Forget Lewis & Clark

Composer Hugh Martin reflects on Meet Me in St. Louis

By this point, World War II was entering its final bloody year. Prior to the film's release, Martin enlisted and was shipped to Europe: "When my officers learned that I had written 'The Trolley Song,' they transferred me to an army show to sing it. Then my original unit sustained heavy losses in the Battle of the Bulge. Surely that song saved my life."

After the war, geography separated the songwriting team. Blane remained in Hollywood; Martin returned to New York. In 1951 he read that Judy Garland (by now a good friend) was about to make her vaudeville debut at New York's famed Palace Theater. Martin phoned her and asked if he could purchase a pair of house seats.

Garland stunned him by inviting him to join her on stage. The triumphant three-week engagement was extended to nineteen weeks. "That was zenith time," Martin recalls. "That was the high spot of my life."

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

Although Garland had always concluded her concerts with "Over the Rainbow," it was Martin's inspiration to have her perform that signature song without amplification: "During rehearsal, sitting in the balcony for a sound check, I heard Judy sing 'Over the Rainbow' without a microphone. It carried beautifully over the orchestra. So I went to her and said, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but why not let the audience hear your sweet, natural voice?' For the rest of her career, she always sang it that way."

Three years later Garland asked Martin to score her vocal arrangements for the now-classic movie musical A Star is Born, but this time she was not so accepting of his advice.

"She was abusive to me because she was on drugs," Martin says. "For 'The Man That Got Away,' I wrote that little trombone duet that opens and closes the song. But we fought over her delivery. I wanted her to sing it very simply, in her MGM voice, not in her loud, brassy vaudeville voice. She got angry and said, 'I don't sing like that anymore. That was a child's voice; I'm a woman now.'

"And I said, 'Well, honey, I think you've always had a woman's voice.'

"Then [director George] Cukor came to me and said, 'Can't you do anything about Judy screaming that song and waving her arms around? I want it to be as if she's singing among friends after hours in a Sunset Boulevard nightclub.'

"I said, 'That's what I want too. Please go tell her that, Mr. Cukor. She won't listen to me but she'll listen to you.'

"And he said, 'She will listen to no one.'

"So that's when I left the picture, though we did make up afterwards. We loved each other too much not to make up. We were meant for each other musically."

Even before the movie finished filming, Sally Benson approached Martin about adapting Meet Me in St. Louis to the stage. But it wasn't until the Muny commissioned a production in 1960 that the transformation occurred. Martin wrote several new songs and came to St. Louis to rehearse the singing chorus. Though he's returned for nearly every revival since, he will not be here this summer.

"I no longer travel too well," he explains. "My health is good, and I'm fine and happy. But at age 89 there are old-man complications. At home I do better."

As an old man of the theater, Martin's mind is a veritable world's fair of memories, many of which are associated with his triad of St. Louis hits -- and of the two St. Louis women who so influenced his life. "Back in the 1930s when I was Kay Thompson's rehearsal pianist," he recalls, "I used to say, 'Kay, I'm writing some little songs. I wonder if anyone will ever hear them.' I had such low self-esteem, I couldn't believe that a song of mine would ever get recorded. So my dream really came true, didn't it?"

See It Again (and Again)

If you want to avoid Meet Me in St. Louis this summer, your best bet is to leave town. The revival begins this weekend at the Tivoli, which will present four showings of a pristine 35-millimeter print of the Judy Garland movie at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13 and 19-20. Call 314-995-6270.

On the Monday night after the final Tivoli screening, the musical stage adaptation opens the Muny season with a ten-performance run. The final three nights (June 28-30) are off subscription, providing a rare opportunity to attend the Muny without binoculars. Call 314-534-1111.

If you're not yet sated, ACT, Inc. offers a non-musical adaptation of Sally Benson's book at Fontbonne University July 9-11 and again July 23-25. Call 314-725-9108.

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