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A CurtainUp Feature
Dazzler, a Biography of Moss Hart by Elyse Sommer and Original Story, an Autobiography by Arthur Laurents by Les Gutman

Moss Hart and Arthur Laurents both had long and illustrious careers in the theater. Laurent is still with us, a lively 82-year-old, recently published his own memoir. Hart, also penned an autobiography, Act One. It was a best-seller and is still widely regarded as an exemplary account of one man's rise from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of show business. However, it stopped in 1951 and, since Hart died in 1961 never gave readers a second act. This left it to Stephen Bach's biography, Dazzler, to complete the Moss Hart Story which he does through the lens of the more distanced, less self-protective biographer. While Hart and Laurents were seventeen years apart, their lives and careers crossed. The Bach book makes reference to Hart's meeting Laurents at the neighboring estate of his friend and collaborator George S. Kaufman -- and also Hart's awareness of the changes in style represented by younger playwrights like Laurents. Since both books were published within two publishing seasons, the Laurents book in Fall 2000 and the Hart book this season, it seemed a good idea to pair my comments on Dazzler with Les Gutman's thoughts on Original Story.

The Laurents book can already be ordered in a paperback edition; the Hart book is as of this writing available only in the hard-cover. However, Hart's still popular Act One is available as a paperback.

Original Story

Dazzler by Stephen Bach

I wanted a helluva success, and a modicum of glory
-- Moss Hart

Moss Hart was a larger-than-life figure of the theater. A dashing, over-achiever whose accomplishments encompassed -- in alphabetical order -- acting, directing, playwriting and producing and playwriting. He was still in his twenties when his collaboration with George S. Kaufman, As Thousands Cheer catapulted him to Broadway fame and fortune. Just a few years later, another collaboration with Kaufman, You Can't take It With, won him a Pulitzer prize. Hart successfully navigated the world of stage and screen, with such notable achievements as Lady in the Dark (a collaboration with Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin that set the stage for musicals in which book, music and choreography were all of a piece) and the screenplays for such film classics as Gentleman's Agreement and revival of A Star Is Born.

Given Hart's meteoric career, always dashing appearance and the lavish personal life style Stephen Bach's title is more than apt. His extravagant spending on homes and his wardrobe made Brooks Atkinson dub him "Gold-plated Hart" and Hart admit that "when I go into a store I'm convinced that every piece of merchandise on every shelf is trembling with a desire to belong to me." His palatial Bucks County estate caused one acquaintance to wisecrack "Shows you what God would have done if He'd had the money."

Bach's own skill as a wordsmith and his prodigious seven years of research, backed up with over fifty pages of source notes, has made this biography quite a dazzling achievement. Like many biographers of celebrities whose relatives don't want the public image disturbed with uncomfortable revelations, Bach had to forge ahead without the cooperation of Hart's widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart. This is not exactly surprising considering Bach's insistence on digging into the rumors about his subject's sexuality. Since Hart's own 1959 memoir of his ascent from social director at a Pocono summer resort to Broadway became an instant best seller and is still widely read, the biographer also had to contend with the autobiographical ghost, covering much of the same territory before going past the 1951 cut-off date of Act One. To Bach's great credit, while his book obviously owes a great debt to the autobiography, it does not read like a re-hash. His pursuit of Hart's shadowy sexual life, while dogged, is never purulent -- it really couldn't be, since not once in the more than 400 pages is there any gotcha first-hand account to dramatically substantiate the hints and rumors.

While Hart comes off in this portrait as a charming and likeable man of many talents, the real dazzle that surrounded his legend is somewhat elusive. Maybe this is because his plays, though they still enjoy regular revivals, are more than anything archetypes of an era. Perhaps too the fact that the sexual preference Bach tries so hard but fails to really nail down, also accounts for the fact that the biographer is unable to tap into heart of what made Moss Hart tick. He is most knowable and likeable as a script doctor and director and it is the chapters on his behind-the-curtain work that makes Dazzler a valuable reference for any theater lover's book shelf. The chapter on the making of My Fair Lady, especially Hart's tireless mentoring of Julie Andrews, is not only a fascinating picture of a director achieving the seemingly impossible, but the part of the book in which the man truly dazzles us with his kindness, his patience and his instinct for making things go from wrong to right.

Dazzler is a handsome book. In addition to three 8-page photo inserts, each chapter begins with a sepia picture and a quotation. Besides the already mentioned Notes, it has a well-detailed index. -- Elyse Sommer

by Steven Bach
Published by Alfred Knopf
Hardcover - 416 pages (April 24, 2001)
Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One remains one of the most popular theatrical memoirs ever written

LINKS TO CurtainUp reviews of Moss Hart Plays
While our publication is too young to have review any premiere productions of plays written or directed by Moss Hart, enough of his plays continue to enjoy revivals, for us to have caught some productions in our net.

As Thousands Cheer
Light Up the Sky
Once In a Life Time -- with George S. Kaufman
You Can't Take it With You -- with George S. Kaufman The Man Who Came To Dinner -- with George S. Kaufman

Original Story by Arthur Laurents

I have rarely been of two minds about a book as I must admit I am about Arthur Laurent's autobiography, Original Story. On the one hand, it contains valuable and interesting information about a variety of topics: the constructional history of West Side Story and Gypsy, the two major musicals in which Laurents had a hand (as book writer); the “business” side of being a writer for stage and screen; life as a gay man in the New York of the 40's and 50's, and later in Hollywood; Hollywood black-listing, from the perspective of one intimately involved with both “namers of names” and their victims.

The book also chronicles, quite poignantly, the author's love story. Its credibility is undermined by its self-congratulatory nature. to hear him tell it, Laurents has never been wrong about much of anything in his life, and rarely entered a room in which he wasn't immediately the object of everyone's sexual attention. Its worthiness is undercut by his penchant for making sure to detail the personal habits of most everyone with whom he came in contact: their sexual preferences, their predilections toward drinking and drugs and the degree and sorts of psychiatric assistance he was sure they needed. (His own psychoanalytic history is well delineated as well.) Most will do well by a read-and-skim approach. -- Les Gutman

by Arthur Laurent
Published by Knopf in hardcover
436 pages
Paperback reprint by Applause

All plays listed, except Big Potato, which premiered Off-Broadway last season, are revivals
Big Potato
Home of the Brave
West Side Story
Time Of the Cuckoo

The Broadway Theatre Archive

(C)Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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