Great Songwriters on Great Songs: Irving Berlin on Lorenz Hart

Part 6, Berlin steps up to defend his friend and fellow songwriter, Larry hart

Rodgers & Hart

In Part 5 of this series, Jimmy Webb chose “A Song In My Heart” by Rodgers & Hart as his choice of a truly great song. He spoke of how Larry Hart, who was Richard Rodgers first lyricist before teaming up with Oscar Hammerstein, got criticized often, and defended him.

“People seem to take cheap shots at Larry Hart,” Jimmy said, “and I don’t tolerate any of it. They say, `Oh, he was too facile, he was too quick with the rhyme.’ Bullshit.”

Some of the harshest criticism of Hart came not from a critic, but a fellow songwriter, Stephen Sondheim, who spoke and wrote about Hart in his first songbook, Finishing the Hat. To be fair, Sondheim is a tough critic of almost everyone, including himself, and also Hammerstein, But he was tough on Hart in the book, and in previous comments, calling him “the laziest lyricist,” because of “mis-stressed syllables,” “convoluted syntax,” and “sacrifice of meaning for rhyme.”

Yet Sondheim seems especially unforgiving of any lyric which is too poetic, and not literal. In one of Rodgers & Hart’s most famous standards, “My Funny Valentine,” a lyric which shines with Hart’s brilliance for romantic whimsy, has the famous couplet: “Your looks are laughable/unphotographable.”

To Sondheim, that doesn’t work literally and exists only for the rhyme. His reasoning is that unless you are a vampire, nobody is unphotographable. Yet its meaning is clear; it’s an expression which is funny, not literal.

To a theater purist, such as Sondheim, it is valid, as each word in a show is about the narrative whole. He was not aiming to write popular songs, or standards, though he did write “Send In The Clowns,” which became one. But that was a fluke.

Rodgers & Hart wrote for the theater, too, but always with songs which emerged from shows. “My Funny Valentine” is a standard among standards. Despite the use of ‘unphotographable,” or perhaps because of it. Hart had a love of playful language, and people respond to songs laced with humor. The next line past ‘laughable’ is “Yet you’re my favorite work of art.”

Wait. Art? Unphotographable art?

Yes. It isn’t lazy lyric writing, it’s the expression of a romantic heart. It’s about recognizing how much you love someone even with all those imperfections. But in a playful way. She’s a funny valentine, not a somber one. So give the guy a little slack.

But it’s a good argument to have, given that it crystallizes what songs should do, how they are heard, and what matters most. All of which defines and shapes how songwriters write songs, and reminds people of the craft which goes into songwriting.. Those who are most passionate about such concerns are usually other songwriters, who spend their lifetimes making these kinds of choices.

Before Jimmy Webb spoke up in defense of Hart, another hit songwriter was there first. Irving Berlin, songwriter of countless standards from “White Christmas” to “God Bless America” to “Blues Skies” and beyond, wrote a letter to the New York Daily News circa 1959 in which he offered a passionate defense of Larry Hart. Like Webb, he recognized how much the lyric shapes the song. He also addresses the “unphotographable” issue.

Irving Berlin


“My generation, you know, are all gone. As someone who has been around for a long time, longer than many, and seen many lyric writers and songwriters come up over the years, my opinion is that Larry Hart was the first of the so-called sophisticated lyric writers. But he also wrote words. There is a very important distinction. “Your looks are laughable, unphotographable.” That was a clever rhyme, but it tells a story about what he was trying to say about this girl. I’m not splitting hairs, and it’s not semantics.

“Let’s put it this way: Stephen Sondheim is a lyric writer. Stephen Foster was a word writer. Larry Hart was the first of the sophisticated word writers.

“The important thing in my opinion, and that goes for all songwriters and for so-called composers, is, How long do they last? Go back to `Manhattan,’ which was written over fifty years ago. They still play it. It’s better today. It’s timeless, because there’s still a Manhattan. Larry wrote about Manhattan the way other people are still trying to write about New York. They don’t do it as well.

“Now he’s being criticized. I remember a few years ago Stephen Sondheim, a very successful lyric writer, came out of left field with an unkindly, an unjust interview about Larry Hart as a lyric writer. All I can say is that Larry Hart’s lyrics have lasted so many years. The books that Rodgers and Hart wrote their songs for weren’t all successes. Most of them were pretty bad books. But out of those books came very popular songs that lasted.

“You can’t divorce those lyrics from Rodger’s melodies. They’re not just lyrics, they’re songs. If Larry had just written those lyrics (which he couldn’t have, because he was probably writing to a melody or they were working together) and just printed them, they’d mean nothing. And if you just took Rodger’s melodies, as fine as they are, and just played them as orchestral numbers, they would last four hours. You see, they are songs. Larry Hart was a great songwriter, but I repeat, he was not only a lyric writer but a word writer. He had a fine education and could use four- and five- and six- and seven-letter words, and still get down to writing “With a Song in My Heart.” I mean, he could be very simple. And very moving, when a lot of others can’t be.

“Then he could write songs, very sophisticated, like `You Are Too Beautiful.’ From my point of view, the only way you can tell is, Look at his record. Why has he lasted? In the sixty-five years I’ve been around as a songwriter, we’ve had so many great big hits, and you don’t hear them anymore. And many of them include my big hits. If there are some songs that last, there must be a reason. There’s a quality that has nothing to do with whether you rhyme well or whether you’ve had any education at all. Whether you read or write music doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.”

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