The times are more compelling than the life in Steven Bach’s sympathetic biography of playwright-director Moss Hart. It’s not that a man who suffered from crippling mood swings, who was as conflicted about his sexuality as he was about success, isn’t interesting; he is. But Bach’s distanced treatment — perhaps necessitated by the fact that Hart’s widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart, declined to cooperate –accurately describes Hart’s personality without making it particularly vivid. What really dazzles here is Broadway in its golden heyday.
Few have captured the Great White Way’s allure better than Hart did in his bestselling 1959 memoir “Act One,” which portrayed a poor kid from the Bronx falling in love with the theater and striving through his teens and early 20s to enter that magic world. Bach, who credits his own career as a theatrical and film producer (he also wrote famed showbiz chronicle “Final Cut”) in part to the inspiration of reading “Act One,” sensibly doesn’t try to compete with Hart’s wrenchingly funny account of his youth. He briskly chronicles Hart’s birth in 1904, the tensions that simmered between a withdrawn, frequently unemployed father and overworked mother, and quietly corrects the memoir’s factual errors while depicting the young man’s early years in show business as factotum to producer Gus Pitou and aspiring playwright. The heart of Bach’s narrative begins where “Act One” ended, with the triumphant Broadway opening night in 1930 of “Once in a Lifetime.”
Hart’s Hollywood satire, trimmed and sharpened into a hit by co-author George S. Kaufman, launched him into the glamorous life he yearned for. Famous names abound. He created two revues with Irving Berlin and another one with Cole Porter. He collaborated with Rodgers and Hart on “I’d Rather Be Right.” He capped his eight-play partnership with Kaufman with a Pulitzer Prize for “You Can’t Take It With You” and soldout houses for the still-hilarious send-up of their friend Alexander Woollcott, “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” In Hollywood he wrote “Hans Christian Andersen” for Danny Kaye and “A Star Is Born” for Judy Garland. He made pots of money and spent it freely on fancy clothes and lavish interior decoration for expensive apartments and a 230-year-old farmhouse in Pennsylvania. After he married Kitty Carlisle in 1946, he bought her elaborate gowns and headdresses to wear during their “flashbulb-lit procession of dinners, theater visits, parties and fashionable entrances.”
It sounds pretty hectic, and without going into great detail about Hart’s psychological problems (he seems to have had undiagnosed bipolar disorder), Bach suggests work fulfilled him in a way that his private life didn’t. Rumors about his sexual orientation were so prevalent even in the ’40s that Carlisle asked him point-blank before they wed if he was “a practicing homosexual.” Bach mentions a number of male companions without getting specific about the nature of those relationships; here, again, he probably was constrained by legal concerns.
But that can’t explain his treatment of Hart’s ambivalence about popular success; Bach acknowledges it in sentences like, “The box office was the standard Moss trusted, though seldom without misgivings.” But he doesn’t fully explore the painful frustration Hart must have felt as a writer who admired Ibsen, Shaw, and O’Neill, yet “settled early for his name in lights.” In this and most other passages about Hart’s personality, Bach displays a respect for his subject’s essential privacy that’s admirable in a human being, but counterproductive in a biographer.
Happily, probing psychological insights are not crucial to the many excellent descriptions of the hair-raising process of whipping a Broadway production into shape that make “Dazzler” a consistent pleasure to read. The book closes, as did Hart’s life, with the one-two punch of a pair of musicals by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe that incarnated the Great White Way’s glories and excesses. Bach’s juicy account of the rehearsals for “My Fair Lady” shows Hart tactfully helping Lerner shape Shaw’s wordy, class-conscious “Pygmalion” into a crowd-pleaser, dragging a star performance out of modest Julie Andrews and forcing temperamental Rex Harrison to behave like a professional.
Sophisticated yet warm-hearted, intelligent without sacrificing mass appeal, “My Fair Lady” was Hart’s greatest triumph as a director and, in many people’s opinion, the pinnacle of American commercial theater.
“Camelot,” with its over-long script, over-elaborate scenery and over-publicized out-of-town run in Toronto, was a harbinger of things to come. The stress provoked Hart’s second heart attack, and his doctors sidelined him for the show’s Boston shakedown and disastrous Dec. 3, 1960, New York opening. But he was there two months later to make the ruthless cuts that turned “Camelot” into a hit. Ten months after that, his third heart attack killed him at age 57.
If Steven Bach’s appreciative biography doesn’t fully convey this complex man’s inner life, it compensates by brilliantly evoking the Broadway theater he loved so much and served so well.