Robert Wright and his collaborator George "Chet" Forrest wrote songs for the musical hits Song of Norway, Kismet (for which they won Tony Awards) and Grand Hotel. In Hollywood, they contributed to the scores of eight of the popular musicals starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and for the film The Firefly they fashioned the hit tune "Donkey Serenade" from an instrumental piece by Rudolph Friml. Their 70-year partnership (Forrest died in 1999) yielded over 2,000 songs for stage, film and cabaret shows.
Their last major hit, Grand Hotel, was based on Vicki Baum's novel filmed by MGM in 1932. They first put their musical adaptation on stage in 1958 when, entitled At the Grand, it starred Paul Muni as Kringelein, the cowed clerk who is dying and checks into the Grand Hotel to live his last days in style. The show closed out of town, but when it was revived in 1989, with extra songs by Maury Yeston and inventive direction by Tommy Tune, it was a big hit.
Born in Florida in 1914, Wright studied piano as a child and at the age of nine won an amateur talent contest playing a Rachmaninov Prelude, which led to a vaudeville tour. "I found out very young that there was money in music," he said, "so I never touched the piano until I was paid." While in high school he formed his own school band, and played piano for silent movies in the evening. He met Forrest, who was a year younger, when Forrest auditioned for the Glee Club. Together, they wrote the school theme song "Hail to Miami High".
By 1933, Wright had become a well-known accompanist for such night-club acts as the torch singer Helen Morgan and the fan dancer Sally Rand. The following year, Wright and Forrest embarked on a countrywide tour with their own cabaret act, writing their own special material. While playing Hollywood, they auditioned their work for MGM, and were asked to write songs for a musical short, New Shoes (1936). They were then assigned to feature films, writing lyrics to melodies by Walter Donaldson for The Thin Man (1936) and Jean Harlow's last film, Saratoga (1937).
They stayed with MGM for seven years, their first major assignment being the MacDonald/Eddy operetta Maytime (1937). The producer Hunt Stromberg disliked the original Sigmund Romberg score, from which only two songs remained from the original stage version - Wright and Forrest wrote new lyrics for them, plus several other numbers adapted from classical or traditional themes. A comedy number for Eddy, "Virginia Ham and Eggs", was made from a string of operatic arias, and, for the film's finale, they conceived a manufactured opera called Czaritza, using themes from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, for which their lyrics which were then translated into French.
After this, their speciality became adapting public-domain or classical music into numbers tailored for the studio's stars. For The Firefly (1937) they took a little-known piano piece by Rudolf Friml, Chanson, and gave it lyrics. Introduced by Allan Jones as "The Donkey Serenade", it became a big hit and was associated with Jones for the rest of his career. For Sweethearts (1938), MGM's first feature film in three-strip Technicolor and one of the most entertaining of the MacDonald/ Eddy operettas, Wright and Forrest wrote new lyrics for all the Victor Herbert melodies, including the title tune and "Pretty as a Picture". They wrote another original opera, Scheherezade, to tunes by Rimsky-Korsakov, for Balalaika (1939), which starred Eddy with Ilona Massey.
They were not always happy with the work they were given by MGM, and when they were asked to write new lyrics for an adaptation of the Broadway show by Rodgers and Hart, I Married an Angel (1942), they felt it was the last straw. "I was shocked and embarrassed at being told to rewrite Hart's magnificent lyrics," said Wright. As soon as their chore was over, they left the studio. They had won an Oscar nomination there for the song "Always and Always" (music by Edward Ward), introduced by Joan Crawford in Mannequin (1937), and at other studios they won two more nominations - for "It's a Blue World", sung by Tony Martin in Music in my Heart (1942), and "Pennies for Peppino", a forgotten song introduced by George Givot in a forgotten film, Flying with Music (1942).
In 1943 they were approached by Edwin Lester of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company, who had the idea of using Grieg's music for a musical about the life of Hans Christian Andersen. Since Sam Goldwyn owned the rights to Andersen's life (which he later filmed with Danny Kaye), it was decided to make Grieg himself the hero of a fictionalised biography entitled Song of Norway. The show was a hit in LA, then became a rousing success on Broadway. In addition to its score, it had the advantage of beautiful sets by Lemuel Ayers, dancers from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performing choreography by George Balanchine, and a distinguished cast including the Metropolitan Opera's Ira Pettina.
Cole Porter saw it repeatedly (and reportedly it influenced some of his writing for Kiss Me, Kate) and Rodgers and Hammerstein told Wright that because they saw audiences weeping when Helen Bliss sang the song "I Love You" (from Grieg's lieder "Ich lieber dich" - original lyrics by Hans Andersen), they decided they would be able to get away with the sad moments in Carousel.
Grieg's A-minor Concerto yielded themes for two of the show's best songs, but the biggest hit, "Strange Music", was a clever blend by Wright and Forrest of two pieces, "Nocturne" and "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen". Song of Norway was produced in London in 1946, with choreography by Robert Helpmann, and it ran for nearly two years. Andrew Stone's 1950 film version was not a success.
Wright and Forrest followed Song of Norway with Gypsy Lady (1946), adapting early songs by Victor Herbert for its score, then wrote Magdalena (1948), which had a new score by Villa-Lobos, but neither show did well. (Gypsy Lady, retitled Romany Love, played briefly in London in 1947.) Their biggest hit came in 1953 with Kismet, a "musical Arabian Night", based on a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock, a delicious slice of hokum, with Alfred Drake giving a bravura performance as a poet who becomes Emir for a day.
Skilful use of Borodin's music (although it was described by one critic as "borrowed din from Borodin") resulted in a fine score, with the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor providing three outstanding numbers, the lilting "He's in Love", the brassy "Not Since Nineveh", which cued some raunchy choreography by Jack Cole, and the lovely "Stranger in Paradise", which became a "hit parade" favourite. Wright said,
We listened to as many recordings as we could find in the Library of Congress, and wrote down in a big notebook the themes we thought had the best potential, both thematically and in relation to the story itself. We wrote in the style of Borodin, using thematic fragments from his works, but most of the score is totally original.
Wright often considered that his and his partner's contribution to their shows was undervalued:
Some people think all we do is use other people's melodies for our lyrics, but it is not as simple as that. For "Stranger in Paradise", we took the opening section from the Polovtsian Dances, but the rest of the melody and its development is ours.
Other outstanding songs in Kismet include "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and the trio "And This is My Beloved", both adapted from string quartets. The show actually received lukewarm reviews from the New York critics, but had the good fortune to open during a newspaper strike. By the time the strike ended, it had been playing to capacity audiences for several weeks. It went on to win the Tony as Best Musical and, in a bizarre first, a Tony was awarded to Borodin, who had died in 1887. Kismet had a successful run at London's Stoll Theatre in 1955, and a film version, directed by Vincente Minnelli, was released the same year.
Alfred Drake starred for the team again in Kean (1961), which had both music and lyrics by Wright and Forrest. Based on the life of actor Edmund Kean, it was not a success, with out-of-town friction between Drake and choreographer-director Jack Cole. Anya (1965), about the woman who claimed to be Anastasia, only surviving daughter of the Tsar of Russia, had music by Rachmaninov and a cast featuring Lillian Gish as the Dowager Empress, but it also failed.
At the Grand, with both music and lyrics by the team, was another failure when it closed out of town, but, when revised as Grand Hotel, it was a great hit. Among the Wright/Forrest songs songs remaining from the earlier version were "Maybe My Baby Loves Me", which became a favourite with jazz singers, and the show-stopping Charleston-style duet for Kringelein and the "Baron", "Let's Take a Drink Together".
A London production, though lavishly praised by critics, failed to attract a large public, but a revival last year at the Donmar Theatre was a triumph that revealed it as probably the best of the Wright and Forrest musicals.
Tom VallanceReuse content