In my middle teens I fell in love with Al Jolson. Well, his story, anyway–as portrayed in the movies starring Larry Parks rather than the by-all-accounts rather unpleasant real-life Jolie who was enjoying worldwide fame all over again thanks to that marvellous movie The Jolson Story. I bought all his records—the old 78 rpm sort, with the Brunswick label—and learned every note of them by heart. Then at a Saturday night dance all us kids went to, they had a sort of talent contest in the interval. I stepped up and did a Jolson impersonation and it brought the house down. After that I became a regular Saturday night feature (ah, the applause!). Then one night this smooth-looking guy came over to me and said, just like I had always known someone would, “Hey, kid, you want to be in a show?”
And before you could say Simon Callow, I was in one. As proof of how barmy I was, here’s a photo of me as “Liverpool’s own Al Jolson” as I appeared in such scintillatingly glamorous venues as Skelmersdale, Huyton, Garston, Wigan … Let's just say Las Vegas it was not. Punchline: at the end of the show’s “tour” (which included me, a ventriloquist, a magician and a Wagnerian lady soprano) the enterpreneur who'd put the package together skipped with the takings and none of us got a cent. He even stole the cup that was supposed to be presented to Miss Wigan.
So I traded all my Jolson records for a racing bike and found solace at the movies. In those days they had continuous performances, so you could see the entire programme twice -- a short feature, a March of Time, a newsreel, a swatch of trailers and the main attraction--a shilling (5p) for adults, sixpence for kids. And right here, in the drab, post-war, black and white austerity of the 1950s ...
at the Grand Cinema in Smithdown Road and, after it closed in 1956, in the Art-Deco luxury of theAbbey Cinema in Tuebrook (now, I believe, the oldest cinema in Liverpool)
where I got totally, permanently hooked on songwriters.
The movie that first hooked me wasn't a full-length feature, but one of a series of 'shorts' called The Passing Parade, which told the story of this man: Stephen Collins Foster, played by Douglass Montgomery (my God, the stuff you have stored in your head!). And I discovered that although he won success and fame with “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” Camptown Races” and “Old Folks at Home” Foster's life had been a truly tragic one. Many, many years later I would try to find the building in the New York Bowery where he died; all that was there was a parking lot.
From then on, I was a goner. And you know, it was almost as if someone in Hollywood had been told I was interested in songwriters and decided to do nothing else but produce films about them for me—George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue, Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By, Cole Porter in Night and Day, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson in The Best Things in Life Are Free, Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby in Three Little Words …and best of all (for me)
…Rodgers and Hart in Words and Music.
Somehow, somewhere in there--thank you, Stephen Foster--was born in me the determination to get to know more, and then more, and then to perhaps even meet some of these fabulous people. But how was a kid from Liverpool ever going to get to Hollywood? Convincing myself that somehow some day I was going to do it, I read and I learned and I waited; I made lists of their songs -- Jerome Kern songs, Cole Porter songs, Harold Arlen songs, George Gershwin songs -- and I read everything I could find -- not much back then -- about their lives. So much did I love those songwriters and their songs, I even taught myself--what agonies I inflicted upon my parents and our neighbours no one will ever know--to play the piano. And then, when life took me to work in Manhattan, I tried very hard indeed to obtain an interview with Richard Rodgers but was told that he would not talk about Larry Hart with anyone, (and especially not, they might have said, with a nobody like me).
So, unable to get in by the front door, I tried the back door, and set off to interview anyone who would talk to me, anyone who had ever been involved with Rodgers & Hart and/or Hammerstein. I had no aim, no ambition to publish, I just wanted to know. And I got lucky. Very lucky. The first person who agreed to see me was a wonderful man named Joshua Logan (oh, look him up, for God's sake!) who had directed shows by both Rodgers & Hart and Rodgers & Hammerstein. A brilliant conversationalist, a born storyteller, and a marvellously piquant gossip, he told me more about musical theatre in one afternoon than I had learned in the preceding decade. And not only did he educate me, he passed me on to another fabulous raconteur, the composer Arthur Schwartz, who as a teenager had gone to summer camp with Larry Hart and even written songs with him there.
One by one, I tracked down and contacted a whole address bookful of artists, musicians, dancers, singers who had featured in Rodgers and Hart musicals, from dear, diminutive Helen Ford—an archetypical little old lady in tennis shoes in Pasadena, but she could still sing like a nightingale—to Larry Hart’s favourite woman, Broadway star Vivienne Segal. One by one I talked with Broadway legend after Hollywood superstar – George Abbott, Gene Kelly, Irving Berlin, Edith Meiser, Sammy Cahn, Benay Venuta, Celeste Holm, Dorothy Fields, Howard Dietz ... and many more. Finally, I even got to talk with Richard Rodgers, who in 1973 gave me the longest interview he had granted anyone for many, many years. In fact, when I said I'd like to talk to him about Oscar, he even invited me back for a further couple of hours
and got Bill Hammerstein to join us …
Sorry, I’m name-dropping. And you know what? I don't care!
Then Alec Wilder, a classy songwriter who lived at the Algonquin Hotel, introduced me to Larry's sister-in-law Dorothy Hart, who was writing a book about Larry. In deference to what I saw as her prior family claim, I backed off from the idea of writing my book and gave her a great deal of my material. Generous or stupid? I guess both, although I didn't see it that way then. All I was interested in was making sure that Lorenz Hart received the proper salute to his talents that life had somehow forgotten to give him.
Around the same time (we’re talking mid-1970s now) I learned that Samuel Marx, onetime story editor at MGM, was working on a book about R&H. Not only had he known, not only did he still know, anyone who was anything in show business, and in addition, turned out to be the most marvellous raconteur I'd ever met—and that’s no small praise, because as you can see from the above, I’ve schmoozed with some of the best. As if that were not enough, Sam’s collaborator on the book was none other than a delightful actress named Jan Clayton, who had not only been the original Julie Jordan in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, but also hailed from Roswell, New Mexico, smack-bang in the heart of Billy the Kid country. So I helped them out with material for their book and they helped me out with mine, Jan with stories about Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Sam with great anecdotes about the glory days when MGM had “more stars than there are in Heaven”
But what I didn’t know was that Dorothy Hart had learned their ‘anecdotal history’ was going to discuss Larry’s homosexuality, which put them beyond the pale. And when she found out that I had not only talked with, but helped them, she terminated our friendship in a trice. Well, you know what they say: if you're looking for gratitude you'll find it in the dictionary, between 'graft' and 'gravestone.' So--unwittingly emulating my hero--I just walked away with a heigh-ho, lackaday, and all that. Mrs. Hart's book, Thou Swell, Thou Witty, and the Marx-Clayton Rodgers and Hart, Bewitched, Bothered and Bedevilled, appeared within months of each other in 1976. By which time, figuring it was a shame to let all my unused interviews rot, I had contacted the BBC who, when I told them what I had on tape, commissioned me to write the whole “Richard Rodgers Story."
The series -- six one-hour programmes presented by Jessie Matthews (another alumna of R&H musicals) -- was broadcast in October and November of 1976, and while it was running a London publisher, J. M. Dent contacted me to ask if I would be interested in turning them into a book? Silly question! Within a year I had completed and delivered The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein (actually, it was the story of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart and just about everyone else who had worked in the musical theatre between 1918 and the 1970s) which was published in May, 1973 and then by Walker & Co. in New York. It's a book that holds many wonderful memories for me, and I was delighted when a revised and expanded edition was published by Applause Books in New York to mark the Richard Rodgers centenary in 2002 -- and here it is:
Gosh, I loved--I still love-- that book! And I was all the more delighted when a lot of other people did, too. In fact Richard Rodgers himself wrote to me personally to say how much he liked it, and from where I'm sitting, that's just about as good as an accolade can get. But it wasn't just Richard Rodgers who liked it. Here are some of the others:
If you have any love for the American musical comedy, this is your book - lots of fact, gossip and the intimate details of the working methods of this genre’s greatest creators fill the pages. Fascinating items that have been leftout of or suppressed from other books are here in profusion. I lapped it up. - Joshua Logan
This is one of the best books about theatre people I have ever read. Informative without being boring, it is a treasury of facts and insights all theatre lovers will enjoy. - Arthur Schwartz
A very entertaining book about two men who created a great collaboration and who themselves were extraordinary human beings. - Yul Brynner
Your book is a delight. Of all that has been written about Larry Hart and Dick and Oscar this is the best. Congratulations. I know the book will be a tremendous success- Helen Ford
THE best showbiz book for years. A pleasure to read. - Larry Adler
Nolan’s sparkling account of the legendary Broadway musical team of Rodgers and Hammerstein is grand reading, and we are doubly lucky in that the author’s fascination with Rodgers’s earlier partner, Lorenz Hart, leads him to portray the Rodgers and Hart years as well as Rodgers’s fabulously successful partnership with Hammerstein. This story of the lyrics, the shows, the people involved, the hits and the flops is a backstage yarn that will delight star-watchers. It brings back memories of some enchanted evenings and makes clear why the Rodgers and Hammerstein era was what it was from the day “Oklahoma!” kicked musical comedy convention out the window … and nothing was ever the same again. Look for SRO at the bookstores. Photos, chronology, index, etc. - Publishers Weekly April 10 1978.
THE SOUND OF THEIR MUSIC could easily have been subtitled “An Encyclopedia of 20thCentury Show Biz.” Here is not another recounting of a series of anecdotes about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It is a sweep of American theater taking in 75 years of entertainment, adhering closely to the mainstream, which no one has done up to now. Frederick Nolan has not employed R&H as two platforms to spin off into side alleys. Instead he has connected them with most of the major names in the entertainment world who lived during the first three quarters of this century … Nolan has documented his research yet kept it lively. For theater buffs there could be no better reading. - San Diego Union.
Do you remember when Broadway musicals sent you out of the theater whistling their infectious tunes? Well, even if you’re too young for that experience, you’ll still enjoy Frederick Nolan’s THE SOUND OF THEIR MUSIC a vivacious account of the legendary Broadway team. Mr Nolan proves a talented hand at chronicling the story of the fabulous partnership, complete with the lyrics, the shows, the people, the hits and the turkeys. He writes from the perspective of backstage and those enchanted evenings emerge as if they happened just last night. Mr Nolan’s book is chockablock with photographs, treasures that alone are worth two on the aisle. - Palm Beach Life.
Since one picture is worth a thousand words, this book is a million words longer than its text allows … Despite the dramatic manipulation that chooses to celebrate more readily than it chooses the cool, hard look, this book is just a lot of fun to read. With all the quotes, lyrics and backstage antics revealed “I Cain’t Say No.” - Boston Sunday Globe.
“Crammed with anecdotes about the men who gave us not only ‘South Pacific’ but ‘The King and I’ ‘Carousel’ ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and all the rest. A must for musical fans.” - Daily Mirror.
Packed with fascinating theatrical anecdotes and backstage stories, and the stars, directors and writers have contributed their on-the-spot recollections. Names that glittered on the marquees of Broadway theatres, in London’s West End and in Hollywood leap from the pages. THE SOUND OF THEIR MUSIC is a warm and witty and sometimes sad story of the two men who gave the world its favorite songs to sing. - Newcastle Journal
"An impressive double biography ... infinitely successful in explaining what his subjects and their work meant to the theater and nation for which they worked." - Sheridan Morley, The London Times.
"An excellent book." - Photoplay.
But feelgood though it was, The Sound of Their Music didn’t completely scratch my Larry Hart itch. By this time I had met Dennis Moore, another of Dorothy Hart’s “castaways.” Dennis had slaved for over two years in her behalf, finding unfindable, forgotten or discarded songs to be included in The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart, another project she had attached herself to with the compiler of a number of such books, musicologist Robert Kimball. To cut what is becoming a very long story short, Dennis and I and my friend Bill Barrow (another musical comedy maven) put together a singing ensemble headed up by John Diedrich, who was then playing Curly in a London revival of Oklahoma!, and made a complete recording of the score of the very first Rodgers & Hart musical Dearest Enemy. Shortly thereafter we went back into the studio to make an LP of the score (most of which had been abandoned by MGM) for the 1933 movie Hollywood Party, famous for having been the vehicle for which the song that became "Blue Moon" was written as "Make Me a Star," the lament of a stenographer who's a wannabe movie queen.
Don’t forget, by the way, that while all this was going on I was still gainfully employed as a thriller writer, with four books of a series called The Garrett Dossier (six were planned but the US (paperback) publisher went bankrupt and the series was terminated at book four) at which time I met and agreed to collaborate on some legal thrillers with Christine McGuire, an assistant district attorney in Santa Cruz, California. But you can find that sad tale elsewhere (Mirabile Dictu). This is Larry Hart’s page;
I had noticed that a stream of fine showbiz books was coming from Oxford University Press in New York. The editor of these books was a man named Sheldon Meyer, and soon after that I dropped him a line suggesting we meet. A great Rodgers & Hart fan, he was hugely enthusiastic about the idea of a full-length, carefully researched biography of my favourite lyricist, timed to be published in time for the centenary of Hart’s birth in 1995. By April 1992 (I’d also written some fiction alongside) I’d completed the book and sent it to Sheldon. While it was being edited I began the laborious—and stunningly expensive—task of getting permissions for the reproduction of photographs and the something like sixty or seventy songs I had examined, including some twenty unpublished ones which I had located in the course of my research. And ran into an unexpected stone wall: everyone I approached told me the same story: they could not grant permission to reproduce any of the lyrics absent the approval of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. I could only assume there had been some sort of mistake. No, said R&H, there had not. But if you'd like to let us see the manuscript we’ll let you know. Oh, and a Merry Christmas.
I couriered a copy of the ms. to them. Four months passed, and no reply. Phone calls were not returned, faxes not answered. It having become apparent I wasn’t going to get an “official” response, I asked some off-the-record questions and got some off-the-record answers via the late Jamie Hammerstein. No use waiting, I was told, permission would never be granted, full stop. I couldn’t even reproduce the unpublished lyrics which, until they saw my ms., R&H had not even known existed (although—you bet—they copyrighted them within a few days of receipt).
So there we were, with a biography of one of the finest lyricists who ever graced the Broadway stage that would not contain a single example of his work. To his credit, Sheldon Meyer determined to go ahead, a decision which necessitated a complete rewrite, a complete re-edit and a year’s delay in publication. Twisting the knife in the wound, R&H also withheld permission to cite Rodgers’s autobiography or the Dorothy Hart picture book, for which I had supplied about a half of the material in it. Much, much later I learned the bans had been imposed by Mrs. Hart, a trustee of Larry’s estate, who had taken the same exception to the book’s “revelation” that Larry Hart was homosexual, and angrily scrawled the words “Lies, lies, lies” across my manuscript. She died in 2000, having lived off Larry Hart’s lyrics—and very handsomely indeed—for nearly sixty years. She claimed that she had adored him. Yet she simply couldn’t face the truth.
There is, thank goodness, a happier ending than that. Lorenz Hart, A Poet on Broadway was published handsomely in 1994 and despite the absence of any of Larry’s lyrics, it won warm praise from the kind of people whose praise means something (see below) and “earned out,” as they say in publishing. Much, much later, Dennis Moore and I provided Bob Kimball (and the R&H Organization!) with about twenty unpublished Hart lyrics for the revised, expanded 1995 Da Capo paperback edition of The Complete Lyrics. These days practically every singer worth the name has a Rodgers & Hart song or two in their repertoire, so Larry is remembered in a way that pleases me and I am sure would have pleased him. And now there’s a wonderful new biography -- A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL by Gary Marmorstein (Simon & Schuster) -- which retells the story brilliantly and definitively. I urge you to buy it, read it and tell all your friends and anyone who loves the music of Rodgers & Hart to read it, too.
“Superb. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a book more, nor have I ever felt myself yearning to have it not end!” – Hugh Martin, composer of Meet Me in St. Louis and Best Foot Forward.
"Written with honesty, integrity and charm ... an important document of the Golden Age of musical theater." - Jerry Herman, composer-lyricist of Mack & Mabel, Hello, Dolly! and Mame.
"An exhilarating and moving biography of one of Broadway's greatest." - John Kander, composer of Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
"Exhaustively researched ... In this studiously detailed book, Mr. Nolan, the author of The Sound of Their Music, ably traverses the rocky slide of the clever little boy who became a great big success and then imploded upon himself." - Andrea Higbie, New York Times Book Review.
"A splendid book. No one interested in the American musical theatre can do without it." - Miles Donald, Literary Review.
“A lucid and thorough biography.” David Hajdu, The New York Review of Books.
"Frederick Nolan's book ... is an excellent one of its kind -- intelligent, well-organised, packed with absorbing detail. Nolan does what justice he can to Hart's lyrics but he is heavily handicapped by the copyright holders' refusal to use anyof them, a decision which seems both unfair and unaccountable." - John Gross, London Sunday Telegraph.
"Frederick Nolan's biography ... does more than justice to the times, shows, and genius of the saddest, wittiest ... and most literately idiomatic lyricist of the 20th century. Racily written, and almost encyclopaedic in scope, "Lorenz Hart" is a sweet-and-sour cocktail of the crowded golden age of popular music." - Tony Mallerman, Jewish Chronicle.
"A meticulous biographer, Frederick Nolan tells Hart's story elegantly and with considerable panache." - Ben Macintyre, The London Times.
"A rich, colorful chronicle of Broadway in its heyday. It's a thrilling account, with loads of anecdotes, interviews and cross-references to both historical and show-business personalities and events ... Nolan's treatment of his subject is sensitive, sympathetic and even-handed. John J.D. Sheehan, Opera News.
"In this engaging biography ... Nolan vividly captures the personality of this talented and unstable man, as well as the spirit of the entertainment world." - Publishers Weekly.
"Breezy and frank, yet exhaustively researched ... Nolan's account of Hart's life provides a wonderful look at Broadway's golden age." - Booklist.
"What is rewarding about Nolan's book are the many interviews he conducted with those who knew and worked with Hart ... Those interviews result in a series of anecdotes that help bring Hart to life." -- Showmusic.
"Detailed and intriguing." - John Davis, Oxford Times.
"Well researched and amusingly written." - Gerald Kaufman, London Sunday Times.
"A fascinating show-by-show account of Rodgers & Hart's reign as musical comedy kings in the late 1920s through the 1930s." - Mark Dundas Wood, Portland Oregonian.
"Nolan's well-written account captures the highs of an amazing career, as well as the lows." - Stages.
"Superb" Brad Leithauser, NewYork Times Book Review, December 1, 2012.