Rogers and Hart
The song that came to my mind for this week is arguably THE great American popular song, “Manhattan,” music by Richard Rogers and words by Lorenz Hart, a lyricist who rivals Ira Gershwin (not to be confused with his brother, George, the great composer) — and that’s saying a lot. Manhattan, of course, is the setting of this week’s classic film, “You Can’t Take It With You” which posits the counter-cultural idea that becoming Somebody Important is really not the best goal to aim for in life and offers, albeit in a rather zany way, an alternative goal, the soul-elevating example of the Scriptural “lilies of the field.” (Matt. 6:28-33) “Manhattan,” the song, in a charming and playful way, with musical and lyrical virtuosity, gives us a young man describing to his “intended” the wonders he and she will discover on their “isle of joy,” even while admitting that they two will be living pretty small.
”Manhattan,” written for a now largely-forgotten Broadway play, was the first big hit for Rogers and Hart, and went on to be featured in many films and performed and recorded by almost all of the great mid-century singers, male and female. I was hard put to choose a version of this tune to share, because I wanted to include the (often omitted) lyrical prelude, but I also wanted you to hear the song performed in a near-perfect way. Honorable mention goes to Rosemary Clooney (you will certainly hear her in Sometimes a Song), who recorded this song at least twice. But my choice went ultimately to Ella Fitzgerald for musicality and phrasing, even though hers is the standard shortened version, which eliminates a couple of very “cheeky” allusions and funny verses.
(If you want an extra chuckle, please do read the full lyrics below. Try to count the number and kind of verbal jokes Hart works into the song. “Manhattan” is mischievously and good-heartedly funny in every way.
Manhattan (Lyrics by Lorenz Hart) Summer journeys To Niag'ra And to other places aggra- Vate all our cares. We'll save our fares. I've a cozy little flat in What is known as old Manhattan. We'll settle down Right here in town. We'll have Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island, too. It's lovely going through The zoo. It's very fancy On old Delancey Street, you know. The subway charms us so When balmy breezes blow, To and fro. And tell me what street Compares with Mott Street In July? Sweet pushcarts gently gliding by. The great big city's a wondrous toy Just made for a girl and boy. We'll turn Manhattan Into an isle of joy. We'll go to Greenwich, Where modern men itch To be free; And Bowling Green you'll see With me. We'll bathe at Brighton The fish you'll frighten When you're in. Your bathing suit so thin Will make the shellfish grin, Fin to fin. I'd like to take a Sail on Jamaica Bay with you. And fair Canarsie's lake We'll view. The city's bustle cannot destroy The dreams of a girl and boy. We'll turn Manhattan Into an isle of joy. We'll go to Yonkers Where true love conquers In the wilds. And starve together, dear, In Childs'. We'll go to Coney, And eat baloney On a roll. In Central Park we'll stroll, Where our first kiss we stole, Soul to soul. Our future babies We'll take to "Abie's Irish Rose." I hope they'll live to see It close. The city's clamor can never spoil The dreams of a boy and goil. We'll turn Manhattan Into an isle of joy. We'll have Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island, too. We'll try to cross Fifth Avenue. As black as onyx We'll find the Bronnix Park Express. Our Flatbush flat, I guess, Will be a great success, More or less. A short vacation On Inspiration Point we'll spend, And in the station house we'll end, But Civic Virtue cannot destroy The dreams of a girl and boy. We'll turn Manhattan Into an isle of joy!
Word and Song by Anthony Esolen is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.