Remembering Hugh Martin

Hugh Martin, with his equal credit partner Ralph Blaine, produced some of the most memorable and effective songs in Hollywood musicals. There are two songs he is best known for (and claims to have written without his partner, though an agreement between the two men to share credit on everything they wrote makes that a moot point), though they are hardly his only contribution to the field. His most famous song has to be "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." It, like many Christmas songs from big budget musicals, crossed over into a greater pop culture awareness. The song is a standard noteworthy for taking a mature and believable approach to the meaning of the holiday. It's not sentimental claptrap designed to tug at the heart strings; it's everything a genuine moment of reflection on the holiday should be. Would the song have been nearly as effective without Judy Garland debuting it in Meet Me in St. Louis? Probably not, since she insisted on many of the original darker lyrics being replaced.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork, Next year we will all be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore, Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.

But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow, From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Compare that to the better known version from the film.

Hugh Martin's other best-known song also comes from Meet Me in St. Louis. I consider it one of the finest moments in musical history. It's "The Trolley Song." It's fun, upbeat, and a perfect use of ensemble and lead for storytelling. The meaning of the song goes from literal to figurative and back again based on context. When the crowd sings the onomatopoeia-laden lyrics, it is merely a song about an excursion on the trolley; when Judy Garland as young in-love Esther sings it, it is an intimate expression of her greatest romantic desires. The effect is bound to leave a smile on your face.

Hugh Martin, with collaborator Timothy Gray, is also responsible for one of the more intriguing stage musicals to have a successful run on Broadway. The show is called High Spirits and it happens to be a haunting-based musical comedy. Based on the still-better-known play Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward, High Spirits tells the story of a man haunted by the spirit of his dead wife. A medium he believes to be a fraud conjures up the mischievous spirit, though only the man himself can see her. The show, unfortunately, opened the same season as mega-musicals Hello, Dolly and Funny Girl.

Here's the audio to the real showstopper from the musical, "Talking to You," performed by Bea Lillie. If only video footage existed of the bunny slipper dance number that literally stopped the show each night...

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