‘I was small [when I was born], and am still small, because my heavy brain does not permit me to grow in a vertical direction.” The cockeyed witticism, from a jocular self-interview that the teenage Lorenz Hart published in a high school periodical, shows that his signature attitude toward life was already firmly in place, years before he had begun to write the song lyrics that made him one of the immortal figures of the American musical theater. The line’s ironic bravado, barely concealing an undercurrent of painful rue, crystallizes Hart’s tone, a perfect balance of outward humor and inner hurt.
As Gary Marmorstein’s flawed but informative new biography, A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster, $30), makes clear, Hart (1895–1943) had ample reasons for feeling inner hurt, starting with his physical appearance. Like his father and his doting younger brother Teddy, “Larry” Hart was a short man, standing just over five feet. Though not unhandsome, the head that contained his “heavy brain” was slightly too large for his body, giving him a faintly grotesque appearance. The outer difference from conventional “manliness” was seconded by an inner one: Hart was homosexual, in a time and a culture where such preferences had to be elegantly concealed.
The son of immigrant Jewish parents who spoke German and Yiddish mingled with accented English at home, Hart was elegant only while assembling written words on a page. The family home on 119th Street was viewed with suspicion by the parents of Larry’s boyhood friends as “raffish” and “Bohemian.” His father, Max, a somewhat shady small-time real estate broker, relied on his Tammany Hall connections to keep him out of jail during his frequent brushes with the law. The Hart house was open for socializing day and night, with food, booze, and Max’s cigars available to Larry’s college pals at any hour. Like his father, he became a chronic night owl.
While Hart’s family-bred generosity, along with his own unfailing wit and verve, always made him popular in a crowd, his looks and his same-sex longings usually meant that the party’s ending would find him alone again. Increasingly, over the years, alcohol became his consolation. He had no qualms about making that, too, into a rueful joke, even while it was destroying him. “All-night parties, drinking like a lord/Fit into our social plan/Waking in the alcoholic ward/Is too good for the average man.” Since Hart died, in Doctors Hospital in Manhattan, while drying out after one of his epic binges, the lyric, from 1936’s On Your Toes, is exactly as prophetic as it is funny: pain and humor again balanced perfectly.
The dynamic tension between his anguish and his ever-alert intellect brought Hart extraordinary creativity. Broadway audiences then expected comedy songs that “went over” to offer additional witty stanzas when encored. Dozens of anecdotes (Marmorstein cites several) attest to Hart’s ability to turn these out without blinking.
A master of impish wordplay, Hart was also a poet of intense melancholy (which he would invariably infuse with sardonic jokes), and a psychologically astute literary man with an unerring gift for the common touch. As any chronicle of his two-decade career makes clear, he did more than almost anyone else to shape the sensibility we associate with the American musical. His reward was to be adulated while alive, and then to be sloughed off and nearly written out of the history he had affected so greatly when Richard Rodgers, the composer to whose melodies he had spent his adult life fitting words, found himself turning in a different direction artistically. Even as narrated by Rodgers himself, the history of the musical granted little space for Hart’s achievements.
Yet those who believe that Rodgers’s subsequent collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II on Oklahoma! (1943) was the seminal event in the shaping of the American musical need to look back at Rodgers’s late-’30s collaborations with Hart, climaxing in Pal Joey (1940). Serious themes are touched on (although lightly); songs emerge from character and situation (though in a carefree fashion). It was Hart who conceived of a musical in which a ballet would encase a pivotal element of the plot, resulting in On Your Toes, and it was Hart who brought George Balanchine into what proved to be a continuing collaboration.
Even earlier, Hart had been integral to the duo’s triumphant Hollywood partnership with director Rouben Mamoulian—later to stage the original productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel—on the still-sparkling film Love Me Tonight (1932). The opening sequence, in which the work noises of early-morning Paris segue seamlessly into song, carrying the viewer from place to place, the sung lines alternating with rhymed dialogue spoken in rhythm, still constitutes a remarkable cinematic feat. And it’s all Mamoulian and Hart, to the accompaniment of Rodgers’s tunes.
The elation, creativity, and conviviality that make Hart’s work an enduring delight were offset, for Rodgers and other Hart colleagues, by the downside, which wasn’t just a matter of his personal unhappiness. Hart’s darkly comic view of the world encouraged him to regard even his own aesthetic passions as trivial. Determined as he was to build musical comedies with coherent stories and characters whose songs arose naturally out of the action, he cared little about giving the coherent stories dramatic depth and substance. Rodgers, who viewed life more earnestly, bided his time, swept along by Hart’s freewheeling inspirations, until, with World War II and the partnership in midlife crisis, he found a more congenial match for his earnestness in Hammerstein. It was not the technique of the musical theater that they changed together, but its tone. And not everyone today feels that the change was for the better.
Marmorstein bolsters the story of Hart’s rocketlike career with a wealth of factual detail. Where he bogs down, terribly, is in trying to parse the lyrics for their poetic value and their place in the multiple traditions on which the well-read Hart gleefully drew. But his biographer’s sense, his dogged researches, and his fair-mindedness constantly lead him in good directions. His account of Rodgers’s controversial involvement in Hart’s business affairs at his death is the best-balanced I’ve encountered.
Rodgers’s deep misgivings about his collaboration with Hart are summed up in the startling remark he made decades later, in an oral-history narrative: “There is a statute of limitations on gratitude.” Is there really? To know, you would have to be one of the colleagues who were obliged to carry Hart home in a drunken stupor and then stare in amazement while he poured out matchlessly hilarious, perfectly shaped, encore stanzas.