Reviewing Rodgers – 3: Babes in Arms

If you’ve ever wondered who is to blame for “let’s put the show on right here in the barn”, then you should probably direct your frustration in the direction of Rodgers and Hart.  In Babes in Arms, which hit Broadway in 1937, they devised a story where a group of teens put on a show under their own steam as those pesky adults had spoiled their other plans.  It may not have been the first time this trope was used, but it was probably responsible for popularising it.  The subsequent film even starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, if further proof were needed.  We can’t even blame the scriptwriter (or librettist, as they tend to be known in musical theatre circles), as Rodgers and Hart wrote the spoken words as well as the music and lyrics, the first show which they wrote entirely on their own.

In its historical context, their plot must have been a refreshing change from the parade of typical musical comedy affairs, where boy meets girl, suffers a series of frustrations for two hours and finally get the girl just in time for the rousing finale.  There is romance, of course, but the principal dramatic thrust of the show is the generational conflict between the ‘babes’ and their elders, alongside the difficulties and dramas inherent in staging a show.  However, like most shows of the era, the script is said not to work at all to modern eyes and ears.  It also contained one song, ‘All Dark People’, that is now considered to be politically incorrect, but sometimes gets sung without the offending lyrics as ‘Light on Their Feet’.

Although Rodgers and Hart created an enjoyable story, if contemporary reports are to be believed, it is the score which ensures that this show remains among the better-known of their efforts.  It produced more well-known songs than any other musical of the 1930s, besting even the original songlist of Anything Goes on that front.  Babes in Arms introduced the oft-recorded ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, along with the comic gem ‘Johnny One Note’, and two other numbers which have had a long life: ‘Where or When’ and ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’.  The rest of the score is well worth listening to as well.

The first song, ‘Where or When’ has a romantic melody from Rodgers, and a typically unusual lyrical idea from Hart.  It’s a love song, between two people who have only just met, who declare that “it seems that we have met before, and laughed before, and loved before”.  It’s destiny, or fate, or whatever.  Yes, they’ve fallen in love at first sight, but in some ways this is not exactly true.  It may not be quite as well known as ‘My Funny Valentine’, but has been recorded at least 75 times, and is a charming love song.  Other than the title song, it was the only Rodgers and Hart number to survive into the film version.

Another duet, ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ has an incredibly perky melody as the singers list aspects of their love affair that make them wish they were in love again: broken dates, endless waits, pain, strain, double-crossing, sleepless nights…  Yet they still miss it.  It is possible to make the song wistful, longing or tragic, but it started life as a typically cynical entry in the canon of Rodgers and Hart love songs.

Pure comedy comes in the form of ‘Way Out West’ and ‘Johnny One Note’.  The first is cousin to ‘Manhattan‘, being a list song about missing the life on West End Avenue in New York to a loping, Western-style tune.  Aspects of city life are compared to the wagons, cattle, ranches and so on of the open range.  ‘Johnny One Note’ takes a different tack and tells the ridiculous story of an opera singer was cursed so that he could only sing one note, and could sing it so loudly that all other noise is drowned out.  It contains one of my favourite sequences of Hart lyrics:

Poor Johnny One Note

Got in Aida,

Indeed a great chance to be brave.

He took his one note,

Howled like the North Wind –

Brought forth wind that made critics rave,

While Verdi turned round in his grave.

The unexpected rhymes in the middle of the lines make this a particular pleasure and the song gives opportunities for singers to show off just how loud and long they can belt a note.

Back to romance, and ‘My Funny Valentine’ is another song that approaches love from an unusual angle.  Originally sung to a character named Valentine, a “noble, upright, truthful, sincere, and slightly dopey gent” it lists all the reasons why he shouldn’t be adored – he isn’t smart, his looks are laughable and so forth – but she wouldn’t have him change a thing about himself.  It’s a rather touching way of saying “I love everything about you”, loving him for his supposed faults, not despite them.  Rodgers’ melody supports this by climbing ever upwards as the singers rhapsody for their “sweet comic Valentine” grows more intense.

Songs heard less frequently include the ‘look on the bright side’ song ‘Imagine’ which has a little sting in its tail, a charm song ‘All At Once’ about growing up, and ‘You Are So Fair’, a song of frustration at a fickle lover which turns into a point-scoring duet that sounds a little like the opposite of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’.  All are good quality songs that repay repeated listening, which is not something that can be said for many Broadway songs of the era.

Surpassing all the others in terms of popularity though, is probably ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, which was picked up by many artists at the time and for decades afterwards.    Unsurprisingly, it is a song where the point is the opposite of the title.  It spoofs the high society of the time, and by saying that she refuses to bow to many of the societal demands, the singer is proving that she is anything but a tramp.  She goes to the opera, which was fashionable, but unlike those who have gone there just to be seen, she “stays wide awake”, she likes the simple things in life and refuses to join in the rituals that make you somebody.  She’d the sort of person the world needs more of.   The song, even without orchestration, has a bold, brassy sound that is just right for her air of defiance and is instantly recognisable.

An exchange of dialogue towards the end proves my opening point.  “Do you children have a theatre?” asks French aviator Rene Flambeau. “No,” comes the response, “but we have something better – we have a barn!”  Mr Rodgers, Mr Hart, you have a long history of cliche to answer for.  But with a score like that, you can definitely be forgiven.  Other Rodgers and Hart shows, most notably On Your Toes and Pal Joey, may have made greater contributions to the development of the musical, but this score remains their most listenable over seventy years later.

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