ON THE RECORD: BELLS ARE RINGING and early Rodgers & Hart

By Steven Suskin
15 Jul 2001


With the Richard Rodgers Centenary underway, it seems pertinent to call attention to two obscure recordings that have recently been released on CD by a new label out of Miami called Bayview Recording Company. Both were originally released in 1982 — and not terribly widely — by a (British?) group called Beginners Productions.

Rodgers and Hart first attracted attention with the 1925 revue The Garrick Gaities, with a mostly perky score led by the songhit "Manhattan." The success of the Gaities — a two-performance benefit that converted to an open-ended allowed run — allowed the boys to find a backer for Dearest Enemy [Bayview RNBW008]. But it was written in 1924, just before Rodgers and Hart developed the sound that gave them eight hit shows in three years. The score can best be described as quaint, and it is not helped by a four-piece arrangement with a very loud snare drum.

Still, it is the only complete recording of Rodgers and Hart's first musical, and therefore instructive to those of us interested in such things. (A 1955 TV version, with dialogue snippets and poor sound, was also issued on CD; but this new Dearest Enemy - recorded on purpose, as it were -- is far more representative of the score.) The show had one minor song hit, a foursquare ballad entitled "Here in My Arms," which I don't suppose fans of Rodgers would naturally ascribe to him (although the "adorable/deplorable" rhyme indicates Larry Hart). Bonus tracks include two vintage recordings sung by Sidney Burchall, of the 1931 Australian cast, and they are mighty sleepy.

Hollywood Party [Bayview RNBW009] is something else again. Those eight hit shows in three years were followed by a string of failures and a nationwide Depression (neither caused by the other). Rodgers and Hart wafted to Hollywood, where they had a miserable time of it. In 1935 they returned East and wrote numerous remarkable songs for scores like On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, and Pal Joey.

When did they develop the new, advanced style that sparked these shows? While they were writing — or, rather, trying to write— M-G-M's Hollywood Revue of 1933. The film shut down in production; Louis B. Mayer, apparently, hated it. A truncated version was released in 1934 under the title Hollywood Party, with only three Rodgers and Hart songs remaining. Manuscript copies of the other songs have been circulating ever since, and the Beginners Productions people had the keen idea of calling some singers into the studio to record eleven of the "lost" songs.

While the songs are not necessarily world-beaters, fans of Rodgers and Hart will find this material a key step in the boys' development. One of the songs, "Prayer," did turn out to be a world-beater. Music publisher Jack Robbins thought the melody was brilliant, and bugged the boys to come up with a pop song version. They did, under the title "Blue Moon." (Richard Rodgers: His Top 50, a handout compiled from ASCAP records by the Rodgers office for the Centennial, places the song in first position on the list, just ahead of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "The Sound of Music.") Other Hollywood Party songs of which I've long been fond are "You Are," a baritone ballad (part of which was developed into Pal Joey's "What is a Man?"); a corny vaudeville turn called "Fly Away to Ioway"; and "My Friend, The Night," an introspective song of yearning that clearly looks forward to the final stage of Rodgers and Hart's work (despite a singer who can't quite handle it). The album is helped enormously by snappy piano arrangements and playing by Tom Gilhooly.

Four obscure songs have been added for the CD. (They were recorded along with the rest, although the master tape is missing and the sound is less than optimal.) These lesser efforts include "Moonlight Lane," an interpolation in the 1923 Kalmar & Ruby, Kaufman & Connelly musical Helen of Troy, N.Y. (Yes, Helen of Troy, N.Y.) This collaboration with W. Frank Harling is one of the few published songs Hart wrote with a composer other than Rodgers. A truly dreary song, mind you, though unique. But the Hollywood Party CD is clearly of interest to fans of Rodgers and Hart.

— Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.