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Review: 'A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart' by Gary Marmorstein gives lyricist his due

of all the literary arts, writing song lyrics may be the most elusive, especially in musical theater. Despite their obvious importance, lyricists tend to be undervalued next to their partners, the composers. When a show or a song is by the brothers Gershwin, for example, it is composer George, not lyricist Ira, who usually gets more credit of authorship, suggesting that music trumps words.

And thus it was with one of Broadway's most dazzling of duos, Rodgers and Hart, or composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz — known as "Larry" to all — Hart. In the years that American musical theater came of age, these two New York City natives were a prolific partnership, creating almost 30 shows, from their first hit, The Garrick Gaieties in 1925, to a revival of A Connecticut Yankee in 1943, a few days before Hart's death at 48. Together, they wrote more than 800 songs, including masterpieces such as My Funny Valentine, Blue Moon, The Lady Is a Tramp, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Where or When and many more.

Rodgers is the more familiar of the two, as the most recorded American composer, largely through his collaboration in the 1940s and '50s with Oscar Hammerstein II on their string of classics, from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music. Now Hart has his shining hour in a new biography by Gary Marmorstein, A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart. It's the absorbing story of a sparkling but tormented artist and a rich slice of show business history.

At barely 5 feet tall, Hart was so short that Rodgers, not the most tactful of men, called him "the shrimp." Hart's sister-in-law once bought him an overcoat in the boys' department of Wanamaker's.

The songwriter was painfully aware of what he felt was his unattractiveness (though the book's vintage photos show that, wielding his ever-present cigar, he had plenty of roguish charm), and Marmorstein empathetically mines the Hart psyche for the sources of his wit and creativity. He also delves into the lyricist's homosexuality during an era when being openly gay was unheard of. But what most defines his portrait of this tragic figure is Hart's alcoholism, which runs through the biography like a streak. It destroyed his relationship with Rodgers and finally killed him.

A Ship Without a Sail quotes liberally from Hart's lyrics, and Marmorstein's analysis is always interesting and often revelatory. For example, he describes Glad to Be Unhappy, from On Your Toes, as "the exquisitely self-torturing lament that might be as close to Larry's bone as any lyric he ever wrote."

Unrequited love's a bore

And I've got it pretty bad.

But for someone you adore,

It's a pleasure to be sad.

Hart's verbal dexterity plumbed emotional depths with uncanny precision. As Marmorstein says of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, "In all of American song there is no more mordant summary of romantic closure."

Wise at last,

My eyes at last

Are cutting you down to your size at last . . .

Marmorstein's exhaustive treatment of virtually every stage show and film with a score by Rodgers and Hart is both a valuable asset and an occasionally tedious shortfall. In the best works, such as the stage version of Babes in Arms, The Boys From Syracuse (their brilliant musical adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors), Pal Joey and the movie Love Me Tonight, Hart's consummate cleverness is a treat to behold. In one of countless delicious turns of phrase, he rhymed Aida with "indeed a" in Johnny One-Note from Babes in Arms.

But "the boys" — as Marmorstein constantly refers to the pair — wrote quite a lot of forgettable musicals, distinguished only by some terrific individual songs, and the extensive plot synopses of shows such as Dearest Enemy, I Married an Angel, Too Many Girls, By Jupiter and so forth can make for a long slog. Oddly, for such a comprehensive, well-documented book, the appendix does not have a handy chronological list of all the musicals and movies by Rodgers and Hart.

Hart has not been ignored by biographers. Frederick Nolan wrote an account of the songwriter's life that was published in 1994, Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway, but Nolan himself says Marmorstein's tome is definitive in a press release from Simon & Schuster. There's also the 1948 movie on Rodgers and Hart, Words and Music, with Mickey Rooney playing the lyricist.

A Ship Without a Sail provides a useful corrective to the surprisingly dismissive assessment of Hart in Finishing the Hat, the first volume of Stephen Sondheim's collected lyrics, interspersed with pungent commentary by the living legend of musical theater. "Lorenz Hart is the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists, and one of the most disconcerting," Sondheim wrote, taking him to task for mis-stressed syllables, among other songwriting sins.

At the end of Marmorstein's book, Sondheim offers a more generous tribute, citing a point made by Hammerstein that Hart's colloquial use of the language brought musical theater into the 20th century and that he "freed American lyrics from the stilted middle-European operetta technique, into a natural form of speech."

Perhaps the best thing about this biography is that it makes you eager to hear the songs of Rodgers and Hart. In a "highly idiosyncratic" discography, Marmorstein supplies a selection of recordings that includes such delightful renditions as a lively duet of The Lady Is a Tramp by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, and Dawn Upshaw's soaring Sing for Your Supper.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

A Ship Without

a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart

By Gary Marmorstein

Simon & Schuster,

531 pages, $30

Review: 'A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart' by Gary Marmorstein gives lyricist his due 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 4:30am]
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