Theatre yesterday and today



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Moss Hart was born today on October 24, 1904, one-hundred-twelve years ago. That's a long time. Long enough to fade into oblivion, especially taking into consideration that some men who were elected President of the United States barely left a mark. But in his time (and beyond it) Moss Hart was a very famous name, especially for a writer and director, whose main prominence was in the theatre. But such were the times. Broadway's movers and shakers were of paramount interest to people, with columnists in newspapers across the country dedicated to recording the comings and goings of its denizens.

Ordinary people outside the parameters of show business were once able to tell you without fail who was half the writing team of Kaufman and Hart. And when Hart's autobiography Act One was published in 1959, it managed to not only become the #1 best selling non-fiction book in America, it stayed at the top for many months.

Hart's rags to riches story as a poor and impoverished child from a working class, immigrant neighborhood of New York City tenements, captivated millions. And in a bold move, Hart chose to only take his readers up to the morning after the night of his first success: the Broadway opening of Once in a Lifetime in 1930, which he co-wrote with George S. Kaufman, his autobiography's reluctant hero. All the successes that came after were well-known, but it had to have taken enormous restraint for Hart to not tell tales of his having worked over the course of his career with Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Ethel Waters, George M. Cohan, Clifton Webb, Fredric March, Gertrude Lawrence, Danny Kate, Bert Lahr and Beatrice Lillie. Not to mention Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, with whom he collaborated as the director of My Fair Lady. Hart chose to hold back on all this for what would have been a potential sequel: Act Two. Unfortunately, he never got to write it when a heart attack claimed him in 1961 at age fifty-seven.

Hart was completely self-taught, never finishing high school. But due to a carefully honed persona, wholly of his own creation, he became the epitome of erudite sophistication, both as writer and man-about-town. He was forever trying to make up for his awful Dickensian childhood by wearing the fanciest of clothes and buying the most expensive things to fill an empty void. It was Kaufman who quipped when viewing his 87-acre country estate, "it shows you what God would have done if He’d had the money.”

Described as "enormously talented and incessantly depressed," Hart was a disciple of a well-known (and possible charlatan) of a psychiatrist named Lawrence Kubie. He had him in analysis so often that Hart would sometimes go twice a day. Gore Vidal once wrote of Kubie that he was "a slick bit of goods on the make among the rich, the famous, the gullible." Perhaps if Hart had lived longer, his relationship with his shrink could have made for a book of an entirely different order.

His work spread to film as well, winning the Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of Laura Z. Hobson's book Gentlemen's Agreement, as well as adapting the third (and best known) version of A Star is Born with Judy Garland. He won the Pulitzer Prize with George S. Kaufman for You Can't Take It With You, which I wrote about in a column recently as having once again been cited in a reputable survey as one of the most-produced plays at America's high schools for the 77th time in 78 years. That's quite a legacy to leave behind, and it's only one of the two dozen plays and musicals Hart wrote.

Moss Hart

And as a director, Hart was without peer. If you read the voluminous accounts written about My Fair Lady, it is abundantly clear that without his guidance the show might never have been a hit, let alone made it to Broadway. He had to gently coax the Henry Higgins out of Rex Harrison (as problematic a star as there ever was) with more adroitness than any diplomat. And he personally spoon fed the role of Eliza Doolittle to the show’s newcomer, a twenty-one year old Julie Andrews, by way of line-readings and private sessions; in a sense becoming his own Higgins to her Eliza.

Like so many others, Act One was a life-changing read for me. A life-saver even, rescuing me from a feeling that I would never be able to rise above my status and achieve the success of which I dreamed. When the book was out of print, and in the days before you could buy a copy on Ebay or any other such available website, I would always grab one when I found it among the stacks at the Strand in New York City or other used book stores, giving it as a gift whenever appropriate. The book never fails to engage and enlighten, even if much of it is fantasy. Stephen Bach's Dazzler, the first biography of Hart published in 2001, largely debunked many of Act One's most seductive stories. This was tough for a fan such as I to discover, even if it was something I long suspected. It was Kaufman himself who said in 1959, at the time of its publication, that he was "very pleased for Moss that Act One is on the best seller list. I simply feel that it should be under fiction instead of non-fiction.”

In 2014, Act One was adapted for the stage by writer-director James Lapine (a film of it was made in 1962 that at best can be described as a travesty and at worst an abomination). Lapine’s inexplicable choice to have three actors play Hart, was to my mind both unnecessary and unwise. You can judge for yourself as it was filmed from the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre for PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center and is available to watch on line. Before its opening night, Frank Rich, a longtime fan of the book, wrote an article for New York Magazine stating eloquently what makes Act One so special and enduring: “It says you can escape a home where you feel you don’t belong, you can escape a town you find suffocating, you can follow a passion (the theater, but not just the ­theater) that is ridiculed by your peers, you can — with hard work, luck, and stamina — forge a career doing what you love.”

Amen to that. And thank you Moss Hart.

Ron Fassler's Up in the Cheap Seats, a historical memoir of Broadway, will be coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: