Richard Rodgers and (Lorenz) Larry Hart, who met at respectively 17 and 24 years old, collaborated on over 800 songs and 26 shows before Hart died at age 48 from pneumonia after drinking heavily. That the two produced a canon of work despite vast differences in character and working styles is rather amazing.
Rodgers was a disciplined perfectionist to whom money and security were paramount; Hart, an unreliable alcoholic, conspicuously generous and fiscally irresponsible. The composer was an egotist, family man, and womanizer; the lyricist a depressed, closet homosexual who lived with his mother and, partly due to being under five feet tall, saw himself as a Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame. Hart was “able to identify with the marginalized.” (script)
The team finally split up when Rodgers demanded Hart enter a sanitarium, even suggesting he’d willingly do the same so they could continue to work. Caught in the crosshairs was their musical adaptation Green Grow the Lilacs. Hart walked out. Rodgers wrote what became Oklahoma! with Oscar Hammerstein II.
Santino Fontana’s illuminating, often amusing script focuses on Hart, his love of New York (not so many musical indications of this as intention indicates), longing for love, and ability to write “the way people talk.” Songs are treated not in original attitude (cue early performance clip), but as they were rediscovered after World War II.
Santino Fontana, Jessica Fontana
Four vocalists plus Fontana himself contribute to this evening’s celebration. For my money, besides our host with whose talent I’m familiar, Jessica Fontana (Santino’s wife) is the find. A complete package, the artist is warm, attractive, expressive, and has a simply lovely, adroitly controlled soprano. She should, by all rights, be Broadway bound.
A cleverly directed “Lover” (Love Me Tonight 1932) ostensibly finds Jessica Fontana performing at a radio station with Santino huddled behind wearing headphones, periodically running forward to move the microphone stand for an imperious star. Vocal is terrific, manner adorable. “Falling in Love with Love” (The Boys From Syracuse 1938) is as rich, full, and waltzy as one might wish. The vocalist’s high notes soar without stress. Duets with Ann Harada showcase appealing harmony, genial sparkle, and sisterhood warmth. Those with Santino are cute – in the best way.
Ann Harada has a slightly raspy voice and diminutive stature that often leads to comedic roles. Two solos from 1936’s On Your Toes exhibit different abilities. The show’s title number: See the pretty apple, top of the tree,/The higher up, the sweeter it grows./Picking fruit you’ve got to be/Up on your toes! infectiously bounces in – though having the performer seated diminishes effect – while “Quiet Night” is low key and lovely.
Shortly to star on Broadway in Tootsie, Santino Fontana displays understated leading man charisma without distracting from a cohesive company. “I’ve Got Five Dollars” (America’s Sweetheart 1931) is credibly ingenuous, “The Blue Room” (I Married an Angel 1926) lovey-dovey, “My Funny Valentine” (Babes in Arms 1937) with Fontana also at the piano, tremulously amorous. “With a Song in My Heart” (Spring is Here 1939) staged with the company as a radio chorus, arrives ably full-throated. Fontana seems like the neighborhood heartthrob. He’s handsome, genuine, and has a fine voice.
As performed by capable contralto Lilli Cooper, “Where’s That Rainbow?” (Peggy-Ann 1926) is ruefully sophisticated. …Fortune never smiles, but in my case/It just laughs right in my face… Back of throat vibrato and easy swing purposefully oppose the dark lyric. It’s as if Hart wrote this with gritted teeth. Directly after narrative refers to vociferous fights between Rodgers and Hart, Cooper turns “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You” (Jupiter 1942) into an angry, bitter tirade, not the jaunty love song to which we’re accustomed. Acting is effective, direction off.
Vishnal Vaidya is the weak link here. Except for “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” (Jumbo 1935) vocals don’t seem quite up to the task, the performer, if trying hard, is stiff.
Company numbers are fetchingly directed (Gina Rattan) with steps, gestures, and movement often serving as winks. The highlight, Act II’s “Mountain Greenery” (The Garrick Gaieties of 1926), with the men in plaid shirts and the ladies in aprons, also features a charming vocal arrangement (David Chase) and kazoos.
“I probably could’ve been a genius, but I just don’t care.” Larry Hart
Dan Scully’s Projection Design deftly enhances without overwhelming.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Santino Fontana, Jessica Fontana, Lilli Cooper, Ann Harada, Vishnal Vaidya
Lyrics & Lyricists presents
We’ll Have Manhattan: Rodgers & Hart in New York
Directed by Gina Rattan
Musical Director/Piano-Any Einhorn
Arranger/Orchestrator David Chase
Steve Kenyon- reeds, Brian Pareschi- trumpet, Mark Vanderpoel- bass, Perry Cavari- drums
92Y at Lexington Avenue
NEXT: Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis Jr. Songbook-February 23-25