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Act One

by Michael  Cox
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Friday Feb 28, 2014
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Other biographers have painted Moss Hart as a man who was tormented by private demons. They frankly discuss issues of sexuality and manic depression that haunted this "Prince of Broadway." Hart’s rumored bisexuality, his battles with anxiety and depression, and his marriage are the subjects of Act Two and Three, but "Act One" is a selfie -- a great storyteller spinning the yarn of his life as he wanted it to be seen.

This is a tale of a man who rose from poverty to unparalleled success. And though it was written late in his life, it ends at the beginning, when he was only 25, at an open doorway, looking forward to a beautiful future.

If this book seems a lot like "Funny Girl" before Fanny Brice’s own marital troubles show up in the plot, that’s because there is a very definite narrative that pulses through the dreams of the New York theatre in the 20th Century, and you can almost tell what area of town the show is playing by where the story begins and where it ends.

Hart is such a natural raconteur and he writes in such a dramatic way that it is easy to picture this memoir as a riveting piece of theatre. So it’s no surprise that "Act One" will open at the Lincoln Center Theatre as a play written and directed by James Lapine. With a combination such as this, success seems eminent.

This book, a bestseller when it was first published in 1959, has been re-issued in paperback in conjunction with the play and will inevitably be devoured by theatre enthusiasts, because it has already become a legend in the theatre world.

Moss Hart is best known for his marvelous collaborations with George S. Kaufman, including "Once in a Lifetime," "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "You Can’t Take it With You," winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize. He also directed two of the most popular musicals of the mid-20th Century, "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," as well as penning a number of extraordinary screenplays, like "Gentleman’s Agreement" (which was nominated for a "Best Screenplay" Oscar and won the "Best Picture" Award) and the 1954 version of "A Star is Born."

Hailed as "a quintessential American success story," this rags to riches autobiography is a complete joy to read, time and again I found myself laughing out loud in a way I haven’t since reading "Huckleberry Finn."

In Hart’s voice one can hear biting witticisms of critic Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner," though Hart would have us believe that Kaufman was the true misanthrope who made "the fake or pompous... wither and dwindle under his penetrating glance."

"I never ceased being surprised," says Hart about his famous collaborator, "at the startling and sometimes numbing effect he created among even the most seemingly secure and self-assured people... he did indeed intimidate even his close friends."

The commonly held assumption was that Hart was the emotional soul of the creative team while Kaufman was the wit. But the perfectionism that Kaufman demanded from the people around him shows clearly in the author’s voice.

We can also see the antics of the eccentric family members in "You Can’t Take it With You" in Hart’s own family members. For instance, the way he describes his Aunt Kate: "One of the most vivid memories of my own childhood is seeing her trail into her room with her bottle of smelling salts and a book or the Sunday papers, and hearing the lock click shut... She never lifted a finger to help in any way, not so much as by drying a single dish... Yet it was she who opened the world of theatre to me."

Hailed as "a quintessential American success story," this rags to riches autobiography is a complete joy to read, time and again I found myself laughing out loud in a way I haven’t since reading "Huckleberry Finn."

"Act One: An Autobiography"
by Moss Hart
St. Martin’s Griffin
Trade Paperback * Memoir
$19.99 * 464 pages
ISBN: 1-250-05089-8

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