What lifts Act One above other riveting backstage sagas and rags-to-riches success stories is the loneliness and sadness the hero has to overcome. “I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theater is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child,” Hart writes early in the book, no doubt knowing full well that his theory is valid. “Certainly the first retreat a child makes to alleviate his unhappiness is to contrive a world of his own,” he explains, “and it is but a small step out of his private world into the fantasy world of the theater.” In my own case, as a gloomy, stage-struck young child of divorce, Hart was the first adult I found who articulated some semblance of the unhappiness I felt. His story gave me the hope of escape, as it did so many others, whether they alighted on theater as a refuge or not.
That’s why the true climax of Act One is not the glittering Broadway opening night of Once in a Lifetime but its aftermath in Brooklyn. Flush for the first time, Moss swoops up his dazed mother, father, and brother to take them to new quarters in Manhattan, ordering them to leave with just the clothes on their backs and nothing else. After he sends his family ahead to a waiting taxi, he opens the tenement’s windows so that a raging storm outside can flood into their hovel of an apartment and pummel their old lives into oblivion. “I slammed the door behind me without looking back,” Hart writes. Or so, at least, he would try.
At the time Act One was published, You Can’t Take It With You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) had aged into stock and amateur staples (as they still are) but were often viewed as sentimental relics or wisecrack-driven proto-sitcoms in a postwar American theater dominated by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. A rare Kaufman-and-Hart stab at a more somber play, Merrily We Roll Along (1934), had been forgotten entirely (though it would resurface, much altered, as the basis for a Stephen Sondheim musical in 1981). The pair’s writing partnership had broken up by 1941, when Hart on his own wrote the libretto for Lady in the Dark, a groundbreaking musical extravaganza about psychoanalysis. But his subsequent efforts to write serious dramas solo, in the manner of his youthful heroes Shaw and O’Neill, were failures. He had not had a new play on Broadway since 1952, when his ponderous African drama, The Climate of Eden, expired in less than two weeks, and was instead directing light stage comedies by others. His current currency was most of all tied to his role in staging My Fair Lady, which had opened in 1956 and was on its way to becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history up to that time.
Act One was a comparable smash, receiving raves on the front pages of the Times’ and Herald Tribune’s Sunday book reviews even as My Fair Lady repeated its New York success in London. But if this was a career apotheosis for Hart, it arrived at the end of another era, his era. The advent of rock and roll and of a new kind of Broadway musical, ushered in by West Side Story in 1957, was propelling pop culture in general, not to mention the New York theater, in directions unimagined by Hart’s generation. When the My Fair Lady team reassembled for a can’t-miss follow-up in 1960, Camelot, the critical and public reception was indifferent, the box office wobbly, and the ordeal of revising it during frantic out-of-town tryouts, Once in a Lifetime style, a likely factor in the hospitalization of its lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, for a bleeding ulcer and Hart for a heart attack.
It was another heart attack—his third—that took Hart’s life during Christmas week of 1961. His passing seemed unimaginable; Kaufman had died six months earlier, but at the riper age of 71 and after a long professional silence. Both of Hart’s musicals were still alive and kicking on Broadway. The celebratory obituary on the Times’ front page drew heavily from Act One and made much of the latter-day Hart’s well-known personal extravagance and boldface-name lifestyle. An accompanying appreciation by the paper’s drama critic, Brooks Atkinson, who had known Hart since the 1920s, was headlined “An Enthusiasm for Life” and concluded with the observation that “he had and gave a good time everywhere.” After New Year’s, a standing-room-only audience packed the Music Box for a memorial tribute. The encomiums from Hart’s celebrity pals were also festive and frothy, but the last speaker, his editor Bennett Cerf, sounded one grave, if fleeting, note. “All of his life,” he told the crowd, “Moss Hart suffered periodic attacks of almost unbearable depression. Analysis provided only a partial cure.” Then Cerf moved on to jollier reminiscences, culminating in an anecdote about how Moss turned a mishap at “Bill Paley’s pool in Jamaica” into “the subject of a hilarious calypso song.”