Jumbo was a spectacle. On Your Toes, the boys’ next show (starring hoofer Ray Bolger, three years before his Oz Scarecrow), was a revelation, and a landmark in the history of the modern musical: the first to center on a ballet—the marvelous “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” the creation of George Balanchine. It was through Larry that Balanchine was added to the mix—and he stayed in the mix: Babes in Arms, I Married an Angel, The Boys From Syracuse were to follow. Although the On Your Toes score included the usual hits, the music that made the biggest impact was Dick Rodgers’s score for “Slaughter,” which is still performed around the world as a stand-alone ballet.
Balanchine and Hart chummed around together, and Balanchine reported that Larry “always appeared happy and laughing. He was so full of fun and energy, throwing his money around. From every pocket would come money and he paid everyone’s bills wherever he went.” He didn’t mention Larry’s heavier and heavier drinking, preferring to remember that it was Larry who taught him how to speak proper English.
After Jumbo, everything changed. From then on it was Larry and Dick who came up with the concepts for their musicals and were in control of them; they were no longer journeymen for hire. It was they who decided that next up after On Your Toes would be something completely different: a bunch of kids putting on a show—no stars, no sophistication. The score of Babes in Arms, another major hit, may be their greatest: “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Where or When,” and the title song (most of which, in the great Hollywood tradition, were dropped from the Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney MGM musical).
On they went: I’d Rather Be Right, with the great George M. Cohan playing FDR (whom he despised); I Married an Angel, with Vera Zorina as an angel who descends from heaven to Budapest to marry a banker; The Boys From Syracuse—Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, with one of the Dromios played by Teddy Hart; Too Many Girls, a football musical that launched the career of Desi Arnaz, whom Larry had come upon in a Miami nightclub called La Conga.
By now, every Rodgers and Hart show was an event, and they themselves were celebrated figures—on the cover of Time, subjects of a two-part profile in The New Yorker. They were overdue for a flop, and they got one: something called Higher and Higher, which bombed, leaving nothing behind except the plangent “It Never Entered My Mind.”
But around the corner was Pal Joey, the most controversial, and influential, of all their shows. The book came from a series of stories John O’Hara had written for The New Yorker, about a seedy nightclub singer/emcee (Gene Kelly) and the women he seduces and abuses. It wasn’t a pretty story, and some critics, including the most important, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, found that its obvious virtues were undercut by its sordid story: “Although Pal Joey is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” When it was revived a dozen years later, it would be an even bigger success than it had been in 1940, and Atkinson took it all back, but by then, Larry, who had been devastated by that first review, was long since dead. Pal Joey’s songs retain their power and charm: “I Could Write a Book,” a first-rate romantic ballad; “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” a mordant masterpiece and a triumph for Larry’s favorite, Vivienne Segal (she sang it in the revival too); and “Zip,” a sublimely witty take on the “intellectual” stripper Gypsy Rose Lee:
Zip! Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today.
Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?
Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night.
Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right.
There would be one more big hit—back to the ancients with By Jupiter, reuniting the boys with Bolger, in their third show to be directed by Joshua Logan. But by now Larry was essentially gone, succumbing to acute alcoholism. He couldn’t or wouldn’t take on a whole new show, but when Dick decided to revive their 1927 hit, A Connecticut Yankee, he managed to come up with some new lyrics, including one of his very wittiest, “To Keep My Love Alive” (for Vivienne, of course). When he was sober, his mind was as quick and clever as ever.