Forget Lewis & Clark

Composer Hugh Martin reflects on Meet Me in St. Louis

Setting aside regional pride, what makes Meet Me in St. Louis a memorable musical? For starters, how about the music? Everybody knows its three classic songs. Now meet the man who wrote them.

Born into a musical family in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914 (he still speaks with a genteel Southern drawl), Hugh Martin started to play the piano at age five. Although his mother hoped he'd become a concert pianist, after hearing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Jerome Kern's Show Boat, "I fell in love with jazz and theater music," Martin says by phone from his home in Encinitas, California.

By age nineteen he'd moved to New York. Former St. Louisan Kay Thompson (best remembered as the creator of the plucky young illustrated character Eloise) rescued Martin from a job as a saloon piano player and hired him as her popular radio show's rehearsal pianist. "Being around Kay was like taking a crash course in music," Martin recalls.

Meet him in St. Louis: Hugh Martin, back in the 
Meet him in St. Louis: Hugh Martin, back in the day.

Richard Rodgers was another early teacher. They met after Martin wrote the celebrated composer to ask why theater vocal arrangements weren't more hip. Intrigued, Rodgers offered 24-year-old Martin a job as vocal arranger for the new Rodgers and Hart musical, The Boys from Syracuse. Thanks to Martin's swing arrangements, jazz found its way to Broadway. "I felt that Broadway needed a little injection of what everybody else was doing. In the late 1930s the movies were doing jazz, records were doing jazz. But theater music was still a little square," Martin says.

A grateful Rodgers promptly hired Martin again -- and again. "Until I worked with Dick Rodgers, I had no self-esteem," Martin says. "But he believed in me. He could be very critical, but always in a supportive, constructive kind of way. Dick and I worked so closely together, he became like a second father. I really felt like a showbiz son to him."

In 1941 Broadway's most successful director, George Abbott, took on a secret partner -- Richard Rodgers -- to produce a new musical about young people. They wanted the score to be composed by young talent. Rodgers recommended Martin and his writing partner Ralph Blane -- who as a team had yet to write a single song. "I wouldn't have had any career without Best Foot Forward," Martin says. "It was a fluky, marvelous miracle" -- and it ran nearly a year.

At which point, a second St. Louis woman entered Martin's life. In 1941 and early '42, magazine readers were charmed by a series of short stories by Sally Smith Benson in The New Yorker. Titled "5135 Kensington Avenue," they were named for the address two blocks west of Kingshighway where the Benson family lived until 1910, when Mr. Smith was transferred to New York. Benson moved the time frame back six years so they could climax at the opening of the 1904 World's Fair -- with the fictional family triumphantly remaining in town.

After the stories were published in book form under the new title Meet Me in St. Louis, MGM bought the book for Arthur Freed, who ran the studio's musical unit. Freed in turn hired Martin and Blane, who were in Hollywood for Freed's filming of Best Foot Forward, to write a few new tunes to complement such period ditties as the 1904 title song.

From the moment they began to compose Best Foot Forward, Martin and Blane always shared their writing credits. "Best Foot Forward was 50-50; Ralph would write one song and I'd write the next," Martin says. "But after we got to California, even though we continued to share the credit, I did about 90 percent of the work. Ralph got a little bit careless, a little bit lazy, a little bit too fond of the Hollywood lifestyle. So I wrote all the songs in Meet Me in St. Louis, although he did give me some wonderful advice. On 'The Boy Next Door,' for instance, it was Ralph's idea to use the Kensington Avenue addresses of the lovers. So I put that in at the end of the verse, and it really makes the song."

For "The Trolley Song" Blane found a Beverly Hills library book with a photo of a turn-of-the-century trolley. The caption -- "Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley" -- was all the inspiration Martin needed. Even before the movie's November 1944 release, "The Trolley Song" had sold more than 500,000 copies.

Although "The Trolley Song" was the immediate runaway best seller, Martin's third tune, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," has been the most enduring. Today it is one of the ten most-recorded songs of all time, with more than 500 separate renditions. (Martin's favorite? Mel Tormé.)

Yet despite his formidable contributions, Martin was little appreciated while the film was being made: "Arthur Freed ignored me. [Director Vincente] Minnelli ignored me. I never even got to work with Judy on the vocal arrangements. I was used to the kind of respect I received from Dick Rodgers, so the Hollywood treatment made me furious. I'm ashamed to admit it now, but I was so mad at all of them that I refused to go on the set. Now I wish I had. I wish I'd seen that trolley."

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