Several years ago, I read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It was an unintentionally hilarious book. Damosels (that’s how he spells it) show up randomly and either get beheaded (a surprisingly common occurrence – for the woman, anyway) or abducted or seduced or vamp the men or ask for help or offer adventure. And men lay in wait for suspecting knights to fight, seek adventure, constantly visit hermits to hear prophecies they ignore and receive absolution for their manifold sins (which they go out and commit again), seek revenge (it’s practically a living), and generally pursue their highly fatalistic way.
Every knight is worshipful and every damosel rides a white palfrey. And the knights behead a lot of woman (sometimes accidentally) and for some reason no one seems to mind it nearly as much as killing other knights. It’s more like a secondary offense, murder in the second degree.
And for some reason Morgan Le Fay spends the entire book attempting to abduct Lancelot (who only has eyes for Guinevere). She always sends twenty (or was it thirty) knights to lay in wait for Lancelot and he always manages to defeat them…barely. Why couldn’t she ever send twenty-one knights? That should have done the trick. Anyway, I always found myself rooting for her to succeed. She never did, and I knew she wouldn’t, but I was incorrigible and kept on hoping she would capture Lancelot, anyway…or do something like take over all of Camelot and kill the knights. Alas, she never did.
It’s enough to make a feminist out of any woman.
“To Keep My Love Alive,” then, is a song for those women who find themselves wishing the woman would defeat the men. It was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their 1943 revival of their 1927 hit “A Connecticut Yankee,” which was a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. At this point, Lorenz Hart was drinking extremely heavily and their long partnership was shaky. Unable to rely on Hart, Richard Rodgers teamed with Oscar Hammerstein for the groundbreaking “Oklahoman.” But Hart was in an extremely bad way and Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that if Hart continued to work, it would help him. So, Rodgers and Hart decided to revive “A Connecticut Yankee” and add some new songs.
One of the changes was to give Morgan La Fay more to do and to sing. In fact, she practically runs away with the musical with her extremely witty songs. One song is “Can’t You do a Friend a Favor” (the favor being to fall in love with her) and another is “To Keep My Love Alive.” This latter song she sings upon first appearing in Camelot. She is explaining exactly how she has managed to keep her love alive – without divorcing any of her husbands, or cheating on them. She achieves this by simply killing them and the song is a hysterically funny list of all her husbands, their names, their crimes and how she disposed of them.
Hart would die during the running of the musical and Vivienne Segal, who played Morgan Le Fay and was a good friend of his, had to flee the stage during her performance of “To Keep My Love Alive” because she was so distraught over his death that she couldn’t remember all the husbands’ names. She took a moment and then came back out and finished the song.
I really do believe that Lorenz Hart was one of the wittiest, most poignant and best lyricists of the American popular song. He led a very tragic life, dying when he was only 48 years old, but with composer Richard Rodgers, he wrote some of the best songs of the Great American Songbook. If you are at all interested in his life, his songs or the era of 1930s Broadway musicals try A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart, by Garry Marmorstein. The cast recording – one of the earliest cast recordings that were ever made – is also available and is extremely fun. The CD also contains various other songs of Rodgers and Hart sung by Hildegard and Shirley Ross.
Here is Vivienne Segal’s version. It’s a full 6 minutes long and contains a truly impressive list of husbands. One wonders how she found time, but one also can’t help being impressed at her ingenuity in disposing of each and every one of them, without ever repeating a single method!
A somewhat shortened version is sung by Ella Fitzgerald in “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook.” I love this album. Not only do I love Ella Fitzgerald, but it also is the most comprehensive introduction to the duo’s work.