Music writing collaborations are often greater than the sum of their parts yet can also lead to tensions and divisions; the partnerships of Gilbert and Sullivan and Lennon and McCartney both foundered in a sea of acrimony. Musical theatre composer Richard Rogers found himself involved in not one but two highly successful teams which led to him being the first recipient of an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Oscar); and just for good measure he won the Pulitzer prize too. His two lyricist partners were Lorenz (Larry) Hart during the 1920s/30s and Oscar Hammerstein throughout the 1940s/50s. Sarah Wooley’s audio play Rogers And Hart And Hammerstein covers the transition period between them as one relationship falls apart and the other begins and blossoms.
The story starts with the opening of Pal Joey at Christmas 1940. It’s a dark time for the world with war in Europe although America has yet to become involved. Rogers and Hart have written over twenty musicals together, but this latest success has a more downbeat tone than usual and has been produced under difficult circumstances. Hart is a closeted gay man with a penchant for the bottle, a developing persecution complex and is less inclined to spend his time working. Rogers, however, is still a driven man and full of ideas. One of these revolves around adapting a play Green Grow The Lilacs about pioneers in rural America. Hart “doesn’t do cowboys” so the idea is temporarily shelved. As this is what will eventually become the mega hit Oklahoma which took the Broadway musical in an entirely new and exciting direction, Hart’s recalcitrance is unfortunate. Eventually Rogers turns to a new partnership with lyricist Hammerstein kickstarting a second phase for his career which led to even greater acclaim across a string of hits which focused on story and character rather than purely frivolous entertainment.
There’s a generous helping of song extracts, often appropriately placed, but in the main this account is dialogue driven. After some rather clunky opening exposition to fill us in on the back story (the approaching war, Rogers and Hart’s level of success, etc.), the central trio of the three men are well delineated. Jamie Parker (himself no stranger to the musical genre) gives a particularly well-modulated account of Rogers who is in imminent danger of losing his matrimonial partnership as well as his writing one. Paul Chahidi gives another fine turn as the increasingly inebriated lyricist who undermines his own happiness by his refusal to sober up and co-operate. His last scene as he wanders the streets of Manhattan in the driving rain that will bring on the pneumonia which will end his life is poignantly accompanied by snatches of one of the pair’s biggest hits “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”. Nathan Osgood’s Hammerstein gets a relatively late entry into proceedings and is very much the straight man of the trio so doesn’t come across as particularly interesting. That said, it is clearly his ideas about how a musical show should be structured which unleashes the muse for both him and Rogers which will take them on to huge success.
This is a play which is full of regret for how things might have been though it’s more than probably the case that Oklahoma and the string of hits that came after it would never have happened had Hart sobered up . Like many a musical itself there’s a bittersweet feel to it which uses some of the tropes of “the show must go on” approach. Personal trauma must be put to one side, relationships can be stretched to breaking point; even the horrors of a world war can’t stand in the way. That’s why there’s no business like show business, I guess – even if that was one of Irving Berlin’s.