Musings on Larry Hart

Larry Hart

Having recently read many biographies about Larry Hart and about Richard Rodgers, I’ve been wondering how Larry would have told his own story if he hadn’t died at age 48…

Richard Rodgers lived for 36 years after Hart’s heartbreakingly early death, and as a result he had many opportunities to share HIS memories of their often-times challenging creative collaboration.

But we have no hindsight from Larry to balance their biographical narrative.

We do, however, have the lyrics he wrote for 26 Broadway shows and several Hollywood movies.

They range from the simple and sincere — “With a Song In My Heart” — to the playfully brutal — “I Wish I Were In Love Again.”

Here’s a version of “I Wish I Were In Love Again” that Bobbi Carrey and I recorded with Doug Hammer at his great studio north of Boston (with extra musical input from Mike Callahan).

 

It is tempting to imagine that some clues to his life experiences are encoded into his lyrics.

For example, Larry writes at the end of “I Could Write a Book” from one of his later musicals, Pal Joey: “and the world discovers as my book ends how to make two lovers of friends.”

Vivienne_Sonia_Segal

This lyric makes me wonder about his relationship with the actress and singer Vivienne Segal, one of the stars of Pal Joey who was also his friend and to whom he apparently proposed marriage more than once…

She respectfully declined each time — saying that she had had enough of marriage (she was divorced from a first husband).  She was also well aware that Hart was an alcoholic and what we would now describe as a closeted gay man.

VivienneSegal

Yet Cole Porter, another closeted gay songwriter of the time, had a long, loving, committed marriage to divorcée and millionairess Linda Lee Thomas — while simultaneously carrying on a life-long stream of romantic and sexual liasons with other men.

Porter, like Hart, was also devoted to his mother — although Porter did not share a home with his family for almost his entire life as did Hart.

Lorenz Milton Hart was born on May 2, 1895 and grew up in a boisterous household in Harlem, NY (then a largely Jewish neighborhood) with a father who was well-connected within the Democratic Tammany Hall political establishment.

His father made a living doing a variety of business deals — for example, he was alleged to be an investor in a very popular brothel — and over the years the Hart’s family finances would ebb, when his mother’s jewelry would go to the local pawn shop, and flow, when her jewelry would come out of hock and Larry might be given a $100 bill so that he could take all of  his friends out for a night on the town.

It was a tight-knit family.

Larry (or Lorry as he was called by his German-Jewish mother) shared a bedroom with his younger brother Teddy until they were both in their forties.

The Harts regularly hosted parties attended by friends, relatives, local politicians, and — as Larry’s fame mounted — an expanding cast of writers, composers, musicians, performers, stars, groupies and hangers-on.

Larry supported his family after his father died — and he was apparently hounded by people to whom his father owed money for many years afterwards.

Hart was acutely aware of his mother’s wish that he would get married like his brother Teddy, who was a performer and who finally got married in 1938.

But none of the women to whom Larry proposed said yes.

Deep sigh.

Larry Hart

I am reminded of Hart’s lyric for the song “Glad To Be Unhappy” (which I once recorded with Doug on piano at his studio during a rehearsal).

 

“Fools rush in… so here I am, very glad to be unhappy. I can’t win… so here I am, more than glad to be unhappy. 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 seems to have buried or hidden much of his sadness behind a playful, generous, talkative, enthusiastic personality — as well as a thick haze of cigar smoke and LOTS of alcohol.

Hart

And Larry carried on his family’s tradition of hospitality and generosity — helping his father pay off debts and loans when he was still alive, lavishing gifts on friends, hosting endless parties, and picking up the tab when out on the town.  

He was also generous with his time and creativity.

His sister-in-law Dorothy Hart claimed, “My brother-in-law wrote more lyrics without getting credit for more friends who were stumped or had songwriters’ block. He was very generous, not only with money, but also with his talents.”

About Larry’s death she says, “He was really, I think, a victim of burnout, and at the age of 48, the theater didn`t offer too much surprise for him, because he had done it all.”

I also wonder what effect the news from Europe during WWII had on his spirit.

Before his death — after Richard Rodgers had begun his new collaboration with their mutual lifelong friend Oscar Hammerstein — Larry had been working on a musical about the underground resistance movement in Paris with a composer who had recently escaped from Germany.

So he must have been very well-informed about recent developments in Germany — from which his parents had emigrated in the late 1800s and to which he had traveled as an adult — and Europe.

How did this excruciating information affect his mood? His spirit? His world view?

One of the last songs he wrote in partnership with Richard Rodgers was a witty tour de force for Vivienne Segal to sing in a 1943 revival — and updated version — of their 1927 hit show A Connecticut Yankee.

It is called “To Keep My Love Alive” and relates how the singer has remained faithful to a long list of husbands (“until death do us part”) by killing each of them in a different way.

One death occurs when the singer pushes her husband off a balcony.

Hart would surely have been aware that Richard Rodgers’ wife’s father had died a few years earlier as a result of a fall from the balcony of their NY penthouse apartment when Rodgers’ father-in-law was being treated for depression.

Might this have been a hidden — and ostensibly humorous — way for him to process some of his feelings about Rodgers having begun a new collaboration with their long-time mutual friend and colleague Oscar Hammerstein, II — the first fruits of which was the musical Oklahoma?

A way to needle Richard and his wife Dorothy under the cloak of music and rhyme?

A way for him to express how he might have felt about Vivienne’s declining to accept his marriage proposals?

Who knows…

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mr Hart’s life story — and his lyrics — while I put together a program of songs and stories to perform with jazz pianist Joe Reid.

And my freely associative mind can’t help but see — or perhaps more accurately imagine — connections between Hart’s life and his work.

I am wildly grateful that he left such a rich and beautifully-crafted body of work for all of us to savor and sing for many years to come.

Rest in peace, dear Mr. Hart.

.LarryHart

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Grateful

As 2015 comes to a close, I find myself singing John Bucchino’s wise song, “Grateful,” a lot.

I love the entire song from start to finish (and you are welcome to listen to a version I recorded during a rehearsal with Doug Hammer a few years ago by activating the player at the beginning of this post).

I think my favorite lyric may be, “It’s not that I don’t want a lot, or hope for more…or dream of more — but giving thanks for what I’ve got, makes me so much happier than keeping score.”

It is very easy to fall into the trap of “keeping score” and comparing one’s accomplishments to one’s peers, to people on TV, to celebrities, etc. etc. etc.

But that path tends to be a dead end — and a recipe for dissatisfaction, unhappiness, depression and discouragement.

So here is a list of things (in no particular order) for which I am grateful.

Health…and health insurance.

A devoted and supportive life partner.

Dr. Charles Cassidy and his surgical team at Tufts Medical Center, who successfully pieced together the shattered bits of bone in my left elbow using several titanium screws of various sizes at the beginning of March.

WillXRaysElbow

Opiate drugs — which were a daily blessing during my elbow recovery.

Jazz pianist and composer Steve Sweeting, who invited me to record a CD of his tremendous original songs with him and then did two performances to celebrate “Blame Those Gershwins” in Manhattan and Somerville.

All of the families who have chosen to make Music Together with me in Belmont and Arlington — as well as my MT bosses.

Doug Hammer — for his engineering wizardry at Dreamworld Studio AND astoundingly collaborative spirit at the piano.

Jinny Sagorin for lending her voice and heart and diplomatic feedback to “The Beauty All Around” performance.

Jazz pianist Joe Reid, with whom I put together programs of music about Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jerome Kern — and with whom I also performed programs of music about Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, and the Gershwin brothers at retirement communities, libraries and synagogues around the greater Boston area.

Exceeding my (modest) financial goals for 2015 — thanks in part to two well-paid musical projects at the beginning of the year.

Kyra and Briony and Jill for a heartful musical adventure in honor of an old friend.

Bobbi Carrey, who is embracing new (although not very musical) challenges in Kuala Lumpur.

A grant from the Bob Jolly Charitable Trust to support my work on “The Beauty All Around.”

An ecstatic first performance of “The Beauty All Around” at Third Life Studio in Union Square.

Very supportive friends and family.

Very devoted and enthusiastic fans.

All the folks who have hired me and Joe to bring music to their retirement community, their library, their condo complex, their synagogue, etc.

Visits to Lime Rock, Connecticut; Ithaca, New York; Toronto, Ontario; and the upper west side of Manhattan.

Susan Robbins, who invited me to perform at Third Life Studio and maintains a very sweet Steinway grand piano there!

Photo by Anton Kuskin

Photo by Anton Kuskin

All the people (most of whom I will never meet) who planted, cultivated, harvested, sorted, packaged, shipped, unpacked, displayed, sold (and sometimes cooked and served) me the food I ate in 2015.

That our planet orbits a modest star at the perfect distance for life to unfold in astounding cycles of expansion and contraction over the course of millions of years.

North of Highland campground.

The Atlantic ocean.

Cayuga lake and the Rice Heritage cottage.

A wonderful web of cousins.

The Boston Association of Cabaret Artists community.

The Ukulele Union of Boston Meetup groups with a welcoming spirit and humble open mic section (during which I dare to share new songs…)

A new ukulele handmade — and given to me! — by Patrick Collins, a gifted musician, inspired woodworker, and dedicated teacher who lives in Toronto.

Megan Henderson, who has become my newest musical ally.

Rain and sun and dirt which create the conditions for plants to grow and flourish here on planet earth.

My trusty, slightly rusty, bicycle.

Electricity.

My two, increasingly aged, lap top computers which continue to function with grace and reliability.

Apple’s Garageband program.

The freshly paved, extremely smooth — with bike lanes! — stretch of Massachusetts Avenue from the Cambridge border to Arlington Center.

And, of course, music, music and more music — new songs or beloved standards, live or pre-recorded, spontaneous or well-rehearsed, solo or ensemble — it’s all a blessing.

Thank you for reading and listening to yet another blog post.

If I have forgotten to mention you in this list, please accept my heartfelt apologies…

A happy, healthy, and musical new year to you and yours!

Photo by Joe Turner

Photo by Joe Turner

Does July Need A Sky Of Blue?

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Hurrah for summer on planet earth.

1) I can again ride my bike to and from Music Together classes.

2) The mulberry trees in Arlington have been particularly generous with their berries this season, and there are many days that my tongue has been colored purple as a result…

3) My sweetheart and I recently visited family in upstate NY, where we were fed currants and bok choy and eggs — all of which were grown on my sister’s farm.

Yum.

4) And jazz pianist Joe Reid and I continue to perform our hour-long programs of songs written or co-written by Harold Arlen, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter at retirement communities, coffee houses, and libraries around the greater Boston area.

After a recent show, I was speaking with one of the audience members about how — before the arrival of amplified sound in theaters — a song had to be crafted so that it could be sung by a performer and heard way up in the highest balcony seat.

Vowels and consonants and words and notes and melodies and ideas all had to travel from one person’s vocal tract to another person’s ear without the aid of electricity.

As far as I can tell from reading dozens of biographies about songwriters over the past couple of years, there were many factors which allowed this to happen.

a) Theaters were designed with great sensitivity to acoustics.

b) Songs were orchestrated to leave some sonic space for human voices to cut through the overall blend of musical vibrations and be heard.

c) The audience was accustomed to leaning forward and LISTENING carefully — compared with today, when I take earplugs with me in order comfortably to withstand the blast of amplified sound that is the norm in today’s pop music and even in today’s musical theater.

d) The singers — Ethel Merman being one of the most famous examples — knew how to generate potent streams of sound.

e) The songwriters knew how to craft songs with vowels and consonants and rhymes in all the right places while telling a story and advancing the plot.

One of my favorite examples of this craftsmanship is the song “Do I Love You, Do I?” which was written by Cole Porter for his musical DuBarry Was a Lady.

It is extremely fun to sing — especially near the end when the melody of the final “Do I love you, do I?” rises to a big, high note with total ease due to the extremely functional (from a singing point of view) vowel sequence of the two words “do” and “I.”

You can listen to this — and sing along if the spirit moves you — by clicking the song bar at the top of this blog entry. It is a recording I made a while back with the great pianist and songwriter Steve Sweeting when he lived in Brighton, MA.

Steve and I have recently finished recording a nine-sing CD of HIS extremely well-crafted original songs which I will very likely be writing about in future blog posts.

May there be lots of music in your life today and every day!

And thank you, as always, for reading and listening.

What Is This Thing Called Love?

This past Sunday pianist Joe Reid and I performed an hour of songs with music by Harold Arlen at an independent living center in Quincy, MA.

The residents who showed up were very friendly — and a few of them knew the words to almost every song!

Even if they weren’t singing, I could see that everyone was moving some part of their body — fingers, toes, head, torso — in rhythm with the music.

It was a delightful way to spend an hour of my life.

Afterwards one woman — whose eyes had been closed for much of the time — explained that when these songs had been popular, she and her husband had not had a lot of money, but that they HAD been able to listen to music on the radio.

So even though it may have appeared she was dozing off,  she had in fact been remembering that time in her life and imagining that her husband was still sitting next to her.

Deep sigh.

What is this thing called love?

What Is This Thing Called Love?

The previous day pianist Doug Hammer and I had performed a 40 minute chunk of my show, “The Kid Inside,” at a benefit for a new organization called OUT MetroWest.

OUT MetroWest has been providing supportive space for LGBTQ teenagers to meet for many years, and this benefit was a big step to expand their services beyond the Unitarian Universalist church in Wellesley where they began.

I originally created “The Kid Inside”  to perform for the 10th grade class at my high school. It’s a recollection, using stories and songs, of my high school years — including how conflicted and confused I felt about my sexuality.

At one point I tell a story about when — lacking a gay-straight alliance on campus or even any “out” faculty members to whom I might speak — I sneaked from my dorm one night and knocked on the front door of an apartment belonging to one of the young, unmarried male teachers who lived on campus,

When he answered the door, I was unable to say anything and just stood there — feeling stuck and ashamed and humiliated.

I follow this story by singing the Cole Porter song “What Is This Thing Called Love?” — which is in the player at the top of this post with Doug Hammer on piano, Mark Carlson on bass, and Kenny Wenzel on trombone.

I am happy to know that there are now safe spaces at many high schools to talk about the amazing and powerful and at times perplexing topics of sexuality and identity and relationships — as well as organizations like OUT Metro West.

And I am amazed at how songs can re-connect us with people and places from our past.

Love is a mystery.

How music taps into our memories and opens our hearts is a mystery.

Today I embrace those mysteries and remain grateful for all the music in my life on a daily basis.

Thank you for reading…and listening.