Something magical in the world of music that approaches Divine intervention occurred around the turn of the twentieth century in the the tight, crowded tenements of New York City. In the space of a few years, giants of lyric and melody that have defined the American Experience for over a century and have brought all of us countless hours of joy were born within a few miles of each other with almost identical immigrant American success stories and uniformly jewish heritage. The contributions of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers to what has become known as the American Songbook in someways diminishes their formative contribution to the larger musical universe, the special synthesis of song and verse to the elevation of both as equal partners evoking the basest of human emotions. Gershwin and Rodgers especially were composers of serious merit apart from their popularity on the theatrical stage, but they never denigrated the marriage of lyrics and lyrical music, creating both mature musical expression that responded to the adult poetry of their lyricists.
Richard Rodgers had a long and influential career blessed by comparatively good health amongst the other stalwarts mentioned, participating with multiple lyricists in establishing a particularly classical and symphonic Rodgers style, but the poignancy and intimacy that he was so capable of in his music saw its fullest expression in his short but fruitful collaboration with the lyricist Lorenz Hart. Hart was a conflicted and tortured soul that struggled with personal demons that often sabotaged his success and made collaboration unpredictable and difficult for Rodgers. The two met as classmates at Columbia, Hart studying journalism and Rodgers attending the musical institute, later renamed Julliard. Lorenz Hart had the fragmented constitution of a true poet, sublimating an unexpressed homosexuality required of the times, barely five feet tall and convinced of his unattractiveness, finding solace in alcohol, and terminally wistful and melancholic. Rodgers of firmer constitution, recognized early Hart’s special capacity for tying intimate poetic verse into a form particularly suited to his more orchestral and balletic musical stylings. The result was a unique internal voice to the songs, the statement of unstated emotions more powerful than the singer would normally be willing to expose, if the object of the song was standing before them – a Shakespearean soliloquy for music.
The period of collaboration between Rodgers and Hart between 1925 and 1943, ended by Hart’s premature death to pneumonia after an alcoholic binge, was the incubator of some of the most beautiful music and poetic verse marriages ever created. Standards that resonate forever to anyone who has ever felt the human need for relationship poured from their respective pens with such gems as Where or When, Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered, Glad To Be Unhappy, In A Small Hotel, Blue Moon, Isn’t It Romantic, It Never Entered My Mind, This Cant Be Love, Spring Is Here,and My Funny Valentine, among so many others.
In Spring Is Here , Hart called out to the inequity and pain that the rebirth the season of spring provides out of the harsh winter, to the solitary and lonely soul who has no one with which to share spring’s eternal promise :
Spring is here! Why doesn’t my heart go dancing? Spring is here! Why doesn’t the waltz seem entrancing? No desire, no ambition leads me – maybe its because nobody needs me. Spring is here! Why doesn’t the breeze delight me? Stars appear! Why doesn’t the night invite me? Maybe its because nobody loves me. Spring is here – I hear.
Hart doesn’t just pour out his desperation in such words, but his internal conflict in being unable to celebrate those life experiences he felt seemed so easy for others. Even when he notes the presence of the achievement of love, he expresses this confusion of recognition of the process of human relationship, as expressed beautifully in the verses of Where Or When, where friends discover to their surprise that their friendship has evolved into an intimate love:
It seems we stood and talked like this before, we looked at each other in the same way then, but I can’t remember where or when…..The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore, the smile you are smiling, you were smiling then, but I can’t remember where or when. Sometimes you think you’ve lived before all the things you lived today; things you do come back to you – as though they knew the way – oh, the tricks your mind can play! Somethings that happened for the first time, seem to be happening again. And so it seems we have met before – and laughed before – and loved before- but who knows where or when?
Hart can feel the pull of human intimacy and all its glory, but remains stunned by its primordial and uncontrolled force. In some of the most musically inspired verse put to paper, Hart in Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered links the joy, loss of control, confusion, and anticipation associated with love’s emotion into the perfect synthesis. Framed by Rodgers’ understated but hopeful musical trellis, the collaboration achieves maybe the most poignant and memorable expression of the American musical songbook :
I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering wimpering child again. Bewitched , bothered, and bewildered -am I. Couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t sleep, when love came and told me I shouldn’t sleep. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered – am I.
Lorenz Hart said things in his verse that people quietly felt but never wanted to express because of its rawness, and Richard Rodgers brought the melancholy color and beauty to such intimate and painful expression. Bound together they become a very special whole that we are forever thankful for. As painful as life can sometimes be, it helps to know, that someone understands in a way that elevates us all.