Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Salute to Larry Hart

Larry Hart is in no need of an assist from me. He's in clover, enviable in almost any songwriter who didn't compose tunes who has been dead 65 years.

Tunesmiths, after all, can make you hum even if you forget the lyrics; Larry Hart's lyrics can be hummed. Think of, say, "Mountain Greenery": "We could find no keener re-treat from life's machinery than our mountain greenery home" or, from "Blue Room": "You sew your trousseau and Robinson Crusoe is not more far from worldly cares than our little blue room way upstairs." Rodgers wrote the melodies first, and then Hart would put the rhymes on the important notes.

I'm always discovering Rodgers & Hart songs I had not encountered previously (or not memorably), and I'm always discovering something else glorious about his placement of a word or a line or a witticism where one did not expect it. I often acquire CDs of Rodgers & Hart specialists (all female, hmm), and can recommend or discourage you: Ella Fitzgerald (A, as always - and she sings the verses); Barbara Cook (B - a trifle jejune - she was still in her 30s - but often affecting); Flicka von Stade (C - it's not her voice that is operatic overblown, it's John McGlinn's orchestrations - still, she does a lovely mix of standards and oddities); Eileen Farrell (B - I know it's a classic, and you'll hate me for this, but I find her a little overbearing in places, such as "Can't You Do A Friend A Favor" - she does a lovely "You're Nearer" though); and Dawn Upshaw (A - she has splendid Broadway chops and, now that she is no longer an opera star, really should be doing operettas on Broadway ... except, oops, it's no longer the 1930s or even the 1950s, is it? - anyway, her "Thou Swell" with David Garrison and "Why Can't I?" with Audra would alone be worth the price). Lee Wiley did half a dozen R&H sides, mostly unusual stuff - all of it perfect - but especially "A Ship Without A Sail" and "You Took Advantage Of Me."

Elsewhither, having recently had access to most of the Ben Bagley collections and their incredible horde of treasures (far too many of them flustered with damned electric piano arrangements, but NOT ALL), I was knocked all of a heap by Dorothy Loudon's "If I Were You" (a typical Larry Hart joke song based on a feeling of being unloved - cf. Von Stade's overblown version), Blossom Dearie's "A Lady Must Live" and "I Can Do Wonders With You"), and there's a wonderful duet called "Try Again Tomorrow."

Currently my favorite R&H songs (this changes a lot) are: "Wait Till You See Her" (from By Jupiter), "You Have Cast Your Shadow On The Sea" (from the flawless score of The Boys from Syracuse), "I Wish I Were In Love Again" (from the almost flawless score of Babes in Arms), "Way Out West on West End Avenue" (ditto), "It Never Entered My Mind" (Higher & Higher - how can such a perfect song come from a flop?), "This Is My Night To Howl" (Connecticut Yankee, which also produced "Thou Swell," "My Heart Stood Still," and "Can't You Do A Friend A Favor"), "You're Nearer," "Like A Ship Without A Sail," "Why Can't I?", "Mountain Greenery" and "Too Good for the Average Man" (which is probably my motto for the whole Hart oeuvre). I've always wanted to sing "Give It Back To The Indians" at a pagan gathering, ideally when my friend Thundercloud, the Lakota shaman of Seattle, was present. Major un-PC.

And I don't just like Larry for things like:
"I like a prize fight that isn't a fake/ I like the rowing on Central Park Lake/ I go to opera and stay wide awake" or (same song, but it's my motto:)
"I'm all alone when I lower my lamp" - ooh, can't you feel those L's hissing?

or "You have what I lack myself/ Now I even have to scratch my back myself"
(which I have filked to: "Since you've gone I kick myself/ Now I even have to suck my dick myself")

or "Only my book in bed/ Knows how I look in bed/ I only mean to imply/ Everybody has someone - why can't I?
"If love means merriment/ I should experiment/ With an electrical guy/ Even old maids find a burglar - why can't I?"

or "The shortest day of the year has the longest night of the year, and the longest night is the shortest night with you"

or even "When he talks he is seeking/ Words to get off his chest/ Horizontally speaking/ He's at his very best"

- what I really love are the lines that hold back on the punchline till the last line or the last word.

"Wait Till You See Her" - a perfect love song (and Larry cleverly put the pronouns where they would not rhyme, so it can be sung about a "him" or a "her" with equal grace) - and an epigram: Wait Till You See Her/Him ... followed by all the amazing comparisons you could like, but ending: When you see her/him ... you won't believe your eyes."

or "He Was Too Good To Me," about a breakup, listing all the things he did for her, and ending, "It's only natural I'm blue? ... He was too good ... to be true."

That is to say: Hart (like all the greatest American lyricists, down to the last of the noble line, Mr. Sondheim and the late Mr. Ebb) could take a demotic cliché hanging on the line out to dry and turn it into a witticism, a musical witticism: spare, elegant, poetic but not highfalutin, the poesy of the man and woman in the street. The man and woman dancing in the street.


Chris said...

You missed (not that EVERYTHING has to be your favorite!) "You Are So Fair," with its stately tune and unending ringing of changes on "fair" or "fare." Very unusually, instead of rhymes, there are identities with different MEANINGS at the ends of lines. Get out your "Complete Lyrics" and one of your "Babes in Arms" albums and revel in it.

Eric said...

Dear Mr. Cafeteria Rusticana,

First of all, I love the blog title! Your photo is pretty fetching as well. Fetching as in canine critters, as in "Woof"!

Enough of that. I am a huge Rodgers & Hart fan. Every time I hear Sondheim bitch about him I smell the faint aroma of sour grapes, since Hart's lyrics have all the cleverness of Sondheim's without the "See how clever I am" self-consciousness, and an emotional range that Sondheim can't even dream about.

OK, this is bugging the crap out of me: your doggerel (Woof! Can't help it. Anything word containing the word "dog" makes me say "Woof"! It's a Pavlovian reflex) that ends "Now I even have to suck my dick myself" has the rhythmic pattern of a song I KNOW I know, but it's not quite coming to me. What the Hell song is it?

And are you familiar with Hart's own alternative version of bridge of "There's a Small Hotel" directed at his pimp, which he came up with during rehearsals for "Boys from Syracuse":

Look behind the curtain,
You can see three slaves and Bender.
Bender's on the ender.

Speaking of "B from S", can someone explain to me the meaning of "He and She"? I've never really understood it.

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