Heart to Hart

A few weeks ago, the Geffen Playhouse showcased a memorable special event: “Here’s to Life,” Kitty Carlisle Hart’s cabaret-style one-woman show, accompanied by her musical director, David Lewis.

Hart, 94, performed for a little over an hour, reminiscing and singing songs from some of her late friends such as Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Cole Porter, presenting in one evening a short history of the American musical theater.

My daughter, who is 7, knows Kitty Carlisle as the star of the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera.” I recall her as a panelist on “To Tell the Truth.”

In 1998, Hart, who had recently published her autobiography “Kitty,” was asked to give a lecture on the American musical theater.

“What would I say?” Hart recalled asking.

She was told: “Just talk about the giants of the theater. You’ve known them all.”

Instead of lecturing, she put together a show where she sings their songs and tells tales of them. She’s been performing the show periodically ever since.

She looks great on stage, making all the 60- and 70-year-olds in the audience feel young — and making those even younger feel that one can indeed stop time. Hart told the audience that she’s still got great legs — and then proved it.

She was born Catherine Conn (pronounced Cohen) in New Orleans. Her father was a doctor; her mother, Hortense, was the daughter of Benjamin Holzman, Shreveport’s first elected Jewish mayor. There’s an anecdote about her mother’s desire to assimilate being so great that once, when a taxi driver asked if her daughter was Jewish, Hortense answered: “She may be, but I’m not.”

Hart’s father died when she was 10. The next year, she decamped with her mother to Europe — where over the next several years Hart studied in Switzerland, at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the London School of Economics and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Her mother had hoped to marry her off to European royalty. They returned to New York, without success, where her mother allowed Kitty to pursue a stage career. She appeared in several musicals and operettas before being summoned to Hollywood.

Hart recalled that it was on the set of “A Night at the Opera,” with The Marx Brothers, or as she called them “those knock-about boys” that George Kaufman introduced her to his writing partner Moss Hart. At the time he didn’t pay much attention to her.

But George Gershwin, whom she had met in New York, did. He was something of a ladies’ man and she recalled that Gershwin had a little waltz that he would pretend to have composed on the spot for whichever woman he was wooing. Gershwin even invited her to a seder at his mother’s house, where Oscar Levant presided and Gershwin delivered a jazz version of the haggadah.

It would take another six years before she sat before Hart at a New York party and said to him the words he most wanted to hear, “Tell me about your trip to the South Pacific.” She became his best audience. They were married in 1941 and had two children (her son, Chris Hart, directed the recent production of “You Can’t Take It With You” at the Geffen).

Moss Hart was the first playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize, for “You Can’t Take it With You,” in 1936. He’s also remembered for “The Man Who Came To Dinner,” the libretto for “Lady in the Dark,” the screenplay for “Gentleman’s Agreement” and for directing the Broadway productions of “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot.” He died in 1961.

As Kitty Carlisle Hart sang Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful” from “The King and I,” and also songs from Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Arthur Schwartz, I thought about the amazing impact her circle had on American musical theater.

I was reminded, too, of the late Marlon Brando, who told Larry King, “If it weren’t for the Jews, we wouldn’t have, oddly enough, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley and all the standards that were written by Jews. All the songs you love to sing.” Brando was criticized for his remarks, but it highlights the influence of those close to Kitty Carlisle Hart.

There’s a strand in the American musical theater that seems to trace its roots to a cantorial tradition. “The Jazz Singer,” the first talkie, had as its very premise the generational transition from performance within the synagogue to making it on the secular stage.

Hart’s circle of largely assimilated Jews were writing shows for and about America, musicals like “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma,” and “South Pacific.” Like the first Hollywood moguls, they were creating America in their own image. Their collective legacy is a fount of plays and musicals that continue to be revived on Broadway and the world over.

To see Kitty Carlisle Hart perform their canon is to be beguiled by her charm — and her vitality. After her performance at the Geffen, Hart played an engagement aboard a cruise ship for two weeks. She is booked to play at Feinstein’s at the Regency Hotel in New York in September for her 95th Birthday.

Hart closed her performance at the Geffen with Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinari’s “Here’s to Life.” One can’t help but remark: What a life it is.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2005 Tommywood