Hugh Martin's 'Hidden Treasures' Explored

Dec 22, 2011
Originally published on July 1, 2014 11:42 am

The late songwriter Hugh Martin wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" for Judy Garland's 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis, along with dozens of other songs for MGM and Broadway musicals.

A new CD chronicling his seven decades in musical theater was released earlier this month. Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures features mostly demo recordings and rarities from Martin's vast catalog of tunes, from a 1941 selection from the musical comedy Best Foot Forward to a 1961 song written for the unfinished musical Here Comes the Dreamers, which was never produced after lead actress Jeanette MacDonald was diagnosed with cancer. The CD also comes with an 88-page booklet chronicling Martin's career, with essays by Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick and Michael Feinstein.

Martin was heavily involved in the creation of the CD in the months leading up to his death in March 2011. He worked closely with producers Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom, both of whom join Terry Gross on Fresh Air for a discussion of Martin's songs and his lengthy career in show business.

"This project was a kind of nirvana, because here was an important body of work just waiting to be discovered," Rudman says. "And we were able to explore it with Hugh looking over our shoulders and offering his own insights and his memories. It was a labor of love for us. We loved the man and we love his work."

Putting His Best Foot Forward

Martin told Rudman and Bloom that he wrote his first song — "Every Time," for the 1941 musical Best Foot Forward — on spec for composer Richard Rodgers and theater producer George Abbott.

"Hugh had to present an audition," Rudman says. "He told us that he wrote this song on a clanging New York subway in rush hour, which is pretty amazing, because it's such a tender ballad. ... We think of it as a classic."

Martin often teamed with composer and songwriter Ralph Blane on his hits. The two, known as "Martin and Blane," were credited with songs from Meet Me in St. Louis, Good News and Best Foot Forward, among other productions. But after their initial success on Best Foot Forward, Bloom says many of the duo's songs were written entirely by Martin.

"After Best Foot Forward, Ralph kind of stood on the sidelines," Bloom says. "He submitted songs for Meet Me in St. Louis, but none of them were chosen. And from then on, he was like the public front of Martin and Blane. ... He was really gregarious. He really was the personality of Martin and Blane. Hugh was more in the background."

For decades, Martin honored an agreement with Blane to share songwriting credits on any songs written for projects the duo took on together. But when Blane started taking credit for songs Martin had written, Martin decided to speak up.

"Hugh got angry and he started fessing up," Rudman says. "Terry, he admitted to you as well that most of the stuff that we think of as 'Martin and Blane' are actually Hugh Martin's songs."

[That conversation, which took place during an interview in 2006, is available here.]

Bloom chimes in: "I always think of Hugh as a kind of steel magnolia. He was very soft. He didn't stand up for himself. But when he got angry, he was really strong."

Bloom says there's no doubt that Martin single-handedly wrote the songs he says he did.

"If you brought in a musicologist to compare the Hugh Martin songs with Ralph Blane songs, [they're] just very, very different kinds of writers," he says. "So I don't think there can be any question that Hugh wrote what Hugh told us he wrote."

Bill Rudman is the artistic director of The Musical Theater Project and the host of the public radio program Footlight Parade and the Sirius XM radio show On the Aisle. Rudman and Bloom, a New York-based theater historian, co-founded the music label Harbinger Records. Bloom is also the author of American Song: The Complete Musical Theater Companion.

Interview Highlights

On Martin's Singing And Piano Playing

"[He was] insecure about his singing for no reason at all. I guess he felt upstaged by Ralph Blane, who had this tremendous, powerful, Broadway kind of sound. But Hugh's vocals are amazing. After all, it was Hugh who formed the vocal quartet The Martins. And Hugh was one-fourth of that vocal quartet."

On Fame

"Hugh Martin didn't really set out to write 'popular songs.' That's not really what was important to him."

"Richard Rodgers was his idol. He's the one who really discovered Martin and Blane. And I think Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein, I think they only wrote one popular song each as a team. So Hugh, everything was show-driven to Hugh. He couldn't sit down and not know a situation or a character to write for. He never tried to break out and write popular songs, even though he could have."

On Songwriting

"He said that he found songwriting very difficult. He was the first to admit that. So that was another reason that he wasn't as prolific as some of the other folks. And he said he didn't have the compulsion, as Richard Rodgers did, to write a new show every year. When he did commit to a show, he was a hyper-perfectionist. The work took him a long, long time."

On Hugh Martin's Writing

"He was a lovely, lovely man. He was so fully dimensional and lived such a rich life, in the sense of experiencing life and wanting to capture that in his writing. He said to us that he really tried to write in such a way that everything that he had to say was being said in a new way. And he was talking not only about the lyrics, but about the music he wrote. That kind of originality — and that kind of commitment to really putting it out there — Ken has talked about his insecurities, [and] he wasn't afraid to put that into his writing."

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It's become a FRESH AIR Christmastime tradition to wish Hugh Martin a Merry Christmas and to thank him for writing what is many people's favorite Christmas song - it's certainly mine - "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." At Christmas we'd rebroadcast an excerpt of his interview or call him up and say hi. But we can't send our good wishes this year. Hugh Martin died in March at the age of 96.

During the last two years of his life, he worked on a project collecting rare recordings and demos of his songs, including a few which featured him singing. That album has just been released. It's called "Hidden Treasures - Songs for Stage and Screen, 1941-2010."

Before we meet the producers, here's Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from the soundtrack of the 1944 film "Meet Me in St. Louis," which also featured Martin's songs "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song."


JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay. Next year, all our troubles will be miles away. Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore, faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us once more. Someday soon we all be together, if the saints allow. Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

GROSS: And now for some less-famous songs composed by Hugh Martin. My guests are the producers of the new album "Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures." Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom are the founders of the Harbinger Record label. Rudman also founded "The Musical Theater Project." Bloom is the author of "American Song."

Let's start with the first song Hugh Martin wrote, which he submitted as his audition song for his first show, "Best Foot Forward." He and his then-partner Ralph Blane got the job with the help of Richard Rodgers' recommendation. The show opened in 1941. This recording from the '50s features of Martin's childhood friend Lily Jean Norman.


LOULIE JEAN NORMAN: (Singing) Every time my heart begins to dance, the world steps on my little toes. Every time I take a little chance, I pay right through my little nose. Every time I fly my little kite, it catches on that tree. Every time I throw an anchor out, it pulls me in the sea. Every time I...

GROSS: That's a Hugh Martin song from the new recording "Hidden Treasures - Hugh Martin's Songs for Stage and Screen, 1941-2010." My guests are the album's producers Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom.

Now, "Best Foot Forward" was - and songs for the show were written by Hugh Martin and his songwriting partner Ralph Blane. But one of the things you learned in working with Hugh Martin on this project is that, actually, Martin and Blane weren't really a songwriting duo through most of Hugh Martin's career. What does Hugh Martin have to say?

KEN BLOOM: Well, they both submitted songs for "Best Foot Forward." And, in fact, the hit song, "Buckle Down Winsocki," was written by Ralph Blane. But after "Best Foot Forward" Ralph sort of stood on the sidelines. He submitted songs for "Meet Me in St. Louis," but none of them were chosen. And from then on, he was like the public front of Martin and Blane. You'll hear him on our CD doing a lot of the demos all the way through Hugh's career. He was really gregarious. You know, he'd be talking to the upper brass at MGM and on Broadway. And he really was the personality of Martin and Blane. Hugh was more in the background.

BILL RUDMAN: But they did have an agreement from the time they first started on "Best Foot Forward" that they would share credit for any projects they took on together, even though they wrote their words and music separately. And Hugh honored that for - literally for decades, until Ralph Blane started taking credit for being the sole author of songs that Hugh had written all by himself, and then Hugh got angry and he started fessing up. Ken Bloom was one of the first people he fessed up to. And Terry, you know, he admitted to you, as well, that most of the stuff was...

GROSS: He did. I know.

RUDMAN: ...that we think of as Martin and Blane, it's Hugh Martin's songs.

GROSS: You know, I went back to the transcript today to see - because I thought he had told me that back in - I think it was 2006. And I asked him to tell the story again of writing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and he said well, first of all I feel rather self-serving admitting this, but Ralph didn't really write...


GROSS:, honey. We wrote our songs separately.


GROSS: So it's words and music by me. And instead of me thinking, my God, what a revelation. I have to, like, find out all about this, I just say: Oh, well, good. So now you're really able to tell the complete story of how you wrote it.


GROSS: I think I was so, like, unprepared to have what I always believed challenged, that the magnitude of the fact that Ralph Blane didn't co-write these songs just didn't really register on me.

RUDMAN: Well, and he was so self-effacing, that I'm sure when he said that to you, he didn't do it as some major press release. He just kind of put it out there, you know?

GROSS: Exactly. Well, let's get in another song. I mean, you know, we're talking about songwriting partners. Hugh Martin wrote many of the songs all by himself, but he had collaborators on some of them. And this is a 1953 song that he wrote with Sheldon Harnick, who is most famous for "Fiddler on the Roof," "Fiarello," "She Loves Me." So how did they come to collaborate, and what was Sheldon Harnick's contribution to this song? And the song is "I Just Can't Get Used to These Clothes." The song is about a soldier who's just returned home and can't yet get used to these civilian clothes and civilian life.

RUDMAN: We had asked Sheldon if he would do a liner note for us talking about Hugh as a lyricist, and he came up with this stupendous liner note. And then he just sort of said, you know, by the way, Hugh and I did write one song together. You want to hear it? And we said sure. And this was very early on in Sheldon's career, and this song was something that Hugh had to write for Eddie Fisher, who had come out of the Army.

And Eddie Fisher literally wanted a song titled "I Can't Get Used to These Clothes," and Hugh had written about half of it and gotten stuck, right? Ken, wasn't that the way it worked?

BLOOM: Right. And it was very propitious for Sheldon. Sheldon had written songs for "New Faces of 1952" and gotten, you know, a little notice. But Sheldon's wife at the time was in the show "Make a Wish," which Hugh had written. And she had told Hugh: Oh, my husband wants to be a big songwriter, and he had a few songs on Broadway.

So when Hugh got stuck, he just said to her: Well, let's talk to your husband and see if he can come up with anything.

GROSS: So Sheldon Harnick wasn't really Sheldon Harnick yet.


BLOOM: Yeah. That's right.

RUDMAN: Oh, yeah. Almost, yeah.

GROSS: Okay.

RUDMAN: And the little piece of dessert here is that Sheldon worked on it with Hugh, and the song was completed. And Sheldon idolized Hugh, and said: Would you sign the music for me? I'd like to have that. And he said I'll do you one better. And he went into the studio and made a recording for Sheldon Harnick. And that's what you're going to play.

GROSS: Okay. So this is the example of the kind of rarity...



GROSS: ...that's in your new CD, "Hidden Treasures." So this is from "Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures: Songs for Stage and Screen." And this is Hugh Martin singing and accompanying himself at the piano.


HUGH MARTIN: (Singing) Well, at last, here I am after two hectic years with Uncle Sam. I should be fancy free, I suppose, but I can't get used to these clothes. What a switch. What a change. After khaki, this kind of suit feels strange, from my thigh to my high-powered hose(ph) . I just can't used to these clothes.

(Singing) The day I got my walking papers I was cutting capers at the news. I bought a belt of red and yellow, even got some elevated shoes. I admire other guys in their bright-colored shirts and Christmas ties. But when I wear a tie, then this feeling grows. Why are people staring? Should this tie I'm wearing just be used for scaring crows? It's insane but it's plain that I can't get used to these clothes.

(Singing) I'm getting used to talking back a little. Talking back's a pleasant change. I'm getting used to not saluting, and there's no more shooting on the range. With a gun, I confess, I was not really much of a success. And my rank, I'll be frank, PFC. Didn't mind when they made me one, but I find each time I see one, I would rather see than be one, goodness knows. So I've got no excuse to refuse to get used to these brand new clothes.

GROSS: That's Hugh Martin singing and accompanying himself at the piano. Hugh Martin, who is most famous for writing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Trolley Song" and "The Boy Next Door," all from "Meet Me in St. Louis." And my guests Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman have produced a new album of rarities and home recordings and demos by Hugh Martin. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new album "Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures - Songs for Stage and Screen 1941-2010." It features a lot of demo recordings and personal recordings of songs that he wrote through his career, including many songs from shows that were never produced. My guests are the producers of this album, Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom.

And, of course, Hugh Martin is the songwriter most famous for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." So why don't we hear the last recording that's on your album "Hidden Treasures"? And I think it's the last song that Hugh Martin wrote, as well. And it's called "I Don't Know What I Want."

RUDMAN: It is. It's his last completed song. He intended to use it in a musical version that he was planning of William Inge's "Picnic." It's a revision of a song that he wrote with the same title that he had written 50 years earlier. But it's a significant revision, and Mark Horowitz from the Library of Congress, who did one of our liner notes, points out that for him, this is the superior version of the song, because it gives us a Hugh Martin writing it in a style that is more pared back and simpler and just more essence. It's quite an eloquent statement.

BLOOM: Yeah. It's less show biz than the song "The Girl Most Likely," and much more introspective. And we think it really reflects Hugh as a person, also.

GROSS: So we're going to hear Gloria Makino with Keith Ingham at the piano. And he's really a great pianist. So here it is, Hugh Martin's final song.


GLORIA MAKINO: (Singing) I don't know what I want, or what I'm waiting for. But somehow, in the strangest way, I couldn't want it more. This feeling that I feel is real as it can be. But what it is I'm yearning for is still a mystery to me. A summer breeze caressed me, and then upon the spot, a sudden urge possessed me, but I don't know for what.

(Singing) Perhaps there's something grand the future has in store. In time, my dreams will all come true, but until they do, I wish I knew what it is or who it is I'm waiting for.

GROSS: That's Hugh Martin's final song from the new album "Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures - Songs for Stage and Screen 1941 to 2010." My guests are the album's producers Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom. So I want to end with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," because it's still my favorite Christmas song, and it's traditional on FRESH AIR to end with that and to wish Hugh Martin a Merry Christmas, which we can't do this year, the first year we cannot do that because he passed away earlier this year.

But I love this song. Is this your favorite Christmas song?

BLOOM: Yes. It absolutely is. And, of course, Terry, Hugh told you the story about how when he originally wrote the lyric for it, Garland refused to sing it because the lyric was very dark, lines like "Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past." And Hugh did finally realize that he needed to revise the lyric.

RUDMAN: And I think what he came up with is so great, because he didn't sell out. There still is such a wistfulness about this sentiment in the song, but it is more joyful, and it is such a universal statement. I think that there's no surprise at all in the fact that millions of people all over the world treasure this song.

GROSS: And so the recording that we're going to hear is by Hugh Martin at the piano and singing. It's not on the "Hidden Treasures" album. It's on an earlier album that was issued by the Library of Congress of his work. But I think it's a fitting way to end.

And Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom, I really want to thank you for putting together this "Hugh Martin: Hidden Treasures" album, and for introducing me and anyone else who listens to it to songs, that, you know, who knew he had them? So it's pleasurable and really informative about him as a person and as a songwriter.

BLOOM: Yeah. It was great putting this together, and it was our pleasure, really, getting to know Hugh and discovering all this about him.

RUDMAN: Oh, Terry, thanks. This was great fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.