Falling in like with the once-vilified ‘Funny Valentine’

BY JIM MELLOAN | Eighty years ago this April the Rodgers and Hart musical “Babes in Arms” opened on Broadway. The show contained a number of songs still well-known today, including “Where or When,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and that quintessential Valentine’s Day song, “My Funny Valentine,” which has since been performed by more than 600 artists. My sister Molly says there’s a joke: “How many New York cabaret singers does it take to sing ‘My Funny Valentine’?”

“Apparently all of them.”

Image via iStock/RyanJLane
Image via iStock/RyanJLane

What a funny old song it is. Far from gushing with ardor, it seems more an ode to the necessity of compromise in matters of the heart. The male object of the female singer’s affections is “funny” and “comic,” whose “looks are laughable, unphotographable.” Yet she begs him to stay.

Personally, I’ve always hated it. The words seem condescending to me, and paired with music that’s cloying in its sentimentality. It’s like an artfully constructed, saccharine confection dedicated to expressing the sentiment “You’ll do.”

I did a little crowdsourcing via Facebook to see how my friends feel about the song. Many love it, but a few had misgivings similar to my own. One friend loved the music but found the words “strange.” Another thought it “creepy.” Another said it was “unusual in that it’s honest, which gives unexpected force to the sentiment.”

“Babes in Arms” was the original kids-putting-on-a-show musical. In this case it was kids from Long Island who a sheriff threatens to send to a work farm because their parents are all off on tour trying to stage a vaudeville revival. He gives them a two-week reprieve to put on the show. The musical was heavily revised for the 1939 Busby Berkeley film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, losing most of the original songs, including “My Funny Valentine,” two black teenagers, and a Communist.

The song is actually sung to a character named Valentine. My old improv comrade Marty Barrett, who did the show in high school, said learning that fact was “like finding out that ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ first appeared as a jingle for a used-car dealer named Leon ‘Merry’ Christmas.” But it appears that the song came before the musical’s book, and Rodgers and Hart decided to name the character Valentine to hang the show around the song.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart met each other in 1919 while both were attending Columbia University. By the late ’20s they had become one of the most popular and prolific songwriting duos on Broadway. They wrote more than 500 songs together. While Rodgers, the composer, was a hardworking man of predictable habits, lyricist Hart was often depressed, and an alcoholic. Four-foot-ten, by most accounts he was an extremely closeted homosexual. In an interview to publicize “Babes in Arms,” he said “Love life? I have none… Who would want me?” Hart eventually became too erratic for Rodgers, who enlisted Oscar Hammerstein as a collaborator for “Oklahoma!” After a booze-soaked sojourn in Mexico, Hart returned to write lyrics for one new song for a revival of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” He wasn’t there for opening night, having commenced his last bender, and died a few days later, of pneumonia, in 1943. Rodgers continued long thereafter in a successful partnership with Hammerstein.

While the song was a minor hit for a few artists in the ’40s, it became an iconic classic in the ’50s. The Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which trumpeter Chet Baker joined in 1952, started doing the song in that year as an instrumental, and Baker was fascinated by it. He sang it on his first vocal album “Chet Baker Sings” in 1954. Baker, like Hart, was a troubled soul, addicted to heroin for years. He alone is said to have done more than 100 recorded performances of the song. Sinatra also did his version in 1954, and Ella Fitzgerald did hers on a double album called “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book” in 1956. Elvis Costello put out his version on the B-side of the “Oliver’s Army” single in 1979, letting it be known that he wasn’t just another punk.

By far the most popular version on YouTube, with more than 41 million views, is by a woman named Alice Fredenham, who performed it on the first week of auditions for the 2013 season of “Britain’s Got Talent.” The segment pulls out all the tropes that makes this show so successful: the shy, unknown singer who belts out the song in a master performance and wows the judges. In this rendition, all hint of the condescension in the lyrics is gone; instead the emphasis is all on the passionate plea that her Valentine will “stay.” Fredenham was eliminated on a subsequent semi-final, had a brief appearance on “The Voice UK,” put out a video of “My Funny Valentine,” and is still apparently a struggling less-than-successful singer.

For my money the most impressive performance is by Chaka Khan, whose lushly orchestrated, vocally acrobatic yet soulful version is on the soundtrack for the 1995 film “Waiting to Exhale.”

So have I gained a new appreciation for the song? Yeah. When I was a kid, my taste in comic books was strongly pro-DC, anti-Marvel. I liked the forthright goodness of Superman and Batman, and the conflicted personal lives and moral ambiguities in Spider-Man and the Hulk literally made me queasy. I’m older now. I get it.