14 October 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/42

Once again, it's been a little gloomy here, so I thought I would switch things up. Our first number this week is from the musical Chicago. The Prison Matron, "Mama" Morton, informs the young ladies in her charge on Murderers Row how things work under her:

When You're Good to Mama

Ask any of the chickies in my pen;
They'll tell you I'm the biggest mother . . . hen;
I love them all and all of them love me,
Because the system works, the system called: rec-i-proc-i-ty.

Got a little motto, always sees me through:
When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you!

There's a lot of favors I'm prepared to do;
You do one for Mama, she'll do one for you.

They say that life is tit for tat, and that's the way I live;
So I deserve a lot of tat for what I've got to give!

Don't you know that this hand washes that one too?
When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you.

If you want my gravy, pepper my ragout;
Spice it up for Mama, she'll get hot for you.

When they pass that basket folks contribute to,
You put in for Mama, she'll put out for you;

The folks atop the ladder are the ones the world adores;
So boost me up my ladder, kid, and I'll boost you up yours;

Let's all stroke together, like a Princeton crew;
When you're strokin' Mama, Mama's strokin' you!

So what's the one conclusion I can bring this number to?
When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you!

Fred Ebb (John Kander wrote the music)

It's all very reliant on double entendres, though some of the entrendres can seem pretty single when they're naked on the page. But basically this is what Shaw said about the bawdy badinage of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: he found the substance of their quips dull, vulgar, and obvious, but the poetry and music of their phrasing elevated them to art. With songs like the ones I'm posting here, the wit is not so much in what they're saying, which is usually pretty obvious, as in the sense of swift, comical puns and flashing, unexpected twists of meaning. The music and the individual performer can really bring out such elements as the semi-buried pun on "tit" in the "tit for tat" lines, or the jokes about "getting hot" and "putting out" and "up yours." On the original Broadway cast album (from which I transcribed the lyrics), Mary McCarty has a very bawdy, red-hot-mama approach. Queen Latifah played Mama Morton in the 2002 film; she's interesting casting, since there's something inherently elegant and refined about Latifah that makes the song more sly than raunchy. Both performances work quite well. I find the line about the Princeton crew particularly hilarious. Maybe it's the contrast between the setting and the wholesome Frank Merriwell implications of "Princeton crew" (yes, I know Frank was a Yale man; in this context, same difference). An Ivy League crew team may seem like a high-falutin' reference to use in a Chicago prison, but actually it's a deft bit of scene-setting; collegiate sports were extremely popular in 1920s America, when the musical takes place.

Incidentally I've never seen the musical Chicago on stage, though I watched the movie recently. I have seen the 1927 silent version (Chicago) and the 1942 Ginger Rogers version (Roxie Hart) of the original, non-musical, play, so I'm familiar with the story. The big flaw with the movie version is Renee Zellweger's awful performance as Roxie (not sure if the blame belongs with her, director Rob Marshall, or both). In the other versions, Roxie may be a venal, shallow, mendacious, manipulative gold-digger (and a killer), but she's also brassy and funny and oddly likeable. Zellweger is self-pitying and mean-spirited and thinks she's a victim and basically she's just playing the wrong kind of stupid.

We had a song for Mama, so here's one for Daddy:

My Heart Belongs to Daddy

I used to fall in love with all
Those boys who maul refined ladies,
But now I tell each young gazelle
To go to Hell . . . I mean Hades!
For since I came to care for such a sweet millionaire:

While tearing off a game of golf,
I may make a play for the caddie,
But when I do, I don't follow through,
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

If I invite a boy some night
To dine on my fine finnan haddie,
I just adore his asking for more,
But my heart belongs to Daddy.

Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy
So I simply couldn't be bad,
Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy,
So I want to warn you laddie,
Though I know you're perfectly swell,
That my heart belongs to Daddy
'Cause my Daddy, he treats it so well –
He treats it and treats it and then he repeats it,
Yes, Daddy, he treats it so well.

St Patrick's Day, although I may
Be seen wearing green with a Paddy,
I'm always sharp when playing the harp,
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

Though other dames at football games
May long for a strong undergraddie,
I never dream of making the team
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy
So I simply couldn't be bad,
Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy,
So I want to warn you laddie,
Though I simply hate to be frank
That I can't be mean to Daddy,
'Cause my da-da-da-Daddy might spank –
In matters artistic, he's not modernistic,
So da-da-da-Daddy might spank.

Cole Porter

Mary Martin became a star for singing this, in a musical called Leave It to Me, in 1938. She famously and repeatedly claimed she had no idea at all what the song really meant when she first sang it, and my mother for one is calling shenanigans on that particular claim: if she, with her sheltered upbringing and convent schooling, knew right away what the song was about when she heard it, then how clueless would Martin have to be not to know? And indeed if she truly didn't know you have to wonder what she thought this barrage of clever rhymes actually meant.

"Harp" in the St Patrick's Day stanza puns on an old-fashioned slang term for an Irishman. I felt I should explain that, since I think it's not a term used much anymore, and the line always cracks me up. I suppose it's a bit of a pejorative term, but since it references Ireland's legendary bards, I, as a partial Irishman by ancestry, am not for one going to take much offense.

There are probably other version of these lyrics floating around but I transcribed these from the Bolcom and Morris performance on Night and Day: The Cole Porter Album, and their scholarly imprimatur is enough for me. It's odd now to remember that I was mildly surprised long ago to learn that Bolcom was a composer, as well as a performer of American popular song with his wife, mezzo Joan Morris.


John Marcher said...

"My Heart Belongs to Daddy" always makes me think of "Whatever happend to Baby Jane" and seeing the completely lyrics for the first time makes me feel very creeped out in a good way as I picture Bette Davis singing that song as an adult and realizing it was singing that as a child that made her character famous. Icky, but great.

"Chicago" is one of my favorite musicals of all time, and the first time I saw it (in London) I thought if they every filmed it Madonna would make a great Roxie and Whitney Houston should be Velma, so when the casting of the film was announced, including Richard Gere, I thought it was going to be terrible. But I think the film is fantastic, and having watched it easily two dozen times the shortcomings of the cast (minimal to me at this point) disappears within Marshall's brilliant execution. Yes, you are right about Zellweger's approach and I've never viewed her performance that way before, but she hits the right note in the numbers every time and to me, that's what really counts. Visually, she works too, as the "Roxie" scene, with its homage to MM, is one bit of glorious filmmaking that I could watch endlessly.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Glad I could bring back happy memories, or give you some early Halloween flesh-creeping, but -- that's a different song in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. That one is "I'm writing a letter to Daddy / His address is Heaven above" and it is (intentionally) more creepy than saucy. I recently saw the movie for the first time, so the number is kind of indelible, what with the visual images and all.

I agree that Zellweger was good in the songs, but to me she is just a blot on the film. Since I think Madonna is completely without talent or appeal I guess I'm still waiting for the perfect, or a decent, Roxie, though it's funny to think of Roxie being "decent." Another odd thing in the film was that when I listened to the cast album I realized I had guessed correctly that they had dropped a song for Mary Sunshine (the "sob sister" reporter): I thought it was odd that they would hire Christine Baranski and keep singling her out in shots but then never give us any payoff with that character. On the whole, though, I really liked the movie, though it's not going to replace the Steve Martin/Bernadette Peters Pennies from Heaven in my heart.

John Marcher said...

Wow, you are right of course, but is it my imagination or are the melodies the same? I'm surprised you came to it so late (the film, that is) but I'm also suprised you watched it at all. I'm curious what you thought about it, but I'm sure it will not surprise you to know it is a favorite of mine.

The film also drops one of the best songs- "Class," though it was filmed and included in the extras. they left it out because it didn't fit the narrative of the rest of the film- a tough artistic choice but an admirable one. Re Madonna, that's how I felt then. Thinking about it now I don't really know who I would cast because I don't follow too many younger actresses these days, but if he could sing, Mark Ruffalo would be great as Billy, maybe Christina Aguilera as Roxie (she was really good in that terrible movie she made with Cher), and Michelle Rodriguez as Velma. The blonde/brunette contrast has to stay, of course.

I saw Pennies From Heaven when it first came out in 1981 and remember enjoying it, but have never seen it since. I would watch it again, but my experience so far has been that Steve Martin's films aren't aging very well.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

The melodies aren't the same, but I think you're picking up on the similar creepy subtext to both songs. As for when and why I watched Baby Jane, well, it's kind of a classic and I was curious -- it does have a Sunset Boulevard appeal to it. I liked it. And it's only been fairly recently that such a wide range of movies have become so easily available via Netflix, Amazon, or downloading, so (as you may remember) we'd have to wait for something to come around to the revival houses, which meant we'd have to be free that night and make the effort (which I often made back in those days). Things were sometimes on TV but cut up and sprinkled liberally with commercials. Even when VCRs came in, you'd have to have a well-stccked local video store. The hardships we suffered! Kids these days just don't know. . . .

I watched the rendition of "Class" from the movie. One of the rhymes was on the word "twat" which really surprised me. That line isn't included in the version of "Class" on the Broadway cast album, which made me wonder if it had been censored or was a later addition. I agree completely on the blond/brunette thing: it's as vital as in the novels of George Eliot!

(I'm being serious: in her novels there is invariable a dark-haired woman, who is more questing, passionate, intellectual, kind of a misfit, and a blond woman, who is more conventional, more of a good fit with the world around her. The exceptions are: Romola, in which the hair colors are reversed, possibly because it's an historical romance set during the Italian Renaissance, and dark hair is much more common in Italy, and, more interestingly, in Daniel Deronda, in which Gwendolyn Harleth's hair is pointedly described as between blonde and dark, and indeed her character unites the two different Eliotesque female archetypes.

As for Pennies from Heaven, I haven't seen it in a few years, but (not to take away from Steve Martin, who I think is incredibly brilliant and multi-talented) it's really more of a Dennis Potter film. I mean, it's not based on a certain type of silly/surreal/satirical comedy that maybe doesn't age well.