Published in In Theater

His songs inevitably evoke a season, an era, and the Golden Age of Musicals: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” “Pass That Peace Pipe,” “Buckle Down, Winsockie,” “Keep Your Sunny Side Up.” Classics, all.   Written by something of a classic himself.

Hugh Martin, acclaimed composer, lyricist, vocal arranger, performer and pianist, was recently honored in his current home-town for 60 years of making music for America: the County and City of San Diego proclaimed November 22 Hugh Martin Day.   There was a month-long Hugh Martin tribute, which included a musical celebration and symposium, and two productions at San Diego State University.

It was 1937 when the diminutive, syrup-speeched Southern gentleman made his Broadway debut in the short-lived musical “Hooray for What!” (book by Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse, music/lyrics by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg; produced by the Shuberts). Martin appeared in the cast and created the vocal arrangements.   That experience gave him the guts to write to Richard Rodgers.

“‘Dear Mr. Rodgers,’ I wrote, never having met him,” Martin recalls. “‘ I love your music and I think you’re wonderful.   But one thing puzzles me,’ I said. It was a very presumptuous letter. ‘I don’t understand why I never hear any vocal arrangements in Broadway shows.   They sing a verse and two choruses and that’s it. When I go to the movies, I hear exciting choral arrangements and inventive duets.   But not on Broadway.   And I wondered why that is.’  

The next thing he knew, Rodgers had hired him to work on “The Boys From Syracuse,” where he created the show-stopping vocal arrangement of “Sing for Your Supper” (‘suppah,’ in Mr. Martin’s dialect).

Over the years, Martin worked with some of the greatest musical theater and film artists of all time, including Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein II, Kern, Berlin, Porter, Noel Coward, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael and Jule Styne.

With Ralph Blane, he created the scores for “Best Foot Forward” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.”   He and Timothy Gray wrote “Love From Judy,” a musical version of “Daddy Longlegs” and “High Spririts,” the musical adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”   With and without his collaborators, he worked with producers, directors and choreographers such as George Abbott (“like a father to me”), George Balanchine, Joshua Logan, Gene Kelly, Gower Champion and Vincent Minelli.

He was the vocal coach for some of Hollywood’s biggest musical stars, including Lena Horne, Rosalind Russell, Nanette Fabray, June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, Jane Russell and Esther Williams.   Liza Minelli made her stage debut in the off-Broadway revival of Martin and Blane’s “Best Foot Forward” (1963) and Judy Garland not only made famous his three timeless songs from “Meet Me in St. Louis” (“Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door”), but when she played the Palace Theatre in 1951, Martin accompanied her on piano — and shared a dressing room with her (separated by a sheet) for 19 weeks.

During his Hollywood years, he worked with La Garland on four movies; while filming “A Star is Born” (1954), they had their fatal falling-out, over the interpretation of the Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin song, “The Man That Got Away.”

“I wanted her to sing it moodily, quietly,” says Martin. “And so did Harold Arlen. He thought it was an introspective song, but Judy belted it. George Cukor thought I was right. The day of the recording, he said, ‘Can you do anything to stop her from yelling that song and making it such a tour de force?   If she does that, I don’t have a movie.   If you know she’s a star in the first 15 minutes, you don’t have any place to go.'”

Well, Garland had her way, Martin walked off the picture (and got no screen credits), and that song wound up being the mesmerizing moment most folks remember about the movie. “Our fight was not irrevocable,” Martin insists.   “We still adored each other.   I still dream about her at night.   I think she was the world’s greatest entertainer.”

Garland is only one of hundreds of fabulous memories and stories Martin, now 83, loves to recount. He remembers every name from every show. But he’s not just focused on the past. His latest project is solo creation of the music and lyrics for “Maggie & Jiggs,” a musical based on the George McManus comic strip, “Bringing Up Father.” Very vaudeville and burlesque (“but I won’t have any sleaze or vulgarity”), the show was begun over a decade ago, at the suggestion of Mickey Rooney; it was initially written for Rooney and Martha Raye, but Rooney has since pulled out.   The book, by Woody Kling (now deceased) and Robert Hilliard (who wrote for “The Honeymooners”) is currently undergoing revision. The show recently received a staged reading by the Musical Theatre Department at San Diego State University, and will have another in April, before director Rick Simus shops it around for a future life.

One of the songs from “Maggie and Jiggs” is Martin’s avowed favorite of all his compositions. “I Have Something to Say to You” was originally composed in 1980 for “Weddin’ Day,” a musical version of Carson McCullers’ “A Member of the Wedding” (written with Joshua Logan) and it appears on “The Hugh Martin Songbook,” a 1995 Michael Feinstein CD with Hugh Martin on piano.

In his Encinitas home overlooking the ocean, Martin keeps busy — singing, composing, playing piano and working on his memoirs every day.   Late in February, Michael Feinstein and others will appear at Theater West in Hollywood for a concert reading of “A Happy Lot,” Martin’s earlier collaboration with Marshall Barer (lyricist for “Once Upon a Mattress”).   The unproduced show, originally written for Jeannette McDonald, is about the back lot at MGM, where Martin spent a lot of time, though those weren’t his happiest years.

“I was one of the few people who were in the Arthur Freed unit [in the ’40s] who were not just in seventh heaven,” he admits.   “Freed’s unit was the place to be; it was the sanctum sanctorum of musicals. The problem was that Dick [Rodgers] had spoiled me.   I got to make lots of the decisions when I worked with Dick. At MGM, I felt like a messenger boy. They’d say, ‘We need a song here; go write it.’ I had nothing to do with fashioning the project, which is the part I like best. I think of myself not so much as a composer or a lyricist, but as a theater man, who likes to put things together. I have a little touch of the producer in me, or perhaps director.   On “Meet Me in St. Louis,” I felt very removed.   I had nothing to do with them choosing Vincent Minelli or Judy or any of the creative or technical talent.   It wasn’t a collaborative effort for me, which is what I love about the theater.”

The huge hit from “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) was “The Trolley Song.”   In discussions about which number to market commercially, Martin was the only one who voted for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”    “They were probably right to push ‘The Trolley Song,'” Martin admits, “but ‘The Christmas Song’ is the one that’s endured, and that kind of gave me the last laugh.”

Nonetheless, “The Trolley Song,” he says, “probably saved my life.” When he enlisted in the Army, he went with the infantry to Belgium and France, and was then shipped to Special Entertainment forces. While he was singing “The Trolley Song” in a soldier show, he damaged his vocal cords, and was sent to the hospital instead of the front.

All told, Martin has come a long way from his Birmingham, Alabama beginnings. As he looks back on his impressive and eventful career, what he considers the high point is a bit surprising. It was some time after he became a Christian, when he spent four years (1981-1985) at ‘gospel camps’   (like tent revivals) which originated outside L.A. and traveled all over the U.S. and Canada, fronted by singer Del Delker, “kind of a gospel Judy Garland.”   That, he says, “was more thrilling than playing the Palace.”

The low point came with the 1952 London production of one of his favorite creations, “Love From Judy.”   It was Martin’s longest-running show, which played for two years. “But I got very neurotic during that time; I was taking mind-altering drugs prescribed by Dr. Feelgood, Max Jacobson, the drug-dispenser to the stars. He said they were ‘liquid vitamins.’ I was dead drunk on opening night of “Judy.”   By 1960 I’d had a nervous breakdown, and I was hospitalized, and finally, I turned to God as a last resort…   But I wouldn’t do anything different if I had it all to do over again, because all my mistakes were so valuable.”

Martin is as passionate about theater as ever, but a little disappointed in the lack of “wonder, magic and class” in musicals today. “You give me the opportunity to stand on my soapbox,” he says with a wink.   “And the banner above me is Simplicity.   One of the worst things that’s happened to theater is it’s too fussy. Every singer adds about 15 cadenzas to every note. And in film, there’s wall-to-wall underscoring.   I don’t want waves of turgid emotional music splashing over me; I want to hear the dialogue…. I love the theater so much; I just wish it was more like it used to be.”

©1998 Patté Productions Inc.