When at the age of 17 composer Richard Rodgers met 24-year-old lyricist Lorenz Hart in 1919, he instantly acquired “a career, a partner, a best friend and a source of permanent irritation.”
So Rodgers wrote, in one of the many tidbits Santino Fontana tells us in “We’ll Have Manhattan: Rodgers and Hart in New York,” Fontana’s celebration, as part of the 92ndStreet Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series, of the hundredth anniversary of Rodgers and Hart’s partnership. “We’ll Have Manhattan,” which will be performed twice more, this afternoon and this evening.
Over 25 years, Rodgers and Hart wrote more than 600 songs together, such as “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady is A Tramp,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” and “Falling in Love with Love” – and some 30 Broadway shows, including “Pal Joey,” “On Your Toes,” and “The Boys From Syracuse.”
In 1942, Rodgers asked Hart to collaborate on one more musical, an adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Hart declined, because, by all accounts, he just wanted to drink. So Rodgers found a new lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II., and together they wrote the adaptation, which they entitled “Oklahoma!” A new partnership had begun. Hart died in 1943, at the age of 48.
It’s bracing, but not completely baffling, that there was way more hoopla about the 75thanniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s partnership last year than this year’s centennial of Rodgers and Hart’s. Rodgers only wrote 11 shows with Hammerstein, a third of the output of Rodgers and Hart. But five of them are among the most beloved of all Broadway musicals.
With just a few exceptions, Rodgers and Hart shows are largely forgotten, but their songs remain remarkable staples. There have been some 1,300 recordings of “My Funny Valentine,” Fontana told us, as he sat down at the piano (spelling pianist and musical director Andy Einhorn) to deliver his rendition. It’s one of 25 songs performed in “We’ll Have Manhattan,” by Fontana and four able colleagues – his “Tootsie” co-star Lilli Cooper, his wife Jessica Fontana, Ann Harada and Vishal Vaidya – accompanied by a five-piece band and some terrific arrangements (jazzy, sometimes bluesy) by David Chase.
In-between the songs, Fontana’s script focuses largely on three aspects of Hart’s lyrics – his love of New York; the social context in which the songs were written, which Fontana claims explains their popularity (“his words came to epitomize many of the ideals shared by returning vets and housewives alike – a world of….old-fashioned domestic bliss”); and the “cruel irony” of the contrast between his sad, lonely personal life and his creation of what Fontana exclaims as the greatest love songs ever written. I would have preferred that the show had expended even just a couple of lines on the impossible stresses that a gay man faced in the era in which Hart lived, rather than repeatedly harping on his apparently never having “experienced a serious romantic relationship.”
I was happiest to have Manhattan, the focus on Rodger’s and Hart’s New York songs. When Vaidya sings:
We’ll have Manhattan the Bronx and Staten Island too.
It’s lovely going through the zoo!
…It’s very fancy on old Delancy street you know.
The subway charms us so when balmy breezes blow to and fro…
It’s a delight to learn that “Manhattan,” a still popular song with a still recognizable wry, romantic view of the city, was written for The Garrick Gaieties of 1925.