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Born: Otto Abels Hauerbach Aug. 15 or 18, 1873, Salt Lake City, Utah (US)
Died: died Jan 24, 1963 (age 89), New York City
Primary songwriting role: lyricist; also a librettist
Overview and Commentary
Otto Harbach (This section remains in preparation)
Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.
In their book "Reading Lyrics" Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball note that as late as 1963, the year that Otto Harbach died, Variety's Obituary for him called Harbach "The dean of U.S. librettists."
That the name Otto Harbach is most often associated with the operetta period of American musical theater, a period tied to a waning European form of the musical, is both correct and unfair at the same time. Two of the composers Harbach often collaborated with, Rudolph Friml (The Firefly and Rose-Marie) and Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song) are squarely in the tradition of shows that featured soaring melodies in the service of sentimental themes. On the other hand, his collaborators Jerome Kern (Roberta and The Cat and the Fiddle) and Vincent Youmans (Wildflower and No No Nanette) represent much more of a transition from the sentimentality of operetta to a more modern point-of-view. By the time Kern and Harbach (and Oscar Hammerstein II) wrote Roberta in 1933, the bridge to the future was well under way in Songs such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Yesterdays." And it didn't hurt that they were brought to the attention of the American public at large in the movie version of Roberta (1934), which in itself sharply contrasted the pre-World War I sensibility in the operetta flavored scenes featuring Irene Dunne (playing a displaced Russian Princess in Paris) with a much hipper milieu in those numbers handled by Astaire and Rodgers (playing American nightclub entertainers).
Harbach may have had a foot and a half in that older world but the half of a foot he planted in modern musical entertainment with songs like "She Didn't Say 'Yes'," (from the 1931 show The Cat and the Fiddle" and "I Won't Dance" (even before Dorothy Fields was called in to jazz it up a little) revealed that the jazz age was not completely lost on Harbach. Still, that many of his lyrics for songs from Roberta written by him and Oscar Hammerstein II had to be revised by the younger Fields in order to satisfy the au courant movie makers reflect Harbach's (and even Hammerstein's) transitional place between old and new.
On the Utah History to Go website, Salt Lake City native Harbach is quoted on New York City.
"'A person can write anywhere,' Harbach told Utah author Olive W. Burt in a 1949 interview, 'but only in New York can you . . . sense the trends, know the acting fraternity, meet producers, make yourself known. . . . You . . . have to be tough, able to take disappointment and hardship and rebuffs and come back bouncing with ideas and energy. But it's worth it.'"
"The Mounties" music by Rudolph Friml,
words by Otto Harback and Oscar Hammerstein II (1924), shown here performed by Nelson Eddy in the movie version of Rose Marie (1936). One of Harbach's lyrics in the operetta tradition.
"She Didn't Say Yes" (1931) performed by in the movie version of The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), one of Harbach's more modern lyrics sung (and played on the piano by Jeanette McDonald.
Otto Harbachresearch resources in print (listed chronologically):
ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, New York: American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Cattell/Bowker, Fourth edition, 1980 (dates, collaborators, shows/movies, songs, etc., entry pp. 212-213)
Michael Freedland, Jerome Kern: A Biography, New York: Stein and Day, 1978 -- multiple references to Harbach in this biography of one of his writing partners.
Gerald Bordman, Jerome Kern His Life and Music, New York: Oxford University Press (1980) -- multiple references to Harbach in this biography of one ohis writing partners.
David Ewen. American Songwriters, An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1987 (includes 146 bios of composers and lyricists). -- a wide selection of used copies is available at abebooks.com (entry pp. 206-208).
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
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