Theatre yesterday and today



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Moss Hart was born today on October 24, 1904, one-hundred-sixteen 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 are barely remembered anymore. In his day, Moss Hart was a very famous name, especially for a writer and director, whose main prominence was Broadway. But such were the times when these movers and shakers were of paramount interest to people, with columnists in newspapers across the country dedicated to recording the comings and goings of the theatre district’s denizens.

Playwright-director Moss Hart on a U.S. Postage stamp, issued in 2004.

Ordinary people outside the parameters of show business were once able to tell you without fail about the writing partnership of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, whose nine plays written in collaboration included such hits as Once in a Lifetime, The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take it With You, which won them the Pulitzer Prize. Kaufman was one of the most sought-after individuals in the American theatre, even more versatile than Hart (theatre critic, playwright, director, actor), and the ten years they spent working together assured them a permanent spot in the annals of Broadway history. It’s one of the reasons that when Hart’s autobiography Act One was published in 1959, it managed to not only become the #1 non-fiction book on the New York Times best seller list, it stayed there at the top for many months. Can you imagine? I’m tempted to say that phenomenon has never happened again with a book about the theatre.

Hart’s rags to riches story as a poor and impoverished child from a working class, immigrant neighborhood amongst the New York City tenements of the 1910s and 20s, captivated millions. And in a bold move, Hart chose to only take his readers up to the morning after the night of his first triumph: the Broadway opening of Once in a Lifetime in 1930; the play that introduced him to George S. Kaufman, the autobiography’s reluctant hero. All the successes that came after for Hart were well-known, but it had to have taken enormous restraint for him to not tell tales of his having worked over the course of his career with such giants as 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 helped guide to legendary status 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 (his first such attack felled him during the tryout of Camelot one year prior).

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 married the effervescent Kitty Carlisle in 1946, herself a singer and actress, and made themselves essential to New York City high society. Hart was forever trying to make up for his Dickensian childhood by wearing the fanciest of clothes and buying the most expensive things to fill an empty void. Attributed to Kaufman (the line's possibly apocryphal), was that when viewing Hart and Carlisle's 87-acre country estate in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he quipped: “It shows you what God would have done if He’d had the money.”

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Described as “enormously talented and incessantly depressed,” Hart was a disciple of a well-known (and, frankly, charlatan) of a psychiatrist named Lawrence Kubie. He had him in analysis so often that Hart would sometimes go twice a day. Using a good deal of that experience formed the basis of his story for Lady in the Dark (1941), a musical he created with Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin; a problematic, but highly original musical. Of Kubie, Gore Vidal once wrote “he was a slick bit of goods on the make among the rich, the famous, the gullible.” Perhaps if Hart had lived longer and explored it deeper, his relationship with his shrink could have made for another book of an entirely different order.

He had tremendous good fortune writing for 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 second of the now four versions of A Star is Born (the one with Judy Garland and James Mason). He’s also credited with the screenplays for Hans Christian Anderson, starring Danny Kaye, and Winged Victory, adapted from the first play he wrote on his own after splitting (amicably) from Kaufman.

Poster for “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947),