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Twenty-five years ago this month the Theatre Guild needed a new curtain. In 1925 the Guild was still no more than a healthy off-Broadway weed, and it decided that the price of the curtain could be raised best by putting on a small musical show Sunday night, when most theaters are dark. A young man named Richard Rodgers, just out of Columbia, was told about the Guild's plan and urged to write the music for the show. Rodgers was fed up with writing music for amateur theatricals, and had almost made up his mind to enter the children's underwear business at fifty dollars a week. He decided to do the show, however, provided a college friend and collaborator, Lorenz Hart, was engaged to write the lyrics.
On a Sunday night in May, 1925, "The Garrick Gaieties" opened at the Garrick Theatre, with a cast of Theatre Guild understudies and chorus members. The public and critics were enraptured; people went around humming "Sentimental Me" and "Mountain Greenery" the Theatre Guild got its new curtain; and Rodgers and Hart had written their first hit.
Rodgers and Hart first met in the fall of 1919, while Rodgers was composing the music for Columbia's Varsity Show the first freshman to be given the job. Herbert Fields, the son of vaudeville comedian Lew Fields, introduced them, and from then almost until Hart's death in 1943 the two worked together. From 1919 on Rodgers and Hart turned out more than a thousand songs, including an extraordinary number of hits, like "Thou Swell," "Ten Cents a Dance," "Falling In Love with Love," "Blue Moon," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Lover," and "Small Hotel."
From the start it was evident that Rodgers and hart were distinct from most songwriters. Rodgers' music was occasionally schmalzy, but above all it was always beautifully melodious. Larry Hart's words were clever and sophisticated; yet they always seemed somehow to be in a spirit of light-hearted naivete. Perhaps the best that can be said is that their talents blended perfectly. Whatever the reasons, the public acclaimed Rodgers and Hart.
Together they wrote dozens of Broadway hits, always trying to make musical comedy as well-constructed and meaningful as good drama. In their shows every song was a "plot" number--such as "The Lady is a Tramp," from "Babes in Arms." In addition, Rodgers and Hart deserve a great deal of the credit for the introduction of ballet into musical comedy. George Balanchine, former ballet director for the Metropolitan Opera, staged most of their dances. His first choreography for them was the memorable ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," from "On Your Toes," in which Ray Bolger danced the leading role.
On the evening of March 31, 1943, "Oklahoma!" opened and Broadway was stunned by the impact of the most successful musical show of the American theater. Richard Rodgers had collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein II on the show. Eight months later Larry Hart died, and the old team of Rodgers and Hart was ended.
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