Skip the verse

Lyrics from the pen of Lorenz Hart shine as some of the brightest highlights in the history of Broadway musicals. Think “Blue Moon,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “I Could Write a Book.” The list seems endless. This man wrote the words to hundreds of songs, an explosion of creativity offering him solace in a troubled life.

Larry, as he was known to his friends, was less than five feet tall, a fact that frustrated him and caused his rejection by the Army. Majoring in journalism at Columbia University, he worked for the Schubert family, translating German plays. At 23, he met Richard Rodgers, then only 16, and the two forged a composer-lyricist collaboration that lasted 25 years and produced seemingly countless hit songs and shows.

Hart loved to play with the language, and during the past few weeks, I ran headlong into this fact when I was invited to sing “Thou Swell” in a duet with my friend Joyce Weiser. We were paired in a local production of “A Carolina Girl in King Arthur’s Court,” a 21st century parody that combined elements of “A Connecticut Yankee” and “Camelot.” The familiar chorus of “Thou Swell” swings along on a catchy tune that tends to stick in one’s mind long after the show ends. It’s fun to sing. But Hart’s verse that leads to this chorus is another matter. His fascination with words becomes excessive and, I argue, clumsy. It’s a terror to singers. An excerpt will illustrate:

“Babe, we are well-met, as in a spell met, I lift my helmet, Sandy, you’re just dandy for just this here lad. You’re such a fistful, my eyes are mistful, are you too wistful to care to say you care to say, come near, lad? You are so graceful, have you wings? You have a faceful of nice things. You have no speaking voice, dear, with every word it sings! Thou swell, thou witty,” etc.

That’s just the guy’s part. His female counterpart replies: “Thy words are queer, Sir, unto my ears, Sir, yet thou’rt a dear, Sir, to me, thou couldst woo me, now couldst thou try, knight,” and so on. You get the picture. Joyce and I both struggled to memorize these awkward lyrics, and we finally mastered them. Getting past them to that friendlier chorus always came as a relief.

Hart died at 48 in 1943, following an embarrassing incident. On the opening night of a revival of “A Connecticut Yankee,” he tried to attend the show without a ticket. Drunk and noisy, he was ejected from the theater. A few days later, he came down with pneumonia and died a short time later.

His songs live on, though, and many of them are memorable and wonderful, including “Thou Swell,” a terrific piece, if you skip the verse.

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