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BWW Reviews: WE'LL HAVE MANHATTAN: The Early Work of Rodgers & Hart by Dominic Symonds

The early creations of mythic artists are mostly discussed with hyperbolic ferocity. This is often for good reason, as many young artists begin their career with youthful vivacity or some degree of rebellious iconoclasm. The formative years of Rodgers and Hart, as discussed by Dominic Symonds' "We'll Have Manhattan, The Early Work of Rodgers and Hart," is not such a story. From their first encounter in 1919, to their temporary recess in 1931, Symonds discusses the politics of theatre creation and the practical creative ambitions of the artistic duo.

Symonds smartly begins his book by establishing the general framework of American culture. The American zeitgeist following the end of WWI yearned for an identity apart from European culture. This was most readily accessible musically in jazz. While controversial, introducing Jazz into the popular culture was an unavoidable transition. However, its integration to the commercial stage and, more importantly, its legitimization of a method of storytelling, remained a distant ambition.

Rodgers and Hart began their collaboration while attending Columbia University. Their work in the still running varsity shows displayed their musical craftsmanship and penchant for topical satire. It also presented their unique aesthetic, which combined the pitter patter of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as warm intonations of jazz. In 1925 they made their Broadway debut with a revue entitled "The Garrick Gaieties," which was produced by the Theatre Guild. It earned a warm reception, and featured their first hit "Manhattan," off of whose lyrics the book is titled.

Having proven their merit as collaborators they then wrote a book musical with their often forgotten third collaborator, Herbert Fields, entitled "Dearest Enemy." This musical, loosely based on an incident during the invasion of Manhattan during the American Revolution, was enjoyed by critics and sustained a respectable run.

With these debuts behind them, Rodgers, Hart, and Fields wrote their, until then, biggest hit, "The Girl Friend." While the songs are enjoyable and its status as a success undeniable, Symonds' attention focuses upon the collaborators relentless negotiations with their producer, Lew Fields, the father of their book writer Herbert. Symonds does not blanche from exposing the numerous artistic compromises and disappointments that the trio endured to make "The Girl Friend" a viable success. These constant collaborative censorships were enforced by producers who preferred warm, if tepid, success to risking explosive failure.

Their first London production, "Lido Lady," utilized a story whose only real employment was to find its way to song. This, compounded by a general disgust of English critics for jazz of any degree, made their initial London venture rather dismal. However, following a swell of popularity with American trends such as the Charleston and a more nuanced understanding of English culture, Rodgers and Hart found an unprecedented synergy with the West End.

Rodgers, Hart and Field then returned to America where they collaborated on, "Peggy Ann." This work is framed with excellent analysis of American interests at the time, especially the relationship with "Peggy-Ann"'s dream based plot and the then new popular discussion of Freud. Rogers commenced an excruciating collaboration with the producer Ziegfeld, who, by Rodgers' perspective, had little interest in artistic collaboration. Rodgers, Hart, and Field then devised upon their passion project, an adaptation of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." This musical, while lighter in politic than Twain's satire, displayed a mature synthesis between story and music, before unseen in the Rodgers and Hart creations. This work remained Hart's favorite until his untimely death in 1943.

Having succeeded in two worthwhile financial and artistic successes with "Peggy Ann" and "A Connecticut Yankee" Rodgers and Hart collaborated on "Chee Chee." Symonds eschews usual discussion of the work's absolute flop status and instead commands a reconsideration of the work's artistic vitality. He argues that the score was almost inarguably their most ambitious until that point and their subject matter, which features topics such as castration and concubines, their most daring. While most historians claim that the show closed due to its unusual story and dismissive reviews, Symonds argues an alternate narrative, which focuses on the oppressive "padlock" act, resulting in near random, and devastating, censorship of Broadway producers. He argues that this act lead the producers of the inarguably provocative "Chee Chee" to cut the production rather than risk a yearlong censorship.

In the framework which Symonds offers, it's clear that the team, Rodgers especially, was rendered despondent by the relentless animosity of producers to their craft. While in Europe following "Chee Chee," Rodgers was consistently bludgeoned by the respect contemporaries of his, especially Gershwin, were receiving in symphonic music circles. With neither the ability to see his popular music staged unhindered by producer politics, nor the respect of craftsmanship lauded upon his contemporaries, it's easy to comprehend how he and Hart might have found a rest period necessary.

There is something satisfying in the unsentimental commercial practicalities of Rodgers and Hart's early works. Their ambitions were simply to create music, whatever the venue, which is what makes Symonds' perspective of the unconscious American ambition towards cultural independence so important. Though their constantly middling successes and often uninspired creations become repetitive, with Rodgers' concluding ennui, the piece presents a compelling preamble to the team's masterpieces. The book does lull with its justifiable apathy towards these early collaborations. Ultimately there is little to recommend in "The Girl Friend" or "Dearest Enemy" beyond their historic status. It is mostly in Symonds' cultural framework of financial nuance and the developing American taste that the book finds vitality.

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