- Historic Sites
It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
In his early days Hart made up for his loneliness with both his work and his frenetic personality. Hammerstein, who knew him well, recalled him after his death as having been like “an electrified gnome,” always on the run, tossing off jokes, grabbing checks, throwing parties, trying—a little too hard—to be everyone’s friend. Later Hart turned more and more to alcohol. He took to disappearing for days at a time or showing up in no condition to work.
Rodgers, a fastidious, careful, punctual man, bore Hart’s deteriorating behavior with great patience, not usually a virtue for which Rodgers was noted. When Hart would disappear while a deadline loomed, his partner would search for him, get him dried out, and then more or less lock the two of them in a room with a piano until Hart had produced the needed lyrics. This Hart would do with astonishing facility, often in little more time than it took him to write down the words. The job done, Rodgers would let him go, and he would hurry back to the oblivion that now alone dulled the pain of being Larry Hart.
Together they created extraordinary songs, songs that often achieved their power and longevity from the very tension between the opposite natures of the two creators.
Just consider one of their most famous, “Falling in Love with Love,” from The Boys from Syracuse (1938). The music is one of Rodgers’s sunniest, most lilting waltzes, but set in a minor key to match Hart’s lyric, which speaks for itself: “Falling in love with love,/Is falling for make-believe./Falling in love with love/Is playing the fool./Caring too much is such/A juvenile fancy./Learning to trust is just/For children in school./I fell in love with love/One night when the moon was full./I was unwise, with eyes/Unable to see./I fell in love with love,/With love everlasting,/But love fell out with me.”
Even before By Jupiter opened in 1942 and became the biggest hit Rodgers and Hart ever wrote, Rodgers realized that his partner’s ability to write another show was problematic at best. He also knew that he himself needed to keep on working, even if his partner could not. Rodgers didn’t know where to turn, so he turned, as so many in the New York theater did when they needed advice, to Oscar Hammerstein II.
Unlike Rodgers, Hammerstein was born to the theater as few Broadway giants were. His grandfather and namesake was probably the most famous person in American show business in the two decades surrounding the turn of the century. His Victoria Theatre of Varieties on Times Square, which opened in 1904, was an enormously successful vaudeville house, providing the money Oscar Hammerstein needed to fulfill a dream. He wanted to compete head-on with the Metropolitan Opera Company, the most important, and by far the richest, opera company in the Western Hemisphere.
For four years the plucky, theatrically innovative immigrant with a genius for publicity and a passion for opera battled the august, stodgy, endlessly wealthy Metropolitan. The contest transfixed the world of opera and titillated the nation. Hammerstein’s vibrant, totally professional productions were remembered by all who saw them for the rest of their lives, but finally even Hammerstein had to accede to reality. He was broke. Asked by a friend what he was opening his season with, Hammerstein snapped, “With debts.” He got some of it back, however, when he sold out to the Metropolitan for a million dollars.
While Oscar I was using the profits of the Victoria to fight for supremacy in opera, his son William (the father of Oscar II) worked as the Victoria’s manager to see that those profits kept rolling in. While far more down-to-earth than his father, William was equally creative as a theatrical manager. It was Willie Hammerstein who was credited with having invented that perennial favorite of lowbrow comedy, the pie-in-the-face routine.
Under the circumstances, young Oscar, who was born in 1895, could hardly have escaped a careful education in the theater, from La Bohème to blackface, but Willie did not want his children to take up show business as a career. So Oscar II went to Columbia University and then entered Columbia Law School. But the law bored him, and he dropped out. His father now dead, he pestered his uncle Arthur Hammerstein, a well-known Broadway producer, for a job and was soon working as a stage manager and writing plays and songs, usually in collaboration with others.
He married early, and unsuccessfully, but soon had his first Broadway hit, the musical comedy Wildflower , in 1923. It had music by Vincent Youmans and a book and lyrics written jointly by Hammerstein and Otto Harbach. Although Wildflower was a big hit for the time (in fact, it ran longer than any show ever written by Rodgers and Hart), there was little to distinguish it from all the other musical comedies that opened and closed on Broadway with great regularity at the time.