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‘Love’-less Love Songs


Ira Gershwin hated writing love songs. The main reason was that he felt he was just saying the same thing over and over, and it was hard to find a fresh way to put it. He liked to challenge himself by trying to write love songs without ever using the word “love.” Thus, this year’s Valentine’s Day column will look at “love”-less love songs, by Gershwin and others, with an emphasis on lyricists of the Great American Songbook.

“They All Laughed,” from the film Shall We Dance
Sung by Ginger Rogers as a performance number and then danced by her and Fred Astaire in this 1937 film musical from RKO, this song, lyric by Ira Gershwin and music by George Gershwin, is a full-throated celebration of a successful romantic relationship built on the idea that everyone thought it would never work. In his invaluable book Lyrics on Several Occasions, Ira says, “This lyric is an example of the left-field or circuitous approach to the subject preponderant in Songdom.” Indeed, you don’t even know it is about a romance until you get to the release and the line “They laughed at me wanting you.” Until then it’s a list song about unlikely triumphs by such folk as Christopher Columbus, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and Eli Whitney.

“Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy and Bess
During his long career Ira Gershwin was rarely called upon to write lyrics that delved deeply into character. However, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t do it. In this exultant love duet from his brother George’s masterpiece of an opera, the crippled Porgy showers Bess, newly liberated from her violent lover, Crown, with his love without once using the word, and she responds in kind. The repetition of “mornin’ time and ev’nin’ time and summer time and winter time” gets me every time. Ira’s lyric is a collaboration with the 1935 opera’s librettist and co-lyricist, DuBose Heyward, but as the music was written first, and Heyward wrote almost all of his lyrics first, it’s likely that Ira’s work on it was considerable. In looking for a copy of the original sheet music online, I was appalled to discover that DuBose Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, is also now listed as co-lyricist on the aria. This is due to a deal struck between the Gershwin and Heyward estates after Ira’s death (he was the last of the authors to die) to revise the opera’s writing credits, most likely made in order to extend the copyright for the Heyward estate (Dorothy died years after her husband) in exchange for making the opera’s official title The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Dorothy Heyward co-wrote the play on which the opera is based. She had no hand in the writing of Porgy and Bess, she certainly didn’t write one syllable of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and it remains shameful that the estates now claim otherwise.

“All Alone,” from The Music Box Revue of 1924
Though Irving Berlin wrote this famous ballad for the above show, he liked it so much that it was first introduced as an interpolation into the national tour of The Music Box Revue of 1923. The singer is obsessing about a love affair that has apparently been interrupted, and the elegantly simple lyric is a model of succinct writing. The reversal at the end “Wond’ring how you are/And where you are/And if you are/All alone too” is perfection in its inevitability and indirection (if you are all alone as well, does that mean you still love me?). Obviously, there is no OBCR, but you can hear Judy Garland, who knew a thing or two about singing Berlin’s songs, caress it here.

“My Funny Valentine,” from Babes in Arms
In a recent humor piece in The New York Times called I Told You Never to Play That Slut-Shaming Song Again,” Joyce Wadler imagines one Gloria from Woodstock calling in to the equally imaginary Smash the Patriarchy Easy Listening Hour to rail against this 1937 Richard Rodgers–Lorenz Hart ballad because it cruelly makes fun of a person’s physicality (“Is your figure less than Greek?/Is your mouth a little weak?”). In her reply to Gloria, Wadler remarks in passing that “the song is about Valentine’s Day.” Um, no, it’s not. It’s about a young man, an expression of affection by a girl named Billie Smith for her boyfriend, Val LaMar (short for Valentine). Billie catalogues her beau’s flaws tenderly, then demands, “Don’t change a hair for me/Not if you care for me.” And, of course, there is a delightful double meaning on the final line, “Each day is Valentine’s Day.” So far I have not seen a correction in the paper of record. Guess that’s what happens when you fire the fact checkers and copyeditors.

“My Darling, My Darling,” from Where’s Charley?
Clearly designed by songwriter Frank Loesser to be the breakout tune of his score for this 1948 musicalization of Brandon Thomas’ 1893 chestnut of a farce, Charley’s Aunt, this full-throated operetta-flavored duet is as unabashedly romantic as any song could be. It’s also sung by a pair of young upper-class lovers in Victorian England, so the fact that the word “love” is never uttered is particularly notable. Of course, its replacement is the titular endearment. You’ll also observe a standard songwriting ploy: Loesser puts specific references in the song’s verse, reserving the chorus for more-general sentiments. And, indeed, in a brief search for pop covers, I didn’t find one that includes the verse. The Broadway production, starring Ray Bolger in the titular drag role, never got a cast recording despite running for 792 performances, due to a recording strike. Fortunately, the 1958 London version, featuring Norman Wisdom, though only managing 380 performances, did.

“They Were You,” from The Fantasticks
The summer I was 16, I co-produced, co-directed, and played the Boy in this classic 1960 off-Broadway musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. This rueful love duet late in Act 2 was always my favorite moment to play, despite the fact that I was terrified of screwing up the vocal harmonies (my sense of pitch not being my strongest suit). Though the phrase “lovely lights” does appear in the lyric, Jones manages to reunite the sadder but wiser teenage lovers in expert “love”-less fashion to Schmidt’s plangently beautiful waltz. I’m especially fond of the release: “Without you near me/I can’t see./When you’re near me/Wonderful things come to be.”

“Telephone Wire,” from Fun Home
This Lisa Kron–Jeanine Tesori duet for father and daughter out for a car ride while she is home from college on vacation is certainly not your average love song, but love is what is driving them both to try to connect over the fact that each has recently discovered that the other is gay. The song is actually a remembrance years later by the daughter, who desperately wants to change their past failure but, of course, can’t, because this was the last time she and her father spoke. She returned to school, and he committed suicide not long afterward. The decision to include a fantasy exchange where they do start to talk was inspired, and when after it Alison sings, “Make this not the past/This car ride” with growing intensity on Tesori’s inexorably rising melody, I usually lose it.

“(You’re) Timeless to Me,” from Hairspray
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s vaudeville-flavored duet for Wilbur and Edna Turnblad, two middle-aged parents in 1962 Baltimore celebrating their marital bliss, quite properly avoids “love” at all costs. Neither character would stoop to such goop. Wilbur, who owns a joke shop, expresses himself with “You’re like a stinky old cheese, Babe/Just getting riper with age,” while Edna, overweight and insecure about her physicality, offers, “I can’t stop eating/Your hairline’s receding” while still professing undying devotion. It’s just their way of saying “I love you,” and both times I saw this 2002 musicalization of John Waters’ 1988 cult film comedy, Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein brought down the house with it. I could do without the false rhyme, though. Why not “retreating”?

“Haleed’s Song About Love,” from The Band’s Visit
Though “love” appears in the title of this David Yazbek song, it’s nowhere to be found in the hypnotic lyric, in which a macho Egyptian trumpet player tries to bolster the spirits of a shy Israeli lad who finds it hard to talk to girls and is facing a double date at a roller disco in a backwater Israeli village. Hunky Ari’el Stachel does very well by this smoothly jazzy meditation (the character is a Chet Baker fan) on the OBCR of what I think is the front-runner for both best musical and best score at the Tony Awards this season.

“Something Very Strange,” from Sail Away
Middle-aged cruise ship social director Mimi Paragon finds herself falling for the much younger passenger Johnny Van Mier and sings this gorgeous Noël Coward ballad about the situation near the top of Act 2, when the ship is docked in Tangiers. I’ll never forget the great Elaine Stritch delivering it with transcendentally bruised wonder in a 1999 concert version at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, in which she re-created her 1961 Broadway role. The word “love” never appears because that would be too much for Mimi to hope for. Alas, the OBCR is not available digitally, though you can purchase the CD on Amazon.com. However, you can download the Master himself singing it on a demo recording he made of his score, linked above.

“We’re Gonna Be All Right,” from Do I Hear a Waltz?
The first iteration of this cynical Stephen Sondheim lyric inspired Richard Rodgers’ appropriately shiny melody, but Rodgers’ wife, Dorothy, thought the portrait of an unhappy marriage hit too close to home, so she made Rodgers make Sondheim change it to something distinctly more innocuous, which is what was recorded for the OBCR (it doesn’t use “love” either). Happily, the unexpurgated original is now back in the show, and it worked very well when Claybourne Elder and Sarah Hunt put it over in the recent concert production at Encores! In it, young Eddie and Jennifer Yaeger caustically consider the marriages they see around them while plotting how to keep their unhappy union from folding. In a way it is a love song, as they want to stay together, but obviously the actual word would be out of place in their banter, except perhaps used ironically in quotes. There is a reference to each taking a temporary lover, but that is most decidedly not about love. In his collection of lyrics titled Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says that he deliberately wrote this to echo the style of Rodgers’ first collaborator, Lorenz Hart. Judy Kuhn and Malcolm Gets do a fine job with it on her 2015 CD Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel.

“When We Get Our Divorce,” from Sunny
Forty years separate this 1925 Jerome Kern–Otto Harbach–Oscar Hammerstein II song from the Rodgers-Sondheim one above, but, as my BwayTunes editor Andy Propst pointed out to me, they do seem to have some similarities. And even if Sondheim was consciously echoing Hart, Hammerstein was his mentor, so perhaps this comic ditty was rattling around in his subconscious back in 1965, when he wrote the lyrics for Do I Hear a Waltz? Sunny is a circus performer fleeing a forced marriage in England who stows away on a ship bound for New York City. She sings this with a young man she meets on board, who offers to marry her to get her into the U.S., after which they will get a divorce. Of course, they end up falling in love for real. I’m quite fond of the “best if I” and “testify” rhyme. The compilation recording linked above includes two renditions: The first is from a 1926 radio broadcast that purports to offer the show’s original star, Marilyn Miller, though she is not explicitly credited in the liner notes for the track, while the second is of the original London cast, which starred Binnie Hale.

“Let’s See What Happens,” from Darling of the Day
This enchanting waltz by Jule Styne and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was Styne’s favorite song out of all he had written. Middle-aged cockney widow Alice Challice, at home in her cozy parlor, is attempting to gently seduce a butler named Henry Leek, with whom she has been corresponding via a matrimonial agency, on the occasion of their first face-to-face meeting. What she doesn’t know is that Leek is dead, and his employer, the internationally renowned painter Priam Farll, has taken his identity in an attempt to escape his fame. Farll is smitten, and by the end of the song asks her, though still as Leek, to marry him. The word “love,” of course, would be far too threatening, which is why Alice never employs it, though it is certainly what she is hoping for when she sings “and if a great adventure happens to happen.” That’s a neat use of phrase by Harburg, because The Great Adventure is the title of the Arnold Bennett play upon which the musical is partly based, with the play an adaption of Bennett’s novel Buried Alive, the other source for this musical. Patricia Routledge, who won a Tony for best actress in a musical despite the show only running 31 performances, is perfection itself on the show’s 1968 OBCR.

“I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” from My Fair Lady
Both of these Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe songs are highly indirect expressions of surprised affection. Lerner and Loewe found in adapting George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that the key to the stormy relationship between language professor Henry Higgins and his student, the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, was to never overtly suggest the subject of a romantic love between them. Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch’s excellent The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner—currently available in hardcover directly from Oxford University Press and by digital download at Amazon.com, with hardcover sales elsewhere beginning March 1—documents the songwriters’ discovery with lyrics for cut songs that do bring up romantic feelings between the two central characters. By the time the show first hit the stage in New Haven prior to Broadway, however, all such suggestions were gone. I first saw My Fair Lady when the 1964 film version premiered, and I have never understood why so many people insist that her return at the end, taken from the 1938 film adaptation, means that Higgins and Eliza will marry. It has always seemed ambiguous to me, and it will be very interesting to see how the ending plays in Bartlett Sher’s upcoming revival for Lincoln Center Theater. I already have my tickets for April 7, which happens to be my birthday. Will I still think at 64 what I thought at 10? We’ll see.

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