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Hugh Martin Dies: 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' Co-Composer

Margaret O'Brien, Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis
Meet Me in St. Louis with Margaret O'Brien, Judy Garland

Hugh Martin, best known for co-composing with Ralph Blane “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” sung by Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli's 1944 classic Meet Me in St. Louis, died on March 10 '11 in Encinitas, Calif. He was 96.

According to The Guardian's Hugh Martin obit, in addition to Garland, others who have performed the song include Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day and Bing Crosby. Pointedly, the Sinatra rendition is used as background for the execution of an American soldier for treason in blacklisted screenwriter-turned-director Carl Foreman's stark, all-star World War II drama The Victors (1963).

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” recipient of the most-performed feature-film standard from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, can also be heard on the soundtrack of The Godfather (1972); When Harry Met Sally (1989); Home Alone (1990); Miracle on 34th Street (1994); and Donnie Brasco (1997).

In addition to his songs for Meet Me in St. Louis, among them “The Trolley Song” (also sung by Garland), Martin, often with partner Ralph Blane, wrote compositions for several other MGM musicals of the 1940s, including Thousands Cheer (“The Joint Is Really Jumpin' in Carnegie Hall”), Ziegfeld Follies (“Love”), and Good News (the Oscar-nominated “Pass That Peace Pipe,” with music by Roger Edens, and sung by Joan McCracken).

At the piano, Martin accompanied Judy Garland on her one-woman show, Judy Garland at the Palace: Two a Day in the early '50s, but the duo had a serious falling out when he, as the vocal arranger on George Cukor's A Star Is Born (1954), asked her not to “belt out” Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's “The Man That Got Away.” Garland reportedly cursed and ridiculed Martin on the set; as a result, he walked off the production.

Later on, Martin and Timothy Grey wrote the music and lyrics for High Spirits, the musical adaptation of Noël Coward's supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit. Directed by Coward himself, High Spirits went on to receive eight Tony nominations.

In the late 1960s, Martin suffered a “nervous breakdown,” grew reliant on amphetamines, and later became a born-again Christian.

At the time of Hugh Martin's death, writer/editor Frederick Nolan recalled having met Martin through musical theater lyricist Marshall Barer, who introduced him to a score he and Martin had written in the early 1960s for a show titled A Little Night Music (no connection with the Stephen Sondheim hit). The musical was to have marked Jeanette MacDonald's return to the Broadway stage.

Nolan writes in The Independent:

The plot had to do with old-time movie stars who have fallen off the Hollywood radar and find refuge (and romance) by hiding in the studios where they were once so famous, only coming out on to the empty sound stages at night. It had what would have been the most sure-fire, standing-ovation finale ever written: in front of a screen showing the [1932] movie Love Me Tonight as she sings “Isn't It Romantic?” Jeanette sings a wistful counterpoint duet “Wasn't It Romantic?” with her younger self. They were still putting the show together when Jeanette, who had heart trouble, died very suddenly, and A Little Night Music died with her. Hugh always thought it was one of the best things he had ever done.


         
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