Skip to comments.There's a Small Hotel - But Where's the Tenderness?
Posted on 04/11/2011 6:02:38 AM PDT by 6ft2inhighheelshoes
Song of the Week #182 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Its not the vulgarity of current pop that alarms me (Katy Perrys F**k You , Pinks F**kin Perfect), nor the crassness (Keshas Take It Off) nor even the grunting moronic ugliness (Sex Room and Candy Shop, the latter apparently a synonym for the former). Im way beyond that: Driving around and roaming the dial, Im struck, even in the non-effin, disrobin, sex-room humpin numbers, by something more basic - the absence of tenderness. The first quarter-century of rocknroll saw a diminution in harmonic sophistication and the discipline of rhyme but its practitioners inhabited broadly the same emotional universe as their predecessors. These days, as time goes by Im not so sure, as I said somewhere or other recently, that the fundamental things do still apply.
So its something of a relief to turn to Rodgers & Hart. The authors of our Song of the Week #88 (My Funny Valentine) and #155 (Blue Moon), Rodgers & Hart belong to a group of writers who specialized in what seems to be a now obsolete genre of aspirational romance thats to say, wed all like to have a love worthy of such a love song. This week, though, were celebrating a different side of them: Not the R&H of Isnt It Romantic? or Bewitched, Bothered Or Bewildered, nor, alternatively, of Larry Harts slick triple-rhymed polysyllabic wit, but the team at their sweetest and truest, in a lovely pastoral ballad.
It was introduced to the world three-quarters of a century ago today, April 11th 1936, at the Imperial Theatre in New York. The show was On Your Toes and for that first-night audience it was quite an eye-opener: It was the first Broadway musical to attempt to integrate a ballet into the plot, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, choreographed by George Balanchine; it was the first time Rodgers & Hart had had a hand in the book the plot and dialogue of their musicals, and it was the first enduring hit to be directed by my old friend George Abbott, the master of peppy farces and weepy melodrama, as he moved into musical comedy. It marked the start of a half-century run in songndance that ended in the Eighties with Mister Abbotts revival of On Your Toes, when he became the first nonagenarian director to score a Broadway hit and then, a season or two later, a West End hit. On Your Toes was an important work in the long careers of Rodgers, Hart, Abbott and Balanchine. But on that opening night in 1936 there was no doubt of the hit of the evening:
There's A Small Hotel With a wishing well I wish that we were there Together There's a bridal suite One room bright and neat Complete for us to share Together...
In fact, the tune originated in what was, technically, Rodgers, Hart and Abbotts first show together, the 1935 hit Jumbo. As its title suggests, it had an elephant in the cast. It also had Jimmy Durante, who got the biggest laugh of the night when accosted by a sheriff demanding to know where hes going with that elephant. Durante responds: What elephant? It was a Billy Rose extravaganza staged at the Hippodrome in a giant circus ring, and, between the elephant, Durante, Billy Rose and the circus, the songs and story had a hard job getting noticed, although the score was superb The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, My Romance, Little Girl Blue. In the course of writing the music, Rodgers came up with a lovely lilting tune that Hart didnt care for: He found it obnoxiously simple. Nevertheless, to fix it in his head he wrote a dummy lyric. Weve touched on dummy lyrics before: In the days before cassette recorders, lyricists sometimes wrote up a nonsense lyric to fix the rhyme pattern and the musical stresses in their head. Paul McCartneys dummy for Yesterday ran:
Scrambled eggs Oh my darling, how I love your legs...
As we recounted in SotW #, Vincent Youmans liked Irving Caesars dummy so much Picture you upon my knee/Just Tea For Two and two for tea, he insisted Caesar change not a word. Harts dummy didnt prove that winning, but its worth noting for the record, as it seems to reflect not just Harts sense of where the rhymes should fall but also his contempt for the tune. For Rodgers main theme, he wrote:
There's a girl next door Who's an awful bore It really makes you sore To see her She's a forty waist But she's got no taste I know I'm sure I'd hate To be her...
It's striking that, even on a melody he despised, his instinct and facility were so sure he immediately hit on the first two words of what would eventually become the real lyric. Even in his contempt, he heard what the tune was trying to say. For Rodgers middle section, he offered:
By and by perhaps she'll die Perhaps she'll croak next summer Her old man's a plumber She's much dumber for
And then he forgot all about it, and went back to drinking. A few months later, during a somewhat fraught out-of-town tryout for On Your Toes, Rodgers & Hart found themselves needing a new song in something of a hurry. So at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven Lorenz Hart went downstairs to the mens room, found a quiet spot, and wrote:
There's A Small Hotel With a wishing well I wish that we were there Together There's a bridal suite One room bright and neat Complete for us to share Together..
It was supposedly inspired by a real-life small hotel the Stockton Inn, in Stockton, New Jersey - that you can still stay at. Dont know whether its kept the wishing well or the rest of the local color memorialized by Hart:
Looking through the window You can see a distant steeple Not a sign of people Who wants people?
The composer and musicologist Alec Wilder subsequently stayed at the inn, and reported that he failed to see the steeple because there were too many people.
What I find interesting is the difference between the dummy and the finished lyric. Hart liked to rhyme, and it showed:
Lover When I'm near you And I hear you Speak my name Softly in my ear you Breathe a flame....
Larry Hart can rhyme anything and does, observed Howard Dietz, lyricist of Dancing In The Dark. Hart resented this, and liked to cite My Heart Stood Still:
I took one look at you Thats all I meant to do
I could have written I took one look at you/I threw a book at you, hed say. For the first strain of Small Hotel, he simplified the dummy, replacing the feminine rhyme of...
It really makes you sore To see her...
I know I'm sure I'd hate To be her...
...with the much stronger:
I wish that we were there Together...
Complete for us to share Together...
"Together" is not just a big word, but the point of the song. For the release, he simplified further, eliminating the first line's internal rhyme:
By and by perhaps she'll die....
Instead, he wrote:
Looking through the window, you Can see a distant steeple...
Much better. The dummy moves on to a three-way feminine rhyme:
Perhaps she'll croak next summer Her old man's a plumber She's much dumber...
That certainly follows the stresses of the tune, but too obtrusively. You hear the structure rather than feeling the sentiment. Hart threw out the three-rhyme and replaced it with:
Looking through the window You can see a distant steeple Not a sign of people Who wants people?
The repeat of people is what writers call an identity rather than a rhyme. Its lovely here because its so unforced and conversational just a charming throwaway. And, after all, in such a situation, who does want people? Or rhyme?
It was introduced in the show as a duet between Frankie (played by Doris Carson) and Junior (Ray Bolger pre-Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz), and thus required an introductory verse. (Jack Whiting took the Bolger role the following year in London, and his version has survived the decades better than the Broadway original.)Hart could be lazy in his verses, but here the simplicity is delightful. And Rodgers tune is wonderful, far better than a mere verse requires. Its full of unexpected intervals that sound entirely natural, starting right at the top with the fourth interval. As simple as the words are, the music sets up a kind of suspense, delightfully resolved by Harts punning countdown into the chorus:
I'd like to get away, Junior Somewhere alone with you It could be oh so gay, Junior You need a laugh or two A certain place I know, Frankie Where funny people can have fun That's where we two will go, darling Before you can count up One, two, three For...
There's A Small Hotel...
It was the melody--romantic, unsophisticated, youthful--that suggested the theme to Larry of an idealized country inn with its wishing well, one-room bridal suite and view of a nearby church steeple, wrote Rodgers. This was another example of his ability to convey the appeal of the simple life. Not that he had much interest in the simple life himself. His attitude to anywhere west of West End Avenue was summed up in Way Out West where seldom is heard an intelligent word. And yet, marveled Rodgers, Hart could write longingly about quiet pleasures far from the razzle-dazzle world When in Theres A Small Hotel he wrote the lines Not a sign of people who wants people? he made you believe that a rural retreat was his idea of heaven.
Up to a point. If you heard our Presidents Day medley a few weeks ago, youll know that, for On Your Toes, Hart provided a patter section itemizing some of the small hotels other features:
Pretty window curtains made of chintz In our make-believe land On the wall are sev'ral cheerful prints Of Grant and Grover Cleveland Go down into the parlor and feast your eyes On the moose head on the wall Perhaps you'd like to play the organ They tune it ev'ry other fall...
I seriously doubt whether the Stockton Inn in the mid-thirties displayed prints of Grover Cleveland, but it's certainly the guy's principal claim to a place in the American songbook.
And, of course, being a Broadway show, there was a comic reprise for Luella Gear and the man who came to dinner Monty Woolley:
There's A Small Hotel Which we loved so well From there we'll get the air Tomorrow...
Looking through the window Is a man with a subpoenie If you lose that meanie You're Houdini...
But you dont worry about the special material and patter choruses when youre making a record. In 1936, Hal Kemps orchestra beat Paul Whiteman and Claude Thornhill to the Number One spot, with a vocal by Skinnay Ennis, and the song has ticked over as a third-tier standard ever since. Ella sang it, and Chet Baker, and Sinatra did a lovely reading for the 1957 film Pal Joey. Its never going to be The Way You Look Tonight or The Very Thought Of You its not ardent or obsessive, but placid and contented. But thats okay: theres a place for that too.
And, considering how much he loathed the melody, Lorenz Hart never really stopped writing lyrics for it. His agent at the time was a fellow called Doc Bender, who liked to hang around backstage with the male dancers. This caused certain problems, and Rodgers, who liked to run a tight ship, noticed that the entrance of the Nubian slaves for the Princess Zenobia ballet was happening later and later. He ordered Hart to keep Bender away from the Nubians. But the disruptions continued, and one day an infuriated George Balanchine yelled out: Vere de hell is de zlaves? Larry Hart answered in song:
Look behind the curtain You can see six slaves and Bender Bender's on the ender Lucky Bender...
Indeed. But for the rest of us, like the lyric says, who wants people, even if they're Nubians? Lorenz Hart spent a lot of his short life being too clever for his own good, but, as Jule Styne said to me on several occasions, the really clever thing is to be simple. And in one of his sweetest ballads he surely was:
When the steeple bell Says 'Good night, sleep well' We'll creep into our little shell And we will thank the small hotel Together.
Good night. Sleep well. And thank a small hotel in Stockton, New Jersey, and a men's room in New Haven, Connecticut.
That was fantastic!
In a free society, even immoral persons have the right to free speech (its a money maker for them), however disgusting it may be. That said, this is just another sign of the perverted times in which we live.
At this rate, Mark Steyn is ready to be the anti-Paglia.
Not my favorite kind of music, but he writes about it knowledgeably and well.
Lawds Amighty! Steyn began his career as a theater critic, he only descended into the mudpits of political commentary later in life. Lots of people who like the arts cannot stand self styled arteests of the New Yorker/New York Times template.
We sentimental slobs need a hero, too. Mark Steyn is our king!
Very grateful for this. Always thought Rogers was far more talented than his lyrics-partners. Victory at Sea the prime example. But Hart, often relegated to an also-ran in Rogers’ partnerships, did indeed keep the lyrics and the politics simple. Hammerstein always seemed to be campaigning.
Rogers and Hart: “Where or When” by Dion and the Belmonts .
The first quarter-century of rocknroll saw a diminution in harmonic sophistication and the discipline of rhyme but its practitioners inhabited broadly the same emotional universe as their predecessors.
The beginning of what we came to know as Rock and Roll was the honkinization (sure, that's a word, now.) of old time black folk music. We called it the blues.
Sam Phillips of Sun records in Memphis, a regional center for such music, made his living recording it. He knew if he could get whites to sing the same music but put their interpretation on it, he would likely expand his business. In walked Elvis and the transition to Rock and Roll began. Hound Dog, Don't be Cruel, Lawdy Miss Clawdy and other early Elvis hits were originally blues tunes sung by blacks. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and many other English groups became popular by putting their spin on old blues tunes.
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