My funny valentine

Every Valentine’s Day an imagined scenario comes to mind, involving what is widely considered the greatest love song of all time.

I picture Richard Rodgers at the piano, noodling with a minor scale. A-B-C B-C-B. It’s a plain little motif, but bears repeating. And then he gets the A-B-C to launch up to a more surprising place, G, followed by a downward resolution, F-E-D. At this point, Rodgers is eight bars in, a quarter of a song, as such things were defined back then. I imagine he found the tune a little sad, perhaps too Jewish. So he replays it in the relative major, a third up. It’s a nice noodle that way, too, and for the final A section, Rodgers decides to have it both ways: Two bars in minor, two bars up the third in minor, and then a climax consisting of the first two bars an octave higher, but landing on the C. This lets him end the song in major, using the second pair of bars again.

Rodgers played with scales a lot. We all know Doh, a Deer, but I also think of Dancing on the Ceiling, which goes straight up six notes of the major scale, or Blue Room, which climbs up every third note. He does something similar to Blue Room in the bridge of this minor-to-major ballad. The landing note of each phrase ascends the dominant scale. Next, he stitches together the quilt with chords that lead from one place to another. He’s got something: a quiet half-sad melody. It’s time to wake up his collaborator.

I do mean that literally. At this point in the Rodgers and Hart partnership, Lorenz Hart spent much of his time drinking. It’s here where biographers pretend to be psychoanalysts, offering a diagnosis without having met the subject. But it must be noted that Hart stood about five feet tall, and had a large balding head. It’s said he thought of himself as ugly. And cultural historians point out how difficult it was to be a homosexual in the 1930s. Sex life might involve going into certain seedy bars, nursing a whisky and looking around for a like-minded man. Glances are exchanged and the couple gravitates towards the men’s room. Hart’s attractiveness, self-regard, and love of alcohol combined, many nights, to leave him passed out on the bathroom floor.

So, Richard Rodgers, traditional heterosexual husband and father, would start the workday searching for his partner. (The “workday” was sacrosanct: business-like, he kept regular hours while writing shows.) He’d visit the seediest bars in New York, look under the stall doors in the bathrooms, and eventually would find Hart sleeping off his drunk. He grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into a room where there was a piano, a coffee urn, and a door that locked with a key. Rodgers wouldn’t let Hart out of the room until he’d come up with that day’s lyric. He’d pour umpteen cups of coffee, while Larry begged for a hair of the dog that bit him. Dick replayed his tune, put a pad and pencil in front of him. That was how they worked, how they wrote the most successful musicals of the late 1930s.

Picture Hart slowly regaining his faculties. Pumped up with coffee, the previous night’s bacchanal behind him, he listens to the plaintive air. And he thinks of a fellow he’s fond of, who, like himself, lacks classic good looks. Now, I have it on good authority (my mother), that the man Hart was thinking of headed the drama department at the University of Michigan when she was there, about 65 years ago. Since I’m the one telling this story, I can rely on her as a source. Hart muses on loving someone who’s full of physical imperfections: figure – less than Greek; mouth – a little weak; looks – laughable and unphotographable. Then, what are the compensations; that is, what are the lovable qualities? Funny, sweet, comic, makes me smile. These thoughts coalesce into a love letter:

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 weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?

But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day

The song done, Rodgers turned the key in the door, releasing Hart for another night of the same.

The title perfectly expresses affection for someone who’s nobody’s ideal. A valentine, in other people’s songs, is like an Adonis. Funny, in a sense, refers to how unusual it is to depict a “work of art” who’s short of perfection. It’s more realistic, truer to most people’s experience of romance. And so many years before plastic surgery became big business, there’s a reference to changing, the idea that the somewhat-less-than-beautiful might want to reshape themselves somehow.

The final step for Rodgers and Hart was to fashion the musical comedy in which this love letter song might fit. It seemed illogical to have a man sing it to a woman, because female vanity was believed to be such that expressing “Your looks are laughable” would be greeted with a slap. Hart thought the male professor would be flattered, and so it was decided that Babes In Arms would have a young man by the name of Valentine – he’s called Val for short – so that a young woman could sing it to him.

If “each day is Valentine’s Day” then it makes more sense to sing it any day of the year that’s not February 14. (See also, Frank Loesser’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? which was meant to be sung in spring, love-at-first-sight style.) But, naturally, when the holiday of hearts is upon us, we more often think of this masterpiece of Rodgers and Hart’s.


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