Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Play It Again: Damn Yankees' "Whatever Lola Wants"

Play It Again:
Damn Yankees"Whatever Lola Wants"

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week I compare a few recordings of “Whatever Lola Wants” from Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s classic
Damn Yankees. I’ve actually never had an opportunity to see the show (or the movie), but of course I’m quite familiar with this quintessentially seductive song, in which the title temptress unsuccessfully tries to cajole her married target. 

Unless I’ve missed something, it looks like there are only three full recordings of Damn Yankees, a meager selection for such a famous Golden Age title, and two of them feature Gwen Verdon as Lola. To make up for this, I’ve also included my thoughts on a version of the song recorded by Ella Fitzgerald - although I’ll refrain from giving it any star ratings, since it’s a special exception to my precedent of only reviewing entries from full cast recordings or soundtracks. 

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities.

) - YouTube

Lola: Gwen Verdon

SINGING: Having just watched a juicy clip of Verdon performing the song on an old Tony telecast, I was a little surprised at how straightforward she sounds on the original recording. It’s not bad, of course, but it’s a little plainer than I expected in terms of characterization, and her accent is a bit inconsistent. (Of course I realize that her singing wasn’t necessarily the main attraction when she created this role on stage!)

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is surprisingly sparse for most of the song, with percussion dominating, and just an intermittent string background and a few brass punctuations. This obviously does not reflect a lack of resources, because the gorgeous dance break is full and luxuriant by any measure.

SOUND: It’s not the clearest sound overall. The vocals overpower the accompaniment in the sung sections, but the orchestra sounds much clearer in the dance break.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo feels a tiny bit slower than the movie and revival versions.


Lola: Gwen Verdon

*SINGING: It’s clear from the first few lines that this is a more calculated and ambitious take on the song, with character-driven vocal touches like the dips and contours on her delivery of the lyrics “what I aim for.” These effects are used liberally but judiciously throughout the song. Her actual singing is also just better than on the original cast recording, especially on extended notes, and she has also perfected her character accent.

*ORCHESTRA: Very lush throughout, with a much greater variety of instrument groupings providing the fills between vocal lines. It’s a song that’s always going to call for a percussion-heavy arrangement, but it’s a little more subtle here than in other versions.

*SOUND: Very clear and well-balanced; orchestral details are vivid in the sung parts as well as the dance break.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is a little faster, and the dance break is extended for the movie.

- YouTube

Lola: Bebe Neuwirth

SINGING: I really enjoy Neuwirth’s take, which is very breathy and character-driven, with some screeching and growling as well as singing (at least in the first half of the song). Her little shout-outs during the dance break are very effective, and her more powerful vocals in the final section provide for a thrilling ending. Overall, Neuwirth’s actorly approach is very different from Verdon’s, but equally gratifying; I slightly favor the latter only because it relies a little more on singing and a little less on what you might call “special effects.” 

ORCHESTRA: The orchestrations are fuller than the original in the sung parts, which I appreciate, and sound terrific during the dance break. 

SOUND: The sound is a little muted but generally clear, with a good balance between voice and orchestra. 

*MISCELLANEOUS: This version features a different, ultra-brassy dance break that works itself into a frenzy, with a wonderfully menacing sound to highlight Lola’s dangerous allure.

- YouTube

Lola: Ella Fitzgerald

SINGING: Not being restricted to creating a specific dramatic character, Fitzgerald is free to make the song her own, and her gripping vocals are, of course, on a whole different level. Her sensuous extended notes and slightly improvised rhythms make the song come alive in her own unique way. I especially enjoyed the ending, which brilliantly features Fitzgerald’s classic gravelly sound.

ORCHESTRA: The arrangement has a traditional big-band sound (lots of brass and no strings), overlaid with a Latin-esque lilt, and - in a very 1960s touch - tinged with a twangy, metallic guitar sound.

SOUND: The sound is clear and expansive, with an immersive stereo sound.

MISCELLANEOUS: In general, of course, this is an entirely different take on the material, with a focus on the big voice and the big band. With no need for dancing, the tempo can be slowed to enhance the alluring tone of the words and music.

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