Reviewing Rodgers – 1: Manhattan


The first big song hit for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was a ditty called ‘Manhattan’, which made a big splash when it was included in the first edition of the Garrick Gaieties in 1925, a revue which originated as a benefit performance for the Theatre Guild.  It had been written three years earlier for a musical called Winkle Town, but that particular show never saw the light of day so the song rested dormant until its big discovery.  It wasn’t Rodgers’ first song, not by a long way, since he had been publishing some of his work since 1917, but it was the song that made ‘Rodgers and Hart’ household names for the first time and launched them on to a series of hits over the next few years.  Everyone was singing it, and an incredible number of people have recorded it since – from Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington to Anne Bancroft and Rod Stewart.  But what makes this song so special?

Well, firstly the music, which has a delightful bounce which is incredibly catchy.  It has an incredibly laid-back tune which captures the feel of strolling along without a care in the world and simply exudes joy.  Like many of Arthur Sullivan’s tunes, as well, it allows the lyric to be heard clearly, which is important as the words do not repeat other than in the last few words of each refrain (“We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy!”).  It’s instantly recognisable from just a few notes of the refrain, which probably contributed to its initial hit status – catchy music spreads faster than a virus.

The lyrics, though, are what make the song for me, and yet I only recently realised how clever they are.  We tend to accept the song on face value, a pleasant little number about a courting couple enjoying spending time in New York rather than going off on an adventurous holiday.  But close attention to the lyrics tells a different story.  From the most familiar refrain (the first), we get the following lines:

It’s very fancy
On old Delancey
Street, you know.
The subway charms us so
When balmy breezes blow
To and fro.

What a charming image.  Or is it?  Balmy breezes on the subway?   They’re singing about the gusts of air that assault the platforms as the trains arrive and depart.  Breezes certainly, but not particularly balmy or at all pleasant.  Other highlights of their wanderings in Manhattan include a futile attempt to cross a busy road and eventual arrest.  And yet they seem quite content.  Is this a song that show us love can make the best of a bad thing, or is it a satirical swipe at the island of Manhattan?  Probably a little of both, with perhaps the emphasis on the latter. 

Whichever it is, Rodgers and Hart followed it in the next year’s Garrick Gaieties with ‘Mountain Greenery’, a song which expresses much the same notions about a countryside retreat, including the joys of collecting wood and encountering mosquitoes.  The pair seem to be having fun with the conventions of the love song – each song works beautifully as a romantic duet (or solo, which is how they tend to be recorded), while simultaneously poking fun at the locale in which the amorous couples are located.  As they sing, these lovers can turn even dirty, dangerous Manhattan into an “isle of joy”.  And Rodgers and Hart could turn this idea into a hit song which has survived for over eighty years.

  1. Yes, it’s redolent with irony. Have you ever been to Mott Street in July???

  2. Sadly, I’ve never been to the States, let alone Manhattan, but judging by the rest of the lyrics, I’d guess Mott Street is busy and crowded – the ‘sweet pushcarts’ are presumably not ‘gently gliding by’ but ‘stuck in traffic jam hell’.

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