Harbach and The Fields

Otto Harbach (1873-1963) started out his career in lyric and libretto writing because of a chance encounter with a billboard.  It was an advertisement for a new Broadway show.  Harbach figured, how hard can this be, and sought a way into the business.  He wrote lyrics for two shows before hitting the jackpot in his first collaboration with composer Karl Hoschna in Madame Sherry (1910.22), which ran for 231 performances.  Madame Sherry might be classified as half musical comedy and half vaudeville.  

Otto Harbach, American Librettist and Lyricist

Otto Harbach

His next project was with Rudolf Friml (first commission, replacing Victor Herbert) and resulted in the successful operetta, The Firefly (1912.46).  Harbach worked alone with composers Hoschna, Friml, Percy Wenrich, Louis Hirsch, but he teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II and Frank Mandel on two Herbert Stothart shows, Tickle Me (1920.27) and Jimmie (1920.42).

Harbach teamed up with William Carey Duncan for a Friml show, The Blue Kitten (1922.02), produced by Arthur Hammerstein.

Then, Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II worked together on a new project involving Stothart and a new composer, Vincent Youmans.  The show (produced by Arthur Hammerstein) was Wildflower (1923.05), and the unique sound of Youmans’ songs brought immediate and favorable attention.  Harbach worked with another collaborator, William A. McGuire on a Harry Tierney show with Eddie Cantor, called Kid Boots (1923.47), which ran for 489 performances.

Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II then turned their energy to a new operetta by Friml, called Rose-Marie (1924.28).  The show provided an interesting mix of a “life and death” libretto with the romantic music of an operetta, and it and ran for 557 performances.

Vincent Youmans, Broadway Composer

Vincent Youmans

Harbach and Mandel wrote the book for the first full score by Youmans, No, No, Nanette (1925.30), after which  Harbach returned to his collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II for the next three shows:  Jerome Kern’s Sunny (1925.33), Stothart/George Gershwin’s Song of the Flame (1925.52) and Friml’s The Wild Rose (1926.24)—a disappointment to its producer, Arthur Hammerstein.  It should be noted that Harbach’s three successful shows during 1925 represents a significant achievement, as illustrated by runs of 321 performances of No, No Nanette, 517 performances of Sunny and 219 performances of Song of the Flame.

Harbach then returned to collaborate with Anne Caldwell on Kern’s Criss Cross (1926.32) before working with Oscar Hammerstein II and Mandel on Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song (1926.42).

Harbach and Caldwell collaborated with Youmans on the revue, Oh, Please (1926.46), which opened a few weeks after The Desert Song.  

Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II then worked with Emmerich Kalman and Stothart on a show for Arthur Hammerstein, called Golden Dawn (1927.63), which opened on November 30, 1927.  It is worth noting that Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat opened twenty-seven days later.

Have you been following this dizzying schedule?  Fourteen of the Harbach shows opened in close proximity to one another.  One thing we can immediately see from the sequence of opening dates of these shows is the need to spread out the writing to many collaborators; otherwise, it would have been impossible to complete the work in time for tryouts and then the Broadway run.  We saw the same need for collaboration among the T.B. Harms’ orchestrators; one composer, banging out one-line melodies, could keep an entire team of orchestrators busy.

Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II and Henry Myers collaborated on a Stothart/ Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby show, called Good Boy (1928.25).  The show ran for 253 performances, in no small part because of Helen Kane singing Kalmar and Ruby’s big hit song, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” You can see a young Debbie Reynolds syncing the song, with Kane’s voice being dubbed, in this biopic of Kalmar and Ruby, Three Little Words (1950).

Harbach worked alone the rest of his career: writing a book for Romberg’s show, Nina Rosa (1930.27); books for two Kern shows, The Cat and the Fiddle (1931.37) and Roberta (1933.26); and then finished his career on Broadway with a book for Romberg’s disappointing Forbidden Melody (1936.27).

As a side note, before we move on to other playwrights, it is interesting to note that these two men, Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II, were the last librettists that Kern would work with on Broadway.  Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the books for Kern’s Sweet Adeline (1929.31), Music in the Air, 1932.23) and Very Warm for May (1939.28).

Herb and Dorothy Fields

Dorothy Fields and Arthur Schwartz, Dorothy Fields, Lyricist

Dorothy Fields

Herb Fields (1897-1958) was one of three talented children born to Lew Fields.  Herb was friendly with Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, and that friendship developed into a wonderful collaboration for the three men:  Herb wrote the book for the first big Rodgers and Hart hit, Dearest Enemy (1925.31), followed by his books for The Girl Friend (1926.07), Peggy-Ann (1926.50), A Connecticut Yankee (1927.56), Present Arms (1928.16) and Chee-Chee (1928.30).

Between Peggy-Ann and A Connecticut Yankee, Herb slipped in writing the book for Youmans’ Hit the Deck (1927.16), a bona fide hit with 352 performances.

After Chee-Chee, Herb worked with Jimmy McHugh on a show called Hello Daddy (1928.50) and then worked mostly with Cole Porter.  Herb wrote the book for Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929.45) and The New Yorkers (1930.40).  The Porter song that shocked New York and America was the haunting “Love for Sale,” a song that drifted into the world of prostitution.  We are including an up-tempo arrangement by Fred Waring, whose original arrangement was far more wistful and dramatic.

Herb returned to the Rodgers and Hart team to write the book for America’s Sweetheart (1931.04), then the book for Gershwin’s Pardon My English (1933.01).  After that, Herb teamed up with Buddy DeSylva to write the books for two Porter shows, DuBarry Was a Lady (1939.30) and Panama Hattie (1940.19).

Herb worked with his sister, Dorothy, to write the book for Porter’s Let’s Face it (1941.08) and Something for the Boys (1943.01).  The song from this show that still attracts attention and admiration is “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” here sung by Ella Fitzgerald in a Porter television special.

While outside the purview of our pre-1943 timeline, Herb and Dorothy would team up one last time to write the book for Irving Berlin’s one, huge Broadway success, Annie Get Your Gun (1946.12), produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein and running for 1147 performances.