Classic Songs – My Funny Valentine

My Funny Valentine is getting some unfavourable comment these days, there’s almost an Internet meme about the lyrics, which are less than complementary to the ‘other’… “is your figure less than Greek” and “is your mouth a little weak” seeming odd in a romantic song. Understandably some criticism takes a feminist turn, when sung by a male singer, so a question to ask is whether ‘the other’ is actually female. Is Valentine a female name? Not really, there’s a long tradition of it being used by both sexes in those valentine’s cards. So perhaps a look in more depth will turn up some clues.

Photo of Richard Rogers & Lorenze Hart, 1938
Richard Rogers & Lorenze Hart, 1938
The song was written by Richard Rogers (music) and Lorenze Hart (lyrics) for the 1937 musical ‘Babes in Arms’. Richard Rogers is perhaps the foremost composer for musical theater during its heyday, acheiving great success with another lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein III, with whom he wrote ‘The Sound of Music’, but the first partnership he had was with Lorenz Hart – it lasted for 20 years, until Hart’s early death. Their list of hit songs is stupendous, with so many still remembered and played, it includes ‘Blue Moon’, ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ and ‘Isn’t it Romantic’.

By all accounts Lorenz Hart led a troubled life, succumbing to alcoholism, and dying at 48 years old. He was also thought to be gay, which I’ve seen referenced as being significant to understanding the creative thinking behind the lyric of this song. As was almost compulsory at that time, he was ‘in the closet’, and it has been speculated that this contributed to his troubles.

‘Babes in Arms’ was an unusually political musical for the Broadway theater of the time. Liner notes for an original cast recording from 1989, located on the Internet at //www.newworldrecords.org/linernotes/80386.pdf is a mine of information about the musical and serves as a source which helps us nail some facts, containing a synopsis and information about the the singer and the song and the identity of the Valentine. Note that there was a later 1950’s depoliticised (if that’s a word!) version of the musical produced – the liner notes refer to the original 1937 version.

In brief, the musical is an early version of the ‘kids putting on a show for charity’ meme, which has been used many times since. Two people get the ball rolling – Valentine and Billie. The politicism begins when a ‘southern bigot’ called Lee, who is amongst those putting the show together, offers to finance the production but only if two black children are not included in it. This causes a rift between Valentine and Billie and that leads to the song ‘My Funny Valentine’, sung by Billie. So far so good. The thing is that Valentine is male, and Billie female, so the song is definitely intended as a song sung by a female to her male lover. The lyrics are unflattering, but the song follows in the wake of a fierce row, and somehow fits the post row sentiments that Billie might have, a mix of criticism and fondness that the lyric conveys superbly, illustrating Hart’s brilliance. Somehow makes me happier to sing it, and maybe you happier to hear it… Thanks!

My Funny Valentine

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My simple guitar/vocal version.

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