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Isn’t It a Pity You’re a Seal?


Unusual love songs shouldn’t really be all that unusual. After all, any good lyricist will look to avoid clichés and try to find a way to write about this basic human need that is somehow fresh. A theatrical lyricist generally mines situation and character in order to arrive at an approach that doesn’t seem threadbare and sentimental. Here are 15 examples of what I would call unusual love songs.

“Me and My Town,” from Anyone Can Whistle
Venal Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper is a narcissist par excellence in this absurdist Stephen Sondheim–Arthur Laurents musical, and in her introductory song we learn just how much love she needs from her constituents—and it’s a hell of a lot. Indeed, she even has four omnipresent backup boys to support her song and dance (both literal and figurative) who serve as a physical manifestation of the adoration she requires. I wonder if a set of backup boys might not bolster our current president just a tad. Or is that what Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway do?

“I Believe in You,” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Cora needs the love of legions, but J. Pierpont Finch, a very ambitious window washer who longs to succeed in the cutthroat arena of corporate big business, only requires an audience of one: himself. In this cheeky Frank Loesser ballad, what would be conventional when sung to a lover becomes hilariously unusual when sung by Finch to his own face in a men’s room mirror while shaving. Robert Morse’s delight with himself lit up the stage like a supernova, and the corporate men plotting against him while also shaving (Loesser employed kazoos to marvelous effect) added slyly to the joke. The scene is not as successful in the film adaptation, though, because Michele Lee, as the secretary Rosemary, Finch’s love interest, was allowed to introduce the song earlier in the picture as a conventional ballad sung to him. It means that Finch is echoing Rosemary’s sentiments rather than expressing his own, which changes everything.

“My Friends,” from Sweeney Todd
In this hypnotic Stephen Sondheim song, the demon barber of Fleet Street is reunited with his cherished razors by the amoral pie maker Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who has saved them for him in case he ever returned from prison. Sweeney expresses not only his love for the instruments but also his love of revenge, as he plans to cut the throat of Judge Turpin with them, the man who railroaded him to prison and took over the lives of his wife and daughter. Mrs. Lovett has a counterpoint in which we learn of her twisted passion for the barber. It’s certainly not your average love song.

“Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine,” cut from Fiddler on the Roof
Here is another ode to a physical object, but in this case a much more benign one. Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, marries Motel, the poor tailor she loves, at the end of Act 1. Songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wanted to revisit Tzeitel and Motel in Act 2, who now have a young baby and are celebrating the arrival of a machine that will allow Motel to increase his business significantly, making their family situation more stable. The song is a charmer and always went over well in backers’ auditions, but in the theatre audiences weren’t stirred. The reason is that Motel and Tzeitel’s story resolves with their marriage. Theatregoers simply weren’t interested in following them further. You can hear Bock and Harnick themselves sing it on Harbinger Records’ Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013).

“I Won’t Send Roses,” from Mack and Mabel
Silent film director Mack Sennett warns his much younger star, Mabel Normand, not to fall in love with him in this classic Jerry Herman ballad. The lovely tune is as romantic as anything Herman ever wrote, but the lyric works against it. (“I won’t send roses/Or hold the door./I won’t remember/which dress you wore.”) Nevertheless, the subtext suggests that Mack is open to love with Mabel, especially in the turnaround at the end. (“And so while there’s a fighting chance/Just turn and go./I won’t send roses/And roses suit you so.) Mabel then has an immediately following solo reprise in which she discounts Mack’s advice, ending with “And though I know I may be left/Out on a limb,/So who needs roses/That didn’t come from him?” The show bombed due to storytelling problems, but when you listen to Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, they are in a hit.

“In This Wide, Wide World,” from Gigi
Here is another self-deprecating love song. When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe adapted their 1958 hit film into a Broadway stage musical in 1973, they musicalized a moment for Gigi that on screen had been done in dialogue. Gigi has turned down the chance to become Gaston’s mistress, but she is unhappy without him. On screen she summons him to her apartment, comes out of her room to greet him, and simply says, “Gaston, I have been thinking. I would rather be miserable with you than without you,” after which she smiles and returns to her room. On stage she accepts a telephone call from him that she has prompted (the telephone is newly installed and represents Gigi’s adulthood) and sings to him of how ill-suited she is to be his mistress (“In this wide, wide world/Must be oh so many girls better for you than I”) but ends with the same declaration. The music is from a song written for Eliza Doolittle to sing in My Fair Lady, “There’s a Thing Called Love,” which was never used.

“Is Anybody There?,” from 1776
John Adams articulates his vision of America in this climactic Sherman Edwards song, and the whole thing is shot through with his love of a country he is still striving to create. Edwards took much of the lyric directly from Adams’ own prose writing, and William Daniels’ impassioned delivery of it never fails to move me, whether listening to the OBCR or watching the excellent film version. “I see Americans/All Americans/Free forevermore!,” cries Adams at the song’s climax. If only that had happened. I love how the song ends quietly, dropping back into dialogue and eschewing applause.

“To Make Us Proud,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
In the line quoted above, Adams, of course, is referring to America’s original sin: slavery. Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein wrote a whole musical for America’s Bicentennial in 1976 that called out that original sin and challenged audiences to rise above racial prejudice. Originally the musical was a play within a play, in which actors are rehearsing a musical about America. The lead was the white actor playing all the presidents depicted in the musical, and he has a running argument with the black actor playing a free servant in the White House about the history of race in America. In this climactic song, the white actor says, “Oh, God! How I long to be proud! To be proud!.... That’s all I have been trying to find the whole time. Nothing more than that.... I want to be proud! And to be able to feel it! And believe it! And live it! And say it!.....” Then he begins singing, “To burn with pride/And not with shame/Each time I hear/My country’s name” and ultimately ending with “Let rage be fearless/And faith be loud/This land needs love/To make us proud.” It’s a song about wanting to be able to love America without reservation, and it is alas far too applicable today. You can hear it, though not in its original dramatic context, on the politically deracinated A White House Cantata.

“Windflowers,” from The Golden Apple
In turn-of-the-20th-century Washington State, a chastened Helen has returned home to the small town of Angel’s Roost from the neighboring big city of Troy with her much older husband, Menelaus, after causing a scandal by running off with the handsome young salesman Paris. However, Penelope’s wandering warrior husband, Odysseus, and his men have remained in the big city to celebrate their retrieval of Helen. In this John Latouche–Jerome Moross song, Penelope recalls the early days of their love but comes to the realization that her husband will always stray from her in his quest for adventure, “And I know there’ll be no growing old for me and for him/No, never, never, not for me and him!,” she sings with a mixture of anger, resignation, and, yes, love. It’s a complicated emotional place for a love song, and I love it for that.

“And What If We Had Loved Like That,” from Baby
Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire peppered their score for this musical about three couples having a baby with terrific straightforward love songs, from the buoyant “Two People in Love” to the tender “With You” and the earnest “I Chose Right.” This one, however, is, like “Windflowers,” a questioning song, sung by middle-aged couple Arlene and Alan, who have had their marriage threatened when, just after their last child has left the nest, Arlene accidentally gets pregnant. Alan wants the baby; Arlene doesn’t. In this song they question the careful, safe choices they have made with their lives, both regretting putting parenthood ahead of passion. However, in so doing, they decide that they could do it differently this time, and end up recommitting to each other. Certainly not your usual love song.

“When I Look in Your Eyes,” from the film Doctor Dolittle
This attractive Leslie Bricusse tune is probably about as conventional as a love song can get (“In your eyes I see the deepness of the sea/I see the deepness of the love/The love I feel you feel for me”). The published sheet music has the last couplet as “Those eyes, so wise, so warm, so real/How I love the world your eyes reveal.” On screen, however, Rex Harrison, as the titular veterinarian who can talk to the animals, gently intones instead: “Those eyes, so wise, so warm, so real/Isn’t it a pity you’re a seal?” Then he tosses his Sophie, whom he has healed with his medicine, back into the sea and freedom. ’Nuff said. Alas, the film soundtrack isn’t available digitally, but you can hear Phillip Schofield sing both last lines on the OCR of the London stage adaptation.

“I Don’t Want to Know,” from Dear World
The Countess Aurelia of Paris, France, sings of her passionate desire to avoid looking at the reality of what a foul place the world has become in Jerry Herman’s fevered ode to avoidance. The countess is in love with her illusions, her chosen memories, and she does not want them spoiled by truth. But because she is played by Angela Lansbury, you just know she will rise to the occasion and pull her head out of the sand in order to right things just in the nick of time. We all have and need our escapes, but I’m hard-pressed to think of other songs so nakedly, fervently in love with fooling oneself.

“Razzle Dazzle,” from Chicago
Crooked lawyer Billy Flynn displays his love of the con in this John Kander–Fred Ebb ode to the power of show business to obscure truth. Unlike Aurelia, however, he is not passionate in his need for lies. What he revels in is the sense of power he gets from lying, as well as the spotlight that shines on him when he does it and the money he makes from it. He is, I suppose, somewhat akin to the narcissists who began this column, but the depth of his cynicism surpasses that of either Cora Hoover Hooper or J. Pierpont Finch. And brutally cynical love songs aren’t exactly a dime a dozen.

“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” from My Fair Lady
A master class in musical theatre acting is going on eight times a week at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre when Harry Hadden-Paton steps up to the plate and takes on this iconic Lerner and Loewe song. It’s hard to know whether this is an actual love song or not, because it’s hard to know if Henry Higgins understands what love is. (Given the very fine if quite different performances of Diana Rigg and Rosemary Harris as Higgins’ mother, the production seems to suggest he may never have known love at all.) But Eliza Doolittle has definitely gotten under his skin, so I would ultimately say that this is one of the most indirect love songs ever written. Hadden-Paton shows us a man who comes to realize that he will lose Eliza if he doesn’t change but is helpless to stop himself. It’s extremely moving, and Laura Benanti’s Eliza is feistier and more self-possessed than Lauren Ambrose’s slowly emerging Eliza, with each being valid and wonderful. Danny Burstein, stepping in for Norbert Leo Butz, is a neat and nifty Alfie Doolittle. Don’t miss them!

“Answer Me,” from The Band’s Visit
David Yazbeck and Itamar Moses’ musical about an Egyptian military band that ends up in a tiny Israeli backwater town by accident is all about the need for love and connection, even if those subjects are rarely if ever explicitly discussed by its characters. This climactic ensemble number expressing the human need to be heard and seen is devastating in its simplicity. It is, in a way, a love song to humanity itself, and I can’t think of a better way to finish a column about unusual love songs than with “Answer Me.”

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