THE BOOK SHELF: Moss Hart's "Act One" and Dorothy Gallagher's "Lillian Hellman"

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02 Feb 2014

<i>Act One</> artwork by James McMullan
Act One artwork by James McMullan

This month's column looks at Moss Hart's classic "Act One" and Dorothy Gallagher's examination of one of Broadway's most noted playwrights of the mid-20th century, "Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life."


Two or three generations of theatrefolk have been inspired and encouraged by "Act One" [St. Martin's Griffin], Moss Hart's memoir of his journey from poverty in the Bronx to riches on Broadway. Hart — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such plays as You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, screenwriter of "Gentleman's Agreement" and the Judy Garland vehicle "A Star Is Born," and Tony Award-winning director of My Fair Lady — knew of what he spoke. The book, which Hart wrote before undertaking Camelot, was published in 1959 and became a quick bestseller. (And when was the last time that a theatre-related book made it to the bestseller list?) A proposed "Act Two" was never to be; Hart suffered a near-fatal heart attack during the 1960 Camelot tryout and died in 1961 at the age of 57.

Republication of the book — introduced by a new foreword from the author's now-grown son, Christopher — comes in conjunction with the upcoming Lincoln Center Theater stage adaptation by James Lapine, which opens April 17 at the Vivian Beaumont, and which, as it happens, lends its artwork to the reprinted "Act One." And nifty artwork it is, by the long-time LCT artist James McMullan, with a 1920s youngster standing across from a fanciful depiction of the Music Box Theatre (which is central to the story).

Hart came to Broadway in 1923, as office boy to producer Augustus Pitou. The office was at the crossroads of show business — in the New Amsterdam Theatre building, just off Times Square — but Pitou's productions were far from Broadway. He was one of those producers who sent out a stream of second-rate shows featuring second-rate actors to play one-nighters in small towns across the land. For Hart, though, this was show business, and he was galvanized to realize that being one of the cadre of theatrical office boys got him free tickets to just about every play in town. The flops, anyway.

Hart views it all with wide-eyed innocence and boundless enthusiasm, which I suppose is what makes "Act One," even today, so appealing to stagestruck readers like ourselves. Hart's tale is a rollercoaster of exhilarating ups and discouraging downs. He tells of how he writes — over the course of a week, using a pseudonym — a claptrap melodrama which Pitou immediately produces. The Beloved Bandit, as he calls it, opens in Rochester and immediately dies in Chicago, after only two weeks. Making the defeat worse, Pitou, who retained the pseudonym after learning of Hart's authorship, fires his office boy on the train back from Chicago. Thus, the author of "Act One" takes us to the brink of success, only to sink quickly into ruins.

This makes for wonderful reading, yes, but the account puzzled me somewhat — solely because I happen to have a piece of sheet music on the shelf from The Beloved Bandit — starring someone called Gerald Griffin, rather than Joseph Regan (who Hart features as the bumbling star in his book) — and with the name Moss Hart clearly billed as author. This sent me to the bookshelf to find Stephen Bach's "Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart." I had recalled vaguely that Bach, in his comprehensive 2001 biography, suggested that Hart had a tendency to sculpt the truth for more effective storytelling.

Bach explains that The Hold-Up Man, by "Robert Arnold Conrad," closed in December 1924 in Chicago, after playing four cities. Hart was not, then, fired; he went back to Pitou's office in the New Amsterdam and rewrote the play for the following season. And thus it was that the newly-titled Beloved Bandit, credited to Moss Hart and starring the aforesaid Griffin, opened in Youngstown, Ohio in September 1925. Hart, in "Act One," goes so far as to include a damning review from Chicago's premiere drama critic Ashton Stevens, who didn't, in fact, even see the show. On the other hand, he omits all mention of the fact that the play, which he says was written late at night on his kitchen table in the Bronx, had a co-author. Edward Eliscu, who went on to write lyrics for ten Broadway musicals (and whose catalogue includes the immortal "More Than You Know," "Without a Song" and "Great Day"), gets a mere mention in passing by Hart — but not in connection with The Beloved Bandit. None of this detracts from the power, enjoyment and enchantment of "Act One;" I wouldn't even have questioned Hart's account had I not remembered his name appearing on the sheet music.


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