Rodgers and Hart: My Spring Fling
There is something about the coming of spring, the earthen smell in the air and the flowers poised to bloom, that puts me in the mood for the songs of Rodgers and Hart. There is a loveliness and gaiety that I associate with their music that comes to life right around the time the earth does. Spring is all about pastoral beauty and romance, something that Rodgers and Hart deal with in spades. Today’s blog is simply a celebration of the ten Rodgers and Hart songs that put the “spring” in my step, the ditties that won’t seem to leave my brain until July.
An early song by the composing team, “Mountain Greenery” was written for the musical revue The Garrick Gaieties (1926) where it was introduced by character actor Sterling Holloway, the unforgettable voice of several Disney characters including Winnie the Pooh. The song has a peppy melody, one of Rodgers’ most insistent and catchy. Hart’s lyrics are hokey fun and cornball rhymes celebrating a mountain retreat for a young couple to getaway to. Mel Torme, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como and even the Supremes made recordings of the song.
“Falling in Love with Love”
One of the more cynical entries in the Rodgers and Hart songbook, “Falling in Love with Love” is nonetheless one of the duo’s best-known and oft-recorded songs. Written for the musical The Boys from Syracuse, adapted from William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, the song is a bitter condemnation of love, infused with the ache of someone who has been scorned one too many times. Interestingly, an up-tempo version was sung by Bernadette Peters (as the Stepmother) in the 1997 remake of the TV musical of Cinderella (by Rodgers and Hammerstein).
“Sing for Your Supper”
This is one of the most joyous songs that Rodgers and Hart had ever written, and a nice antidote to the sardonic nature of “Falling in Love with Love” from the same show. “Sing for Your Supper” is a chirpy trio sung by the three main female characters in The Boys From Syracuse, introduced by actresses Muriel Angelus, Marcy Wescott and Wynn Murray. The song is reminiscent of the pieces that made the Andrews Sisters a hit, breaking into tight harmonies and a zesty energy. Count Basie, Mel Torme and the Mamas and the Papas are among those who had hit recordings of the song.
“Isn’t it Romantic?”
Once you have heard this melody and committed it to memory, you will hear it everywhere. It often shows up as background music at elegant affairs in film and on television and it plays as muzak in elevators and shopping malls. There is a reason for that: It has a divine waltz melody that is a burrowing earworm. The song was written for the film Love Me Tonight (1932) and was introduced by Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. “Isn’t It Romantic?” was chosen for the #73 slot by the American Film Institute for their 100 Years…100 Songs list celebrating songs from the movies. The song details the idyllic romance, complete with several witty scenarios. Chet Baker, Peggy Lee and George Shearing, and Mel Torme were among those to have successful recordings on the song.
“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”
In 1940, Rodgers and Hart wrote their edgiest musical Pal Joey based on John O’Hara’s series of short stories for The New Yorker. It told the story of the conniving nightclub performer Joey Evans who womanizes his way to success. One of his dalliances is with the wealthy, married socialite Vera Simpson who is overtaken with lust for the young lothario. The musical’s most famous number is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” sung by Vera (originally played by Vivienne Segal). The song is overtly sexual (especially for 1940) and in order to receive radio play, it needed homogenized lyrics. This is a song that directly deals with carnal desire and was only softened into a love song in an effort to gain wider exposure. Popular recordings (among several dozens of amazing interpretations) include Helen Forrest, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon, and Lady Gaga.
This is the one Rodgers and Hart song on this list that is not from a musical per se. It started out as a melody with different lyrics for an MGM musical, 1934 Jean Harlow flick Hollywood Party. The song wasn’t used, but it was rewritten with new lyrics as the title song of the 1934 film Manhattan Melodrama. That incarnation was also excised. A third version was incorporated, but failed to catch on. It wasn’t until the lyrics were made more romantic that the song became the torch song hit that it deserved to be. In 1949, swing and blues singer Billy Ekstine had a Billboard climbing hit with the song, peaking at #21. The song has been recorded by Mel Torme, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, and a chart-topping, doo wop version in 1961 by The Marcels.
“I Could Write a Book”
Pal Joey may have been one of Rodgers and Hart’s grittier shows, but the 1940 musical was not without sentiment. “I Could Write a Book” is a lovely song that equates falling in love with writing a book. Rodgers manifests a slow, almost drowsy melody that is nonetheless infectious, and Hart’s lyrics are a fine example of his subtle use of wit and wordplay. The song was introduced by actor/dancer Gene Kelly who would soon be swept off to Hollywood where he would become one of the great figures of film musicals for the next decade-and-a-half.
The 1925 edition of The Garrick Gaieties featured one of Rodgers and Hart’s finest confections, a tribute to the Big Apple known simply as “Manhattan”. Has a song ever more perfectly captured the excitement and variety to be found by wandering about New York City? Not only is it a tour guide through the best the city has to offer, but it is also a love song about a romance ignited by the sights and sounds to be shared. The duet was introduced by Sterling Holloway and June Cochran. It was subsequently performed by Mickey Rooney in the film Words and Music, and it has also received notable renditions by Ella Fitzgerald, Harry James, Tony Martin, and Tony Bennett.
“There’s a Small Hotel”
We all know a little hideaway where we like to escape to for romance (and maybe something more) and Rodgers and Hart captured that little retreat perfectly in “There’s a Small Hotel”. The song was initially written for the 1935 musical Jumbo, but it was cut. Fortunately, it made its way into On Your Toes (1936) a year later where it was sung by Ray Bolger and Doris Carlson and it soon became a standard amongst romantic comedy songs. There’s a slyness about the song and a touch of innuendo, but just enough to get by in the climate of the 1930s. The song was interpolated into the film version of a very sanitized Pal Joey where Frank Sinatra crooned the number, and it boasted recordings by Chet Baker, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Della Reese.
“Where or When”
The 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms has a score chocked full of songs that went on to become standards, including some greats like “The Lady Is a Tramp”, “Johnny One Note” and “My Funny Valentine.” For me, the breezy “Where or When” is a standout, a song inspired by a budding romance where the participants experience a deja-vous moment where they feel like they have met before. The song was introduced by Ray Heatherton and Mitzi Green in the original production and went on be recorded by Shirley Bassey, The Beach Boys, Nat King Cole, Judy Collins, Perry Como, Harry Connick, Jr., Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Percy Faith, Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Haymes, Lena Horne, The Lettermen, Barry Manilow, Dean Martin, Kenny Rogers, Dinah Shore, Barbra Streisand, and Andy Willimas, among countless others.
Now, tell me, what Rodgers and Hart songs are among your favorites for spring?