In 1980, the year after I made my Broadway debut, I was cast in a Frank Loesser revue. My first reaction was: “Frank Loesser? Who’s Frank Loesser?” Only the guy who wrote “Guys and Dolls” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” — a song I’ve been performing ever since.
My job as a singer is to move you, transport you to a state that you weren’t in when you walked in the door. That’s how I approach “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” When you sing a duet, you have to have a point of view, a seed of an idea about what’s going on between these two people. And this song comes from a place of playfulness and joy. It was literally written to entertain people at parties.
I honestly don’t think the male role is overtly creepy. If I interpreted the song to mean someone is trying to do me harm, or literally keep me from leaving — like, blocking the door — that would be a different song, a song in a minor key. But it isn’t. It’s a song about a game.
When “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written, a woman couldn’t just say, “Let’s do it.” A so-called “good girl” couldn’t say, “I would love to stay here and snuggle up with you.” So the character in the song keeps prevaricating. It’s heavy, heavy flirting. She goes back and forth. You have to put yourself in her position, drop yourself into that moment. Yes, there’s an ambivalence, but that’s because she’s saying, “I really can’t stay, but I want to.”
And I don’t think the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” means, “What drug did you slip in my drink?” Modern events have taught us to be wary about alcohol, parties, and loss of control. But in the 1930s and ’40s, cocktails were pretty new. For me, in that line, the character is literally asking, “Is this gin or is this vodka?”
Still, there’s a little bit of an ick factor. So in front of audiences, I’ve approached “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in different ways. When I sang it with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops in 2009, I suggested we switch roles in the middle, and it turned out pretty great. I think it made the song feel more universal, like a yin-yang: “You’re chasing me, but guess what? I want to chase you now.” I have to say I found the song more palatable that way, and I’ve performed it that way many times since.
I always feel a sense of responsibility for the messages conveyed in the songs I perform. I’m the messenger. So if I were singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” tomorrow night, I think I would say something beforehand, acknowledging the noise around it.
But the noise doesn’t alter my relationship with the song. And while I value the #MeToo movement and the conversation that’s happening now, the move to put a kibosh on this great song makes me sad. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is so much fun to sing. It’s cleverly written. It’s musically simple. It’s melodic. It makes you want to bounce a little bit — everybody who listens can still feel that, even as the tide has changed.
And it has endured for so long because it captures a real sense of play, which I love and adore. I just sang it with [Broadway veteran] Sal Viviano, who is not my lover, not my husband, not my partner. You project all that stuff on the person you’re singing with, digging down to find that real thing. I don’t care if the man I’m singing with is someone I’ve never met. If there’s chemistry, something is going to burst forth.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is about the joy of that chemistry. In every relationship, there’s play — in the beginning and maybe throughout. That’s what foreplay is. It’s a dance. And that’s what these two characters are doing. When they get to the end of the refrain and sing the line together — “Baby, it’s cold…out….siiiiiide”— it sounds like consent to me. Mutual consent.
As told to Joan Anderman.