Sunday, July 01, 2018

making sense of a classic

 "She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theater but never comes late
She never bothers with people she hates
That's why the lady is a tramp!"

Wait! Stop the music. I have a confession to make: I don't "get" the song "The Lady Is a Tramp." Never did. There, I said it. And, yes, I know, I know. The Lorenz Hart/Richard Rodgers 1937 collaboration is a classic.

The song is a much-revered standard that has been interpreted by some of our most intuitive vocal stylists, both men and women - from Sammy Davis Jr. to Peggy Lee. It was a staple of Buddy Greco's nightclub act. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga performed a recent duet of it. Lena Horne sang it in "Words and Music" (MGM's 1948 biopic about Rodgers and Hart) and Frank Sinatra sang it perhaps most famously in 1957's "Pal Joey."

Sinatra directs his rendition of it at Rita Hayworth, seemingly calling her a slut. That would be bad form even in the pre-Political Correctness of 1957.

For her equally popular version of it, Ella Fitzgerald sang it in the first person:

"I like the free, fresh wind in my hair
Life without care
I'm broke, it's oke
Hate California. It's cold and it's damp
That's why the lady is a tramp!"

Turns out, that's the way Lorenz Hart wrote the lyrics - for them to be sung by a woman ... about herself. Which may make the song less sexist but not any more coherent. I mean, "California cold and damp"? Since when? And the fact that the lady doesn't bother with people she hates or that she never arrives late at the theater hardly qualifies her as a tramp.

She seems pretty balanced to me.

But wait! Both the Sinatra and Fitzgerald takes on the songs (as well as all the other recordings of it) are truncated versions of what Rodgers and Hart wrote. The song is from the 1937 Broadway musical, "Babes in Arms," which was staged just as the Great Depression was winding down, and several passages in the song, missing since '37, refer to that event.

"Babes in Arms," as originally staged, is about a group of teenagers, the children of vaudeville stars, left to their own devices when their parents go on the road. They've been abandoned and, rather than be sent to a work farm for orphaned kids, they elect to support themselves by staging shows and are joined by a new kid, Billie Smith, when her car breaks down.

Billie - who was played by 17-year-old Mitzi Green, a former child actor - is a teen drifter, a directionless kid with seemingly no family, who likes living on her own terms, coming and going as she pleases. She is a transient, a nomad, a bohemian, a young hobo.

A tramp, if you will.

It is this little teenage guttersnipe, Billie, who first sang "The Lady Is a Tramp" and she sang it as a defiant anthem because she had no interest in social rules or playing by any rules or being a hoity-toity society dame. And Green apparently sung it with a healthy dose of sarcasm, a Depression-era kid poking fun at fake adult decorum and sophistication.

Originally, "The Lady Is a Tramp" opened with this verse by Hart: 

"I've wined and dined on Mulligan stew
 And never wished for turkey.
As I hitched and hiked and grifted, too
 From Maine to Albuquerque.
Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball
 And what is twice as sad,
I was never at a party
Where they honored Noel Ca'ad.
But social circles spin too fast for me.
My Hobohemia is the place to be... "

Then, the familiar strain of the song begins:

"I get too hungry for dinner at eight
I like the theater but never come late
I never bother with people I hate 
That's why the lady is a tramp!"
 
And, so, on its road to become incredibly popular, iconic even, "The Lady Is a Tramp" was robbed of its original meaning and intent. It was reduced, bastardized. And the way it's been sung for decades, it simply doesn't add up. Only an unformed teenage cynic would call California cold and damp.

When MGM filmed "Babes in Arms" two years later, in 1939, "The Lady Is a Tramp" was deleted from the score, although if you listen closely, you can hear an instrumental version of it. No surprise here. Typical of an MGM adaptation of a Broadway musical, several of the original Rodgers and Hart compositions were deleted and replaced with songs by other composers. (See Metro's "On the Town." Or, rather, don't see it.)

Also eliminated was the character of Billie Smith.

Hence the unnecessity of "The Lady Is a Tramp."

After too many decades of listening to a song that truly annoyed me, it's terrific to discover that Rodgers and Hart had something else in mind when they wrote it.

"Babes in Arms" opened in New York at the Shubert Theater on April 14th, 1937 and then transferred to the Majestic Theater on October 25th, 1937. It closed on December 18th, 1937 after playing 289 performances. The production was directed by Robert B. Sinclair and choreographed by George Balanchine.

Note in Passing: Here is the complete "The Lady Is a Tramp" as originally conceived by Lorenz Hart and as sung by Mitzi Green at the Shubert. The song was performed twice by Green in Act II - in scene two and as a reprise two times in scene four.

Verse
"I've wined and dined on Mulligan stew
And never wished for turkey
As I hitched and hiked and grifted, too
From Maine to Albuquerque.
Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball
And what is twice as sad,
I was never at a party
Where they honored Noel Ca'ad. *
But social circles spin too fast for me.
My Hobohemia is the place to be..."

Refrain #1
"I get too hungry for dinner at eight
I like the theater but never come late
I never bother with people I hate
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"I don't like crap games with Barons and Earls
Won't go to Harlem in ermine and pearls
Won't dish the dirt with the rest of the girls
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"I like the free, fresh wind in my hair
Life without care
I'm broke, it's oke
Hate California, it's cold and it's damp
That's why the lady... that's why the lady...
That's why the lady is a tramp!"

Refrain #2
"I go to Coney - the beach is divine.
I go to ball games - the bleachers are fine.
I follow Winchell and read ev'ry line.
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"I like a prizefight that isn't a fake.
I love the rowing on Central Park Lake.
I go to opera and stay wide awake.
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"I like the green grass under my shoes. What can I lose?
I'm flat! That's that!
I'm all alone when I lower my lamp.
That's why the lady is a tramp!"

Encore refrain/reprise #1
"Don't know the reason for cocktails at five.
I don't like flying - I'm glad I'm alive!
I crave affection, but not when I drive.
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"Folks go to London and leave me behind.
I'll miss the crowning, Queen Mary won't mind.
I don't play Scarlett in 'Gone With the Wind' *
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"I like to hang my hat where I please.
Sail with the breeze.
No dough - heigh-ho!
I love La Guardia and think he's a champ.
That' s why the lady is a tramp!"

Encore refrain/reprise #2
"Girls get massages, they cry and they moan.
Tell Lizzie Arden to leave me alone.
I'm not so hot, but my shape is my own.
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"The food at Sardi's is perfect, no doubt.
I wouldn't know what the Ritz is about.
I drop a nickel and coffee comes out.
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"I like the sweet, fresh rain in my face.
Diamonds and lace
No got!
So what?!
That's why the lady... that's why the lady...
That's why the lady is a tramp!"

* Noel Ca'ad is Noel Coward. And the word "wind" in "Gone with the Wind" is pronounced "wine-d" (in keeping with the song's rhyme).

And here is pared-down Sinatra version:

"She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theater but never comes late
She never bothers with people she hates
That's why the lady is a tramp!



"Doesn't like crap games with barons or earls
Won't go to Harlem in ermine and pearls
Won't dish the dirt with the rest of the girls
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"She likes the free, fresh wind in her hair,
Life without care
She's broke and it's oke
Hates California, it's cold and it's damp
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"She gets too hungry to wait for dinner at eight
She loves the theater but never comes late
She'd never bother with people she hates
That's why the lady is a tramp

"She'll have no crap games with sharpies and frauds
And she won't go to Harlem in Lincolns or Fords
And she won't dish the dirt with the rest of the broads
That's why the lady is a tramp!

"She loves the free fresh wind in her hair
Life without care.
She's broke but it's oke
Hates California, it's cold and it's damp
That's why the lady... that's why the lady...
That's why the lady is a tramp!"

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.
* * * * *

~images~
(from top)

~Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald performing "The Lady is a Tramp" on the TV special, "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim "
~Photography: NBC 1967©

~Rita Hayworth with Sinatra in "Pal Joey"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1957©

 ~The teenage Mitzi Green
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1936©

 ~Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga
~photography: Sony Music Entertainment 2011©

~Frank, again
~photography: Reprise Records 1974©

20 comments:

Bunuel said...

So a boozy nightclub staple started out as the nose-thumbing anthem of a teenage maverick. Yes, it was bowdlerized!

Mike Schlesinger said...

Never knew this; thanks for the illumination.

To be fair, she doesn't say WHERE in California. If she meant the Bay Area, where the sea air blows fairly constantly, and she doesn't have a roof over her head, especially at night, then yes, it could very well be cold and damp...especially back in the '30s.

joe baltake said...

Good point, Mike! Yes, the Bay Area air can be cool (if not cold) and damp.

wwolfe said...

I enjoyed seeing where these lyrics started. It's true, they made more sense in their original setting. I will say, though, that I'd always heard the lyrics as meaning that the singer sees the woman in question as being completely unpretentious and unconcerned about the opinions of others, especially the hoity-toity, self-important smart set; the singer admires the woman for this quality and is using the word "tramp" in a sarcastic way, as a means of deflating the aforementioned self-important smart set. I know that's a little bit of a stretch, but it's the only way I could read the lyrics so that I could still enjoy what is otherwise an excellent song. (Since Lorenz Hart was never a cruel lyricist, my reading at least seemed consistent with his character as a writer.)

Kevin Barry said...

Fantastic piece! Finally, I get it. The song always had me scratching my head, too. Now it seems brilliant! Ah, how I miss the days of sophisticated lyrics and clever rhyming. "I drop a nickel and coffee comes out" made me laught out loud. Who remembers the Automat? Your pieces are a treasure, Joe.

joe baltake said...

Thanks much, Kevin! -J

Charlotte said...

Talk about a song being misrepresented. I'm surprised that Rodger and Hart didn't object

joe baltake said...

Charlotte- I don't know about Lorenz Hart, but from what I've read about Richard Rodgers, he had no problem cooperating with those who adapted his shows and recorded his songs. Case in point: Robert Wise's film of "The Sound of Music," which eliminated a few songs that Rodgers wrote with Oscar Hammerstein and for which Rodgers wrote a couple new song, both music and lyrics. And the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization/estate had no problem with "Happy Talk" being dropped from the Glenn Close TV version of "South Pacific" and was very supportive of playwright David Henry Hwang's unnecessary revamping (overhaul, actually) of the revival of "Flower Drum Song." So I've a hunch that the diminishing of "The Lady Is a Tramp" was no problem. And he and Hart probably made a lot of money from the umpteen recordings of it. –J

U.N. said...

Just FYI, Sammy Davis Jr. used to do the song with the (albeit slightly updated) intro. He also used to update the San Francisco verse to "much to smoggy and damp" on the repeat.
iT unes has the track from the 1966 "live" album, "That's All".

Brian Lucas said...

Re U.N.’s comment, I believe that Ella Fitzgerald also used the opening verse of “The Lady Is a Tramp” in some of her renditions of the song

joe baltake said...

Hey, U.N. & Brian- Thanks for clarifying. -J

elaine said...

really interesting clarification, Joe. The lyrics never made sense to me either, nor does much else about the movie "Pal Joey," but the cast is great and watchable.

joe baltake said...

Elaine- "Pal Joey" is definitely a curious movie musical. Very few of the 20 songs from the stage version were retained, most notably "I Can Write a Book" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Also "Zip!" Two songs by the chorus girls are presented in bits and pieces and the dream fantasy, "What Do I Care for a Dame" (akaa, "Pal Joey") is also from the play. But "There's a Samll Hotel," "My Funny Valentine" and "The Lady Is a Trmp" are from other Rodgers and Hart shows (the latter two from "Babes in Arms"). Much like the film version of "Cabaret," the movie of "Pal Joey" isn't a "book musical." All the songs are performed in a club setting, except curiously the "Bewitched" number. Even the dream fantasy is like a club routine. It's a fairly messed-up movie but, still, as you say, highly watchable. -J

Alex said...

I wonder who was the first singer to record the number after the show opened. And I wonder who was the first to sing the revisionist version. Sinatra? I mean, there are 20 years between the opening of "Babes in Arms" on Broadway and "Pal Joey" on screen

Mike Schlesinger said...

This from Wikipedia may help: "Early recordings from 1937 include one by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra (featuring Edythe Wright on vocals), Midge Williams and Her Jazz Jesters, Sophie Tucker, and Bernie Cummins on the Vocalion records label (#3714)."

BTW, I've seen PAL JOEY onstage and it's almost nothing like the film; probably Production Code issues were the reason for the massive rewrite. Be nice for someone to try and remake it correctly.

joe baltake said...

Mike- I agree. I've always felt that "Pal Joey" screams out for a faithful remake. You may disagree with my casting, but back in the day, I saw Travolta as Joey, especially given that in the original, Joey was largely a dancer. Ten or so years ago, I saw Hugh Jackman in the role. Maybe Channing Tatum could pull it off. But I've a hunch that it is never going to happen.

Thanks for the heads up about the '37 recordings. I hope to track down the original cast recording of "Babes in Arms," if one was ever done.

-J

Lynn said...

AHHHH……………….I never understood it either. Thanks for explaining!!

Kiki said...

Good for you! Those lyrics really DID get under your skin! Like you, I still don't understand what made it such a popular lounge act song but thanks for going to the trouble of making sense of an odd lyric. (And they even mention Noel Ca'ad.) k.

Walt said...

Wow, what a great pic of the King of Jazz and the Queen of Jazz.....

Michael Jackson might be referred to as ' The King of Pop' where as Frankie for me was
' The Pope of Pop '......

k.o. said...

Good research, Joe, but I go with vindictiveness. So here's what I think: The song was about someone Lorenz Hart didn't like and was having a stab at. Like Noel Coward, who composed a song called "Half Caste Woman" which he wrote to bring actress Merle Oberon down a peg. Oberon was desperately trying to hide her chi-chi (half Brit/half Indian) background and her Bombay born mother used to pretend to be her maid. Coward did the same thing to Barbara Hutton in his song, "Poor Little Rich Girl." Noel was brilliant but could be quite nasty. And maybe Hart was, too. Remember, he wrote "Zip," mocking Gypsy Rose Lee. Hart was the Truman Capote of his time and wrote the song to mock somebody, period. You know, like how Capote did with his "swans" in "Answered Prayers." And like Coward. So, I'm going to go with Hart's vindictiveness to some woman in their "circle" but only those in the circle knew who it was. But for me, it is now just a stupid song.