- - Wednesday, May 27, 2015



By Dominic Symonds

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 332 pages, illustrated

Even the most talented composer of songs is lucky if he can find one lyricist as a collaborator, but Richard Rodgers was blessed with two great ones, first Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein. The debate over which team is superior, Rodgers and Hart or Rodgers and Hammerstein, has been raging for decades now; and in the end comes down to personal taste. Does the light, brittle ludic quality of the earlier team appeal more than the more sentimental, serious even earnest one of the later? What was almost miraculous was the way Rodgers was able to alter his music to suit such different words.

Now, very much in keeping with the current academic fashion of ever more micro studies of anything and everything, we have this book by Dominic Symonds, a professor at the University of Lincoln in England that analyzes the team of Rodgers and Hart before some less successful efforts of their own — and even more the Wall Street Crash of 1929 — sent them off to work their magic in Hollywood. Their return to Broadway some years into the 1930s gave us such plays as “Babes in Arms,” “The Boys from Syracuse” and “Pal Joey,” arguably the fount of most of the songs which spring into our mind when we think of Rodgers and Hart. So, implicitly anyway, Dominic Symonds‘ “We’ll Have Manhattan” invites us to measure (and treasure) such works as “The Garrick Gaieties,” ” A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur” and “Ever Green” against those giants. Or such early songs as “Mountain Greenery” “My Heart Stood Still” and “Thou Swell” against their successors “Falling in Love With Love” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”

Mr. Symonds is adept at blending critical judgment with historical exposition, as is apparent in this discussion of “A Connecticut Yankee”: “The first opportunity for Arthurian song and dance — in the idiom of 1930s jazz, of course, though with lyrics that continued the old/new juxtaposition — was the song ‘Thou Swell.’ Although almost cut from the show, ‘with half the production staff believing the lyric was too complex for the audience to understand, ‘Thou Swell’ has since become a classic.”

After Rodgers had to fight “to keep the song in the score he was vindicated by the response it received on opening night. Rodgers took the conductor’s baton and stationed himself in front of the audience, from where he could gauge how the audience was responding; though ‘My Heart Stood Still’ ‘didn’t produce the enthusiastic reception I had expected,’ ‘Thou Swell’ elicited a response ‘so strong that it was like an actual blow.’ Rodgers recalls feeling the hairs on the back of his neck standing up with the ‘deafening’ applause at the end of the number.”

What jumps out from this anecdote is the strength of the composer’s advocacy of the song. Clearly, in some synergistic magic, those lyrics had now become his as much as Hart’s and he fought for their song with true faith and enthusiastic power rooted in artistic passion.

Mr. Symonds‘ enthusiasm for early Rodgers and Hart is, if anything, equal to their own gusto. Consider the words about the eponymous song with which he begins his spirited introduction to this book: ” ‘We’ll have Manhattan/The Bronx and Staten Island too.’ It’s an iconic couplet, a classic sound bite of the great American song book from the first resounding hit song of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart: ‘Manhattan.’ Such was the confidence of its writers, flying high with an initial flush of success on the college circuit, that they assert in this hook line a sort of ownership: over Manhattan, over New York, and in time, over musical theater. This was 1922. Hit after hit followed, and over the next two decades the pair created some of the most abiding songs, each encapsulating the spirit of American popular songwriting at its height .”

He certainly makes great claims for his subjects, but his detailed, highly informed analysis generally validates them.

Which is not to say that he cannot be harshly critical as well as admiring on occasion: ” ‘Mountain Greenery’ gives Hart ample opportunity to compile a list of unlikely but playful rhymes, some of which sacrifice any sense whatsoever to become, literally, meaningless sound bites. ‘Beans could get no keener re/Ception in a beanery’ is Hart at its most errant: if the rhyme works, any sense will do.”

True enough, but does this undeniable fact take anything away from our enjoyment of this lovely song? Set to Rodgers‘ transformative, lilting music, which fits those lyrics like the proverbial glove, there’s that old synergistic magic at work, which makes one accept them as right, fitting and proper, even somehow true.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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