• 1914 — 2011
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Hugh Martin was a beloved Broadway composer best known for his associations with lyricist Ralph Blane and especially with actress/vocalist Judy Garland, who first sang his most famous piece, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944).
Martin was born in Birmingham, Alabama to a father who was an accomplished architect and a mother who was an avid classical musician and enthusiast. It was his mother who first fostered her son’s talent and enrolled him in the Birmingham Conservatory of Music at the tender age of five. He would later study classical piano at Birmingham Southern College, and it seems likely that he would have continued down that route if his mother hadn’t been introduced to the music ofGeorge Gershwin on one of her frequent trips to New York City. Upon sharing Gershwin’s music with her son he was instantly hooked, simply stating “Rhapsody in Blue changed my life.” Martin’s exposure to Broadway composers and music quickly widened to include other composers such as Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen, the two of whom he called, along with Gershwin, “my top-echelon people.”
After less than two years at Birmingham Southern College, Martin dropped out and moved to New York City, where his first jobs where as a piano accompanist and vocal arranger. One of his first big breaks was in 1937 when he both sang in and arranged for the Broadway playHurray for What! It was on the set of Hurray for What!that he first met Ralph Blane, who was also in the cast. Their first collaboration was in the vocal quartet The Martins, led by Hugh Martin, which was featured inIrving Berlin’s Louisiana Purchase (1940). However, their partnership soon became much more egalitarian as they began to be recognised as one of Broadway’s foremost and most unique creative teams.
Rather than having each person specialise on only one aspect, such as the lyrics, Blane and Martin preferred to share all the duties, often alternatively writing lyrics, music or arrangements for each other, or even writing a whole piece independently before seeking advice from the other member. By agreeing to share the credit between the two of them for all songs created, they established a productive and selfless partnership.
In 1938 Martin was asked to write the vocal arrangements for part of musical The Boys from Syracuse, by Rodgers and Hart. He was soon asked to arrange for several more works includingToo Many Girls (1939), another Rodgers and Hart production, andDu Barry Was a Lady (1939) with music by Cole Porter. The first major show in which Martin and Blane collaborated and entirely wrote the music wasBest Foot Forward (1941), which had a premier run of over 300 performances.
Two years after its Broadway debut, Best Foot Forward was made into a movie starring Lucille Ball, and it was during Martin’s subsequent trip to Hollywood that he was approached by MGM to compose for the musical filmMeet Me in St. Louis(1944). Although Blane was also collaborating on the music, it was three of Martin’s songs, “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that truly carried the score and, subsequently, Martin’s career. Of course it was largely due to the immense star power of lead actress Judy Garland that these pieces received such exposure.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was one of several notable Christmas carols to emerge during World War II (others including “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) which were immensely successful especially with American troops overseas. However, it is very lucky that the song ever got to be heard in its present form. Upon first composing what he described as a “madrigal-like tune,” Martin tried for several days to make it work before simply giving up and throwing it away. It is likely that it would have been lost if not for Blane enquiring about the tune, which he had heard Martin playing. Together, they managed to find the crumpled-up score and salvage what would become one of the 20th century’s greatest Christmas songs.
However, they also had great difficultly coming up with the lyrics. Since the song actually highlights one of the saddest parts of the movie, in which the father tells his family, including his six-year-old daughter, that they would have to move to New York City, Martin had originally come up with decidedly morbid lyrics, beginning: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past.” Luckily, Judy Garland (playing the older sister), refused to sing the lyrics, saying “they’ll think I’m a monster” for singing such cruel lyrics to her distraught younger sister. Based on input from her and Blane, Martin rewrote the lyrics to feature a more uplifting message: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/ Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” The song in this form was sung by hundreds of artists including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and even Coldplay.
Meet Me in St. Louis marked the beginning of a period of collaboration and friendship between Martin and Garland, and Martin spent the better part of a year touring with Garland and accompanying her on piano. He also continued to write for both theatre and film with Blane, in addition to occasionally straying out to write productions entirely on his own.
Martin was a long-time amphetamine addict and it was withdrawal symptoms that likely caused a series of nervous breakdowns in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Eventually, he was able to beat his addiction and became a born-again Christian, converting to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although he still occasionally composed for Broadway, by the 1980s he was mostly active as a gospel pianist, and he spent many years touring with vocalist Del Delker, who famously sang a more religious take on his famous Christmas song entitled “Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.” In 2010 he published his memoir,Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door, and the following year he passed away at the age of 96.
Header image courtesy of B Metro: The Magazine of Metro Birmingham Living Other images courtesy of Masterworks Broadway and The Judy Garland Experience