Broadway Heartbreaks: The Anti-Love Song
We are a month away from Valentine’s Day, and though many people adore this holiday, I am not one of them. It has nothing to do with the commercialism of Valentine’s Day. I think it is quite fine for greeting card companies, florists, jewelers and candy makers to fleece the couples of the world by making them see that they need to show their love with presents.
How was that for bitter?
No... I am not the curmudgeon that I painted in the previous paragraph, but I did use a little hyperbole to set up a theme that I have wanted to explore on this blog: the anti-love song. Broadway musicals are full of love songs where people outright declare their love for each other in intimate duets that make you wonder how they can sing so enthusiastically in each other’s faces and not shower their beloved in saliva. These songs are a dime a dozen. The songs that have always intrigued me are the anti-love songs; songs that skirt or altogether dismiss the possibility of love, or songs that rage against the emotion with contempt. Very often these are out favorite songs to be found in a Broadway show. Today’s blog plunges into the world of the shy, the scorned, the bitter and the lonely.
The Top-Ten Anti-Love Songs from Broadway Musicals
1. “Love, Look Away” – Flower Drum Song
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical about three generations of a Chinese immigrant family living in San Francisco is not one of the duo’s more popular outings. It does, however, have one of their most evocative scores, including the mournful “Love, Look Away.” The piece is an aching plea from the character who sings it, wishing love to pass her over and set her free of the hurt of rejection. It is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s’ most bitter and moving concoctions. In the context of the show, however, it falls short of being truly effective because it is sung by a third tier character that we barely remember or get to know. The song, however, in its own right, is an exquisite example of how unrequited love can be hauntingly captured.
2. “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” – Avenue Q
Avenue Q is predominantly thought of as ribald fun full of riotous laughs. Within its bold Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx score there is a gentle gem to be found in the superbly crafted “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” Sung from the point of view of Kate Monster, a twenty-something puppet who tries to delineate the differences between “a lover and a friend.” Having been pushed to the brink of frustration by the clueless Princeton for whom she has been pining away, the song connects to anyone who has wallowed through the purgatory of trying to figure out if someone likes you or not. The result: the hope for love can bring out a defeatist attitude that steels us against the actuality of love.
3. “Falling in Love with Love” – The Boys from Syracuse
Perhaps one of the loveliest melodies ever written by Richard Rodgers, “Falling in Love with Love” features cold and dismissive lyrics by Lorenz Hart that take a very jaded view on love. The character of Adriana sings of her husband and his infidelities, summing up the love they once shared and reducing to a mere illusion. Hart liked to explore the themes of trickery and deception where they pertain to love and this is one of his best indictments of such treachery. This song is a great one to have an angry cry to as it is both emotionally charged and sweepingly romantic.
4. “A Hymn to Him” – My Fair Lady
It’s hard to tell if Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady is merely asexual, possibly homosexual, or a blatant misogynist who really sees women in a generalized sweep of all things negative. The Lerner and Loewe song for his character “A Hymn to Him” doesn’t make decoding this character element any easier. The song and its context make it clear that he feels something for his student and live-in whipping post Eliza Doolittle, but it is not exactly love. In fact, the song is so anti-love in its convictions that one wonders if he “doth protest too much.” Whatever his motivations, the song makes it clear that Higgins cannot connect to women, insinuating that love is entirely off the plate as he ruminates “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Even in the end, the closest he can allow himself to love the woman is to state “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
5. “The Gentleman is a Dope” – Allegro
Vacillating between hopeful and sardonic, this Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty is delivered by a nurse who is in love with her unhappily married employer. She longs for his arms, but also knows that he is so much of a good guy that he will never cheat on his wife. In one moment, she is praising all of the endearing qualities that make him a faithful husband, and in the next moment, she is convincing herself that she isn’t in love with him by cutting him down as a fool who will settle for crumbs from his social-climbing, selfish wife.
6. “I Hate Men” – Kiss Me, Kate
Nothing is a bigger romantic turnoff to the gentleman than a well-performed rendition of this little ditty. An absolute diatribe against the entire male of the species, the shrewish Kate wards off any possible romantic advances by publically listing all of the failings of men. She does this while simultaneously throwing things at them and humiliating them in the town square. There’s not much love in her heart. “I Hate Men” is sort of the “cold shower” of musical theatre songs, complete with icy Cole Porter wit.
7. “I’m Not that Girl” – Wicked
It is nice to find some quiet moments of subtlety and reflection in the score of Wicked. Stephen Schwartz has packed the piece with so many dynamic power ballads that a song that settles into quiet reflection is like a cool breeze on an arid, parched desert. “I’m Not that Girl” fits this purpose beautifully. Elphaba (a.k.a. The Wicked Witch of the West) is in love with the carefree lothario Fiyero. Her self- doubt permeates the song as she imagines love, but realizes that her physical differences and non-conformist approach to life make it impossible for her to attain it.
8. “I Won’t Send Roses” – Mack and Mabel
Filmmaker Mack Sennett had a rocky relationship with silent screen star Mabel Normand, though he was very upfront about the kind of lover he was going to be. “I Won’t Send Roses” was his way of telling his sweetheart that he wouldn’t be the type to shower her with love and gifts. She would just have to accept that he loves her and that would have to be enough. Not exactly the typical “anti-love” as it does hint at a modicum of devotion, but it doesn’t exactly scream commitment and “Happily Ever After” either. Jerry Herman, through his lyrics, etches out just enough heart in Mack to keep from being a jerk, but the melody foreshadows a tragic ending.
9. “Easy to Be Hard” – Hair
The rock musical Hair is full of a variety of angst-ridden sentiments, most of them tied securely to the 1960s and the explosion of conflict that decade is famous for. Within the story of these anti-war hippies comes a wonderful anti-love song in “Easy to Be Hard.” Feminist and demonstration organizer Sheila is angry at the character of Berger because he seems more concerned with the group that her individual needs. She loves him, but in this powerhouse ballad, eviscerates him for his cluelessness.
10. “Could I Leave You?” – Follies
The song to end a marriage to: “Could I Leave You” from Follies wins my first place award for the most vicious anti-love song. The character of Phyllis Stone reviews for the audience how her marriage has, step by step, fallen apart. Building into a list of “who will get what” when the divorce is finalized, it positively drips with venom and regret. Sondheim’s music is relentlessly driving, just like her anger, and the lyrics unravel into an emotional blitzkrieg that could put anyone, man or woman, in a romance-free state of mind.