hart's death in 1943, produced some 30 shows and a basketful of memorable songs such as Manhattan, With a Song in my Heart, Blue Moon, My Funny Valentine, The Lady is a Tramp and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

In his new book (part of OUP's Broadway Legacies series), Dominic Symonds gives a detailed, scholarly account of the work produced by Rodgers and Hart during the first 15 years or so of their partnership.

Both boys were from Jewish immigrant families and were raised not far from one another on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The lyricist Larry Hart, born in 1895, was short, bookish and could be socially a little maladroit. Dick Rodgers, by contrast, grew into a dashing, self-possessed young man, a snappy dresser, fond of girls, sport and music.

New York in the 1920s and early '30s was home to an extraordinary array of talent - much of it Jewish

On the face of it an unlikely duo, Rodgers and Hart chalked up an astonishing tally of successes in an increasingly competitive environment. As Symonds recounts, New York in the 1920s and early 1930s was home to an extraordinary array of theatrical talent (much of it Jewish). Here, you could wallow in the lush musical textures of Romberg, Lehár, Friml or Victor Herbert and sample new work by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin, while Broadway shows were soon produced by the likes of Billy Rose, perhaps choreographed by Busby Berkeley or (a little later) George Balanchine, with such stars as Jimmy Durante, George M. Cohan, Al Jolson or Fred Astaire.

Rodgers and Hart were thus at the very heart of what Symonds identifies as the emergence - after decades of mass immigration - of a characteristically American cultural voice.

Just as Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer portrayed a Jewish lad, son of a chazan, moving away from home and singing a kind of music his father despised, Rodgers and Hart (like the Gershwins or Berlin) managed to merge the best of old Europe with new, multi-national America.

They merged "classical" music with the energy and syncopations of jazz, while simultaneously drawing speech, song and dance together into the service of new, often riskily suggestive plot lines.

Dominic Symonds focuses in this volume on the early collaborations of Rodgers and Hart. But I look forward to subsequent additions and editions (as Hart might have said) as he continues his researches.

For the intense and sometimes contentious partnership continued for a further decade until Larry's descent into alcoholism and an early death - and their works proved the essential prerequisite to Dick's later triumphs with Oscar Hammerstein II.

Without the early Garrick Gaieties, The Boys from Syracuse or Pal Joey, there would have been no Oklahoma, Carousel or South Pacific.

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