Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

The story of the song, as told by Hugh in his memoir Hugh Martin, The Boy Next Door …

One morning Ralph left his workroom and came into the living room to ask me a question. “I couldn’t help hearing what you’ve been playing,” he said, “and I fell in love with a very sweet melody you were developing yesterday and the day before. Today I was listening for it and you didn’t play it. How come?”

“How come,” I said to Ralph, “is simply that I tried dozens of ways to resolve the darn thing and never found one I liked.”

“Will you do me a favor, Hugh? Will you try another dozen times? I have a funny feeling about that little tune. It sounds like a madrigal.”

After he went back to the dining room and closed the door, one word he stuck in my mind. Madrigal. I picked up the script and leafed to the end and read the Christmas scenes. The phrase “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” popped into my head and it fit my melody. Maybe Ralph was right. I went back to the piano and started struggling to make it work.

An hour or so later, I called Ralph in to hear the results. He thought it fit very naturally into the script because Esther is very despondent at that point, so perhaps the lugubrious lyric I had written would be what they all wanted.

We made an appointment to audition the song for Arthur and Roger the following morning and in we went very jauntily. I played the introduction; Ralph loosened his tie and cleared his throat.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,

It may be your last.

Next year we may all be living in New York.

Pop that champagne cork.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,

Next year we may all be living in the past.

When we finished the chorus, they laughed. I was shattered. “It’s not supposed to be funny,” I said.

Roger, still chuckling, said, “I’m sorry. Really I am. It’s a gorgeous melody.  But it’s so depressingly sad!”

I said, “I thought Esther was desperately sad in that scene.”

Roger was searching for words that wouldn’t crush me. He could see I was slightly wounded.

Arthur said, “I really think you’re on the track of something good. Please play around with the lyric. It’s O.K. for it to be bittersweet and nostalgic, but it shouldn’t be a dirge.”

Two days later, I ran into Roger at the Commissary. “Hey, Hugh,” he said, “I sang your Christmas song for Judy.”

“She said, ‘If I sing that lyric to little Margaret O’Brien, the audience will think I’m a monster.’”

“You tell Judy,” I said with a touch of hostility, “that if she wants the melody, she’s gotta take the lyric. Period!”

It was Tom Drake, who finally broke down my stubbornness. He asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee. Then he nailed me, but not in a mean way. Tom was a friend who admired my music and didn’t want to see me louse myself up.

He looked me straight in the eye.

“Hugh, this is potentially a very great and important song. I feel that in my guts. Now listen to me. Don’t be a stubborn idiot. Write a lyric for that beautiful melody that Judy will sing. You’ll thank me.”

Tom got through to me over a cup of coffee where the big executives had failed. That was sixty-five years ago, but Tom, I do thank you from my heart!

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