This classic was originally sung by Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers in a comic situation in the film Swing Time; Ginger has been washing her hair in the shower and emerges to listen to Fred wrapped in a towel and with her hair full of suds. It's still romantic however, as Ginger listens entranced, and it won Dorothy and Jerome Kern the Best Song Oscar in 1936.
Since then it's become one of the most beloved romantic songs of all time with numerous performers naming it as their personal favourite love song.
Kern's contribution is of course a major part of this. Dorothy Fields said "The first time Jerry played that melody for me I had to leave the room because I started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn't stop, it was so beautiful."
Dorothy Fields created a lyric of such perfect tenderness that it touches the listener every time words such as the following are heard:
|Someday, when I'm awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.
Robert Cushman wrote a wonderful essay about the song. Here's how he describes the continuation of the lyric after the first verse above:
"Then comes the masterstroke. 'Oh, but you're lovely ...'. That 'oh, but', deftly fitted by Fields to Kern's pick-up notes, forestalls any chance of the second eight bars being mere repetition. Disarmingly conversational, it also suggests uncertainty, inability to find words, a sense of how-could-you-be-so-lovely, and of 'lovely', though conventional (and more or less patented by Kern's contemporary Irving Berlin), being the only possible word."
The song is one of those universal standards that has been recorded by hundreds of different artistes.
There are many beautiful versions, but a surprising number take the number too slow or, worse, speed through it at 100 miles per hour, as in Anita O'Day's appalling rendition.
For charming and tasteful delivery of the song, you can go back to the originator. Apart from the soundtrack, Fred Astaire recorded the song twice, once with the Johnny Green Orchestra in 1936, and again in 1952 with the Oscar Peterson Group.
The most Astaire-like of recent treatments has been that of Philip Chaffin on his "singer with the band" CD "Where Do I Go From You". His fine voice, thoughtful delivery and an unfussy arrangement do the song justice.
Barbara Cook's version is a duet with Tommy Tune, and this lyric should not be done as a duet. The emotions expressed are simply not as touching, not as special when they are echoed back and forth between two parties. The version also has a light, jaunty backing which doesn't fit. However Cook and Tune do deliver the "precisely notated hums" (Robert Cushman's phrase) which form the coda of the song. Most singers ignore them.
Margaret Whiting's rendition benefits from her rich smooth voice, but the tempo is snail-like and she sounds assertive rather than wondering.
Among a later generation of singers, Brian Ferry and Olivia Newton-John both included The Way You Look Tonight on albums of standards. They go at quite different speeds. Ferry jazzes it up, and the result is quite good fun, but shows no understanding at all of the song - the lyric goes for nothing. Olivia Newton-John takes her earnest and flexible voice down the langourous route, and the result is rather impressive - passionate, marvelling.
Cabaret performer Mary Cleere Haran is a big Fields fan, and declares that this is "the most beautiful song ever written". Her version is fine, although her lovely voice takes some minor liberties with the Kern melodic line, and for my money, this detracts somewhat from the simplicity and intensity of the emotion.