Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rodgers/Hart: My Funny Valentine

Yes, the song "My Funny Valentine" composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart is indeed a great pop standard which is well known by all music lovers.  But I just got reacquainted with this song via watching a portion of the show "American Idol" when Harry Connick Jr. coached a young female singer into an awareness of the story behind this classic.  Originally, this girl hadn't a clue what this song was about and Harry Connick Jr. politely, yet firmly, gave her a bit of insight into the insecurities of Lorenz Hart's life.  He pointed out to her that one should know the story behind a song before one sings it.  For me, it was a wonderful addition of depth to an otherwise commercially abject TV show.  This segment also made me want to explore this song and its origins a little more.

"My Funny Valentine"  was originally one of many great songs from the Rodgers and Hart 1937 musical "Babes in Arms".  It tells the story of a young man and woman, Valentine and Billie, who want to put on a new and hopefully successful vaudeville show.  In "My Funny Valentine", Billie pokes fun at some of Valentine's physical imperfections, but she ultimately affirms that he makes her happy and that she doesn't want him to change.   Let alone the song's effectiveness in the musical it comes out of, "My Funny Valentine" seems to speak to those of us who are insecure about our own physical appearance.  Just for a perspective, here are the words for those of you that don't know it:

My Funny Valentine.
Sweet comic Valentine.
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable.
Yet you're my favorite work of art.
Is your Figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little week?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don't change your hair for me.
Not if you care for me.
Stay little Valentine stay.
Each day is Valentines day.

These beautiful words represent the solace that we all need to hear when we deal with our own crippling fallibilities.  The lyricist, Lorenz Hart perhaps dealt with this issue more than anybody.

Despite his great success in the theatre world, Lorenz Hart was a humble and insecure man who dealt with his problems through his writing and his alcoholism.  In addition to being a repressed homosexual in early 20th century America, Hart was a short and average looking man who was tortured by what he felt he lacked in an assuming world of glamour and physical perfection.  I can only speculate  that his lyrics from "My Funny Valentine"  represent the words that no one ever told him in real life.   He seems to have created a fictional person who adores him despite his receding hairline and his 5 foot physical stature.   Like most artists, Hart spoke through his work because he felt that he couldn't do it as affectively when talking to someone.  So this song is likely the most autobiographical piece of everything he wrote.   And perhaps one of the biggest reasons for its continuing success, in addition to Richard Rodgers seemingly perfect musical setting, is that we are all, Lorenz Hart.   

We all feel a similar pain and insecurity as he did. We all desperately want to bare our soul to people that we are fond of, whether it be on a date or otherwise.  But we're afraid to do this because it could come off as annoying and pathetic, especially since we don't "look" good enough.  So we stay silent.  But Lorenz Hart, in all his genius, bares his soul through these words he created. And we, the repressed and tortured, can feed off and benefit from it.  Through the means of song, we are no longer annoying and pathetic. We are touching and meaningful.  "My Funny Valentine" says the unsaid, and sings to our most vulnerable selves.   Perhaps, the muse that sings this song to us is, in its origin, fictional, but it still helps us to move on and face our uncertain future.  We are given a great hope through this song that we're not alone and that there's ultimately someone out there that will love and adore all of us regardless of all our flaws.   Solace, incarnate!  

There are, of course, many great renditions of this work, but I'm partial to the version below by Ella Fitzgerald.  Another great artist who dealt with her own distinctive hardship growing up. Thank you Rodgers and Hart for giving so much of yourselves in order to create this masterpiece among many others.  And thank you Harry Connick Jr. for reacquainting me with it.


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