ACT ONE: THE MUSICAL
With all the renewed interest in Moss Hart’s ACT ONE – spurred by the new play written and directed by James Lapine – I re-read the memoir, as well as two Hart biographies. One, Stephen Bach’s DAZZLER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOSS HART, mentioned that after ACT ONE succeeded “Moss had ordered from Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz a musical based on his book.” And while he did go on to describe some of the show in five sentences, I’m here to fill in the gaps.
At seventeen-minutes, it wasn’t quite a musical. But it’s a great deal of fun. And wouldn’t we have all liked to have been at the Oct. 23, 1959 party at the home of Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle where it was performed?
A tape recording starts with Dietz narrating: “You’ve probably read in Sam Zolotow’s column that Arthur and I have acquired the musical rights to Moss’ autobiography. We’re thinking of calling the show GENTLEMAN IN THE DARK” – a reference to Hart’s 1941 musical LADY IN THE DARK.
“Lights! Curtain! Overture!” Dietz says before Schwartz plays six seconds of pompous music -- then stops.
“That,” says Dietz, “was the overture.”
He continues, “The curtain rises on the sumptuous Hart drawing room – a 120-feet long by 45-feet wide with wall-to-wall carpets and wall-to-wall sofas.Moss and Kitty are discovered holding hands in front of the wall-to-wall fireplace.” Dietz apes Moss’ stentorian tones when asking, “Kitty, darling, shall I tell you the story of my life?”
“Again?” Dietz has her say dolefully.
Hart isn’t discouraged. Dietz has him say, “My grandpapa took a trip to London where my mother and father met. They came to America and settled in the Bronx. We dissolve to the Hart family gathered in their humble tenement.”
Dietz then imagines a cast with Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Moss’ grandfather, Cyril Ritchard as his father, Margaret Leighton as Moss’ mother, Vivien Leigh as Aunt Kate, Sir Laurence Olivier as Moss’ younger brother and no less than Rex Harrison as Moss himself.
Notice the British slant. That’s because Hart was quite the Anglophile. He always spoke The King’s English in royal fashion. So we have our opening number in which the merry immigrants sing:
“We launched from jolly old England to the jolly U.S.A.
The land of flowing gold and honky-tonks.
Arriving here on shedule –
(Yes: “shedule” – not “schedule.”)
“In jolly ol’ New York Bay
A walk-up in the Bronx …
“You can comb the bloody borough for a fortnight,
And you’ll hardly find another Britain there.
It’s like looking for a Yiddle in a haystack.
Oh, the likes of us are terribly, terribly rare.
We should have never, never trusted Mezuzuah
Or taken it into our domes across the foam
We’re out of it like lepers
We’re Piccadilly shelppers
Far, far away from home.
“Though we say ‘Pip! Pip!’ and ‘Cheers’ to all our neighbors …
It’s something of a stymie
To be a Yiddish limey.
Far, far away from home.”
“You can see that the Harts had a pretty difficult time,” says Dietz, “not only socially but also financially. Pater and mater sing:
“If we hadn’t taken in boarders
We never could have made ends meet.
But for the paying guests
We’d have been dispossessed,
Thrown out in the street ...
Lord knows what would have been our fate
If we hadn’t taken in boarders
And let them lay Aunt Kate.”
(Can you imagine the whoops of astonished delight that the partygoers gave out when that ribald line was sung?)
Then we come to the time in Hart’s life when he had to work in an onerous and odorous fur-curing factory. Thus he sings:
“Why can’t I smell like the other fellows smell?
Why am I shunned like a drunk?
It isn’t my fault
That I’m locked in a vault
And can’t lose the odor of skunk.
“People give me lots of room
‘Cause my special perfume
Outsmells any perfume on the shelf.
In the subway crush hour --
The height of the rush hour --
I have a whole car to myself.”
But you can’t keep a good man down. A jaunty vamp precedes Dietz’ statement that “Comes the day when Moss gives up his job. He tells his friends Edward Chodorov – whom he imagines played by Melvyn Douglas – and Dore Schary – whom he’d cast with Ralph Bellamy -- that he’s headed for Broadway. They tell Moss ‘You’d better drop that British accent because it wouldn’t go on Broadway.’ Answers Moss pretentiously, “You mean I shouldn’t chahnce it?”
Schary says, “Let’s see you do dis: repeat after me: “De oily boid desoives de oily woirm.”
Of course, before Hart’s success with ACT ONE, he’d directed MY FAIR LADY, so a parody of that hit had to be included . It was also another opportunity to mock Hart’s pretentious speech. Dietz had Hart have a hard time, for he continues to say “The early bird deserves the early worm.” Finally, after a few times, by George, “The punk has got it!” as Schary exclaims. When Hart is asked, “And when does that freakin’ bird get up?” he reiterates “Oily! Oily!” As for the melody, it owes not a little but everything to Frederick Loewe; it’s “The Rain in Spain” note-for-note.)
Dietz tells us “And so Moss goes to Broadway. He writes THE BELOVED BANDIT. In his book, Moss doesn’t tell us the plot, but actually, it was an operetta about a gallant desperado who robs from the rich and gives to himself.
“The masked bandit goes into milady’s boudoir. Milady is played by Kitty, in bed in her nightftown. She sings a memorable aria to her uninvited guest.” And after Dietz does some requisite operetta trilling, he simply sings, “Take any part of me, beloved bandit! I’ll have to hand it to you.”
Then he stops singing and says, “You get the idea. Actually, it was during this show that Moss and Kitty met. He fell in love at first sight but she waited to see if the show was a hit.”
(That’s totally untrue, but Dietz was joking, and he and everyone at the party knew it.)
“We all know the fate of THE BELOVED BANDIT,” acknowledges Dietz. “Moss, covered with frustration, goes in for being a social director in summer camp. Alone in his tent, he has romantic dreams:”
“I’m lying in my cot at Camp Utopia
Looking at the summer moon.
And I’m thinking it’s bad for my complexion
If I don’t have a girl pretty soon.”
Dietz returns to narration: “Four years pass, and Moss becomes the Sol Hurok of the Catskills. But the theater keeps whispering from the eaves. So he writes ONCE IN A LIFETIME, and his tsuris with that opus lasts about two hundred pages. Moss tells us of the work sessions with George S. Kaufman.” And we have a song for Moss:
“He kept looking out of the window
Never looking at me.
He studied a cat in the backyard
Who was studying a bird in a tree.
“He picked some lint off the carpet
Then elaborately scratched his ear,
And he turned to me as if to say
‘What are you doing here?’
“He called me ‘Er.’
Although he knew my name,
He called me ‘Er.’
Oh, how it galled me when
He called me ‘Er.’
I could have murdered the guy
But he was king;
Who was I?
I dreamed a dream in which I spoke up
Said before I woke up,
To work with you is thrilling
But please don’t make the billing:
“George S. Kaufman and Er.”’
“We would work from the early morning
Often into the night
I only had a meager breakfast --
Me, with my big appetite.
There was no lunch, but at tea time,
Two cookies came in on a tray.
This was the usual diet,
But he varied it one day.
“He fed me fudge;
Though I was feeling faint,
He fed me fudge.
He claimed to be a judge of homemade fudge
He said it had what it takes,
But there was I, craving steaks --
I watch him wallow in a plateful.
I couldn’t hide a hateful grudge.
I almost gave the show up
Rather than have to throw up
One more piece of that fudge.”
Back to narration: “We now go into a dream ballet directed by Jerome Robbins, whose billing is in a box. On a gauze curtain, we see the head of Moss Hart enlarged to fill the whole proscenium arch.
A pinspot of light appears in his brain. Behind the gauze, we see into Moss’ mind.”
The music stops abruptly, so that Dietz can wryly comment, “It is not a pretty sight.
“A director in the mask of George Kaufman and dressed in skin tights is yelling at the actors who are making a choreographic mess of the play. We see Moss trying to get into the theater. A stout doorman dressed in skin tights blocks his way.
“‘But I’m the author,’ says Moss. ‘I wouldn’t say it too loud, says the doorman. Dejected, Moss goes across the stage to a place representing Brighton Beach. He sits down on a bench. Overhead a skywriting play is droning away, spelling out something not yet distinguishable. Thoroughly downhearted, Moss sings.”
(A beautiful song, by the way):
“Oh why did I write ONCE IN A LIFETIME?
Why in hell did I write that play?
Why did I get caught in the spell of
“I was better off the way the way things were.
I’m an ‘Er’
Whose would-be career is through.
I’ll go back to Gus Pitou.”
(He was the minor producer for whom Hart worked as an office boy – and who produced the aforementioned THE BELOVED BANDIT.)
“Oh, why did I write ONCE IN A LIFETIME?
Never let it happen to you.”
Dietz states, “Moss is now able to make out what the skywriting plane has written: ‘Fix your second act.’ Moss takes a pile of paper and starts to write feverishly. The plane returns. This time it spells out a different message: ‘George Kaufman is 80% responsible for this flop.’
(That’s a reference to what Kaufman’s told ONCE IN A LIFETIME first-nighters: “I would like this audience to know that this play is 80% Moss Hart.”)
“Then,” says Dietz, “he writes – and writes -- and rewrites. Now the play reopens at the Music Box! Moss’ entire family is there. “So are the boarders,” he drones.
“The show is a hit!” Dietz says. “Brooks Atkinson in skin tights yells ‘Bravo!’ Moss is lifted triumphant aloft by all the actors in the ballet. He sings:
“I’m glad that I wrote ONCE IN A LIFTIME.
Glad I didn’t quit on the show.
I can live the rest of my lifetime
On this dough.”
Dietz says, “And now our play nears its end. Before the final curtain, we dissolve back to our loving couple in their palatial drawing room.
Kitty sings to Moss -- and this time we’d like the real Kitty to do the singing.”
And indeed Miss Carlisle comes forward as the musical switches to Moss’ personal life and leaves the professional.
“It happens only once in a lifetime
Lasting love is as rare as can be.
Heaven sent this gift of a lifetime
Down to me.
No longer am I the lady in the dark,
For a spark
Had brightened the night anew
And Mossie came into view.
It happens only in a lifetime.
Would that it could happen to you.”
Yes – and we’d all like Moss Hart’s professional fate to happen to us, too.
— Peter Filichia