Monday, October 12, 2015

The Songs of Cole Porter

In connection with the Humboldt State University production of Kiss Me, Kate (October 2015), I researched and wrote background stories that seem appropriate for the archives at this site.  There's even more at HSU Stage and HSU Music, indexed under Kiss, Me Kate on both sites.

An aside 10/18: By one of those flashes of serendipity that's become a familiar part of immersing myself in a particular subject, on the night after seeing the premiere of the HSU production of Kiss Me, Kate I happened to see a completely unrelated old movie, or so it seemed.  It was the 1982 Evil Under the Sun, based on an Agatha Christie novel. (It's one of the Peter Ustinov ones.)  But the composer credited with the score was none other than Cole Porter.  It took place at a seaside hotel, and when late in the film Hercule Poirot examines the guest book, the names of Cole Porter and "Fred and Adele" (Fred Astaire and his sister, who were dancing partners on Broadway for years) could be seen. The story is set in about 1938, and thanks to my research into Mr. Porter, I could appreciate that the particular Cole Porter music used--mostly "Night and Day"--first heard in one of those Fred and Adele Broadway shows--"You're the Top," "Anything Goes" and "Begin the Beguine"were all written in the 1930s, before 1938, and so were historically accurate.   

Songs from Kiss Me, Kate like “Another Op’nin', Another Show,” “From This Moment On,” “Too Darn Hot” and others have had lives of their own, but one notable feature of Cole Porter tunes is that they nearly all were introduced in Broadway shows or Hollywood movies, sung by Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Mary Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, among others.

 But his tunes (including “Don’t Fence Me In,” “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “True Love” as well as “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Let’s Do It,” “Anything Goes” and “You’re the Top”) were kept alive through recording and reinterpretations by several generations of singers.

These range from Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald through Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carly Simon and Celine Dion to U2, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello, K.D. Laing, Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow and Diana Krall. Lady Gaga has recorded several Porter songs, and calls him one of her favorite composers.

Fred Astaire, Porter, Eleanor Powell
on set of Broadway Melody of 1940
Another notable feature of Cole Porter’s songs was that he wrote both lyrics and music. Along with Irving Berlin (Porter’s lifelong friend and supporter, who got him his first Broadway assignments), Cole Porter is exceptional among songwriters of his era in this regard.

 So while his lyrics are legendary, his music is strong enough to be recorded on its own, by big bands and jazz instrumentalists including Artie Shaw (who plucked “Begin the Beguine” out of a forgotten show and made it famous), Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker.

 Though Porter wrote songs or parts of songs and kept them “in the drawer” for possible future use, he tended to write pretty much to order for specific shows. This was especially true for Kiss Me, Kate, since it was his first show to integrate the songs so completely with the story.

original 1948 Broadway cast of Kiss Me, Kate
He could write quickly, as the four day weekend when he wrote three of the songs in this show, including “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.

  But there was some trial and error involved.When the choreographer complained about one particular song, he dropped it and substituted “Too Darn Hot,” which the choreographer immediately loved because he could see it as a dance. Harold Lang, who played Bill/Lucentio in the original production, complained that his part wasn’t big enough and he didn’t even have a song. Porter wrote “Bianca” for him, pretty much on the spot, with cast members shouting out rhymes for "Bianca."

 Cole Porter wrote 23 to 25 songs for the show. Some were cut in rehearsals, but 17 remained. Kiss Me, Kate was so successful in its Philadelphia tryouts that no further songs were cut. In fact, a couple of choruses of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” that had been dropped were added back.

Porter & Shakespeare

 Two of the songs in Kiss Me, Kate include lyrics by Shakespeare as well as Cole Porter: "I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “I Am Ashamed Women Are So Simple.” And despite the show’s title—Kiss Me, Kate—sounding like a snappy modernization, Petruchio actually speaks those words several times in The Taming of the Shrew. 

 Even though Porter had his doubts that a musical built around a Shakespeare play would attract Broadway theatregoers (something that potential backers also doubted), he seems to have found a kindred spirit in one aspect of the Bard’s comic writing: his use of wordplay, especially double entendres with sexual innuendo.

 Cole Porter was a past master of this himself, and it’s evident in this show in “Too Darn Hot” and “Always True to You in My Fashion,” for example. But Porter made the connection explicit in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” when he playfully turned titles of Shakespeare’s plays into sexual banter.

Song Lore

 There are stories about many of the songs, and they may even be true. 

“Wunderbar”: When Kiss Me, Kate was in early stages of preparation, the leading candidate to play the lead role of Lilli/Kate was opera star Jarmila Novotna. She was a social friend of Porter’s and one evening she brought a pianist with her to his apartment, who specialized in playing Viennese waltzes. When he finished she kept crying “Wunderbar! Wunderbar!” (“Wonderful!") The song by that title in the show is also a waltz.

"I Hate Men”: Several cast members told Patricia Morison, who ended up playing Lilli/Kate (see Kiss Me, Kate Meets Cinderella) that this song would embarrass her. It wasn’t going over in rehearsals. She mentioned her own misgivings to Porter, who remembered an operetta he’d seen in which the singer had emphasized a line by pounding his fist on a table. He suggested that she slam the metal tankard she was carrying. The effect worked so well that it was further emphasized by having her bang the tankard down on a couple of metal trays to make more noise. The song became a show-stopper.

 “Always True to You in My Fashion:” Cole Porter had that phrase of the title in his head but he couldn’t remember the source. The show’s writers, Bella and Sam Spewack, told him it was from a poem by Ernest Dowson, a late 19th century English poet and contemporary of Oscar Wilde who also contributed the phrase, “the days of wine and roses.” Porter’s song doesn’t bear much resemblance to this poem except for that repeated line of the title.

“Brush Up Your Shakespeare": Bella and Sam Spewack, who had worked with Porter before, were writing the script (“the book”) of Kiss Me, Kate. But at some point in creating this story about a couple having conflicts that bleed into the conflicts of the couple they are playing on stage, Bella and Sam themselves split up when Sam ran off with a ballerina.

 They’d split before, and would get back together again this time as well, but for awhile, Bella didn’t want to have anything to do with Sam. Sam’s major contribution to the story was the gangster subplot, and Bella was determined that it remain a small subplot, without a song involved.

 Unfortunately, Cole Porter came up with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” for the two comic gangsters. When Bella recognized its quality—and guessed correctly that it would also be a show-stopper—she dropped her objections.

 “So In Love:” A song that Cole Porter said he’d intended for a movie musical, but was persuaded to use in Kiss Me, Kate. It was subsequently became a top 20 hit for Patti Page, Gordon McRae, Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby—all in the same year of 1949. More recently it’s been recorded by K.D. Laing.

Ann Miller in 1953 movie version
"From This Moment On":  It was common for songwriters to lift songs from other shows (especially those that didn’t do so well) but Kiss Me, Kate had a unique variation of this.

 The play itself had finished its run after two years, and a Hollywood film version was being prepared. At the same time, Porter had written songs for another Broadway show that had personnel problems, with the director being replaced. The new director threw out one of Porter’s songs, so it was never heard.

 But when the Kiss Me, Kate film producers asked Porter for another song, he gave them this rejected one. It was “From This Moment On,” now one of Porter’s all-time classics. This song was then included in the 1999 Broadway stage revival, and it’s been in Kiss Me, Kate ever since.

 “We Shall Never Be Younger:” This song was one of those cut from Kiss Me, Kate (because, according to Porter biographer William McBrien, “it reduced the audience to tears,” presumably at the wrong time.) It never made it into another show, nor was it published in Porter’s lifetime. But it, too, has had a life since, included in Porter songbooks and recorded by Bobby Short.

Cole Porter

“In a way no other songs of the period quite did,” wrote journalist Walter Clemons, “Porter’s created a world.”

 But the man who personified continental elegance and Manhattan sophistication grew up in a small Indiana town on the banks of the Wabash River. Its only distinguishing feature was as the winter home for a circus, and it was watching circus acts rehearse for the next season that young Cole got his first taste of show business.

 His maternal grandfather had made a fortune, starting with a dry goods business supplying miners during the California Gold Rush. His mother, Katie Cole, was born in Brandy City in Sierra County, now a ghost town.

His grandfather was determined that Cole would be a businessman, but his mother supported his artistic expressions. Cole went to Yale where he wrote over 100 songs and was the center of most musical and theatrical activity.

 His grandfather insisted he go on to law school, but after Porter’s disastrous first semester, the Dean of the Harvard law school himself suggested Cole pursue songwriting, and sent him over to the Harvard School of Music.

 He continued his musical studies in Paris, where he met and married another American, Linda Lee (a descendant of Robert E. Lee.) Though Cole Porter was actively gay and this marriage was in part a cover in an intolerant time, he and Linda remained devoted to each other until her death. He relied on her judgment for every song. Said Saint Subber, producer of Kiss Me, Kate, “Linda was the air that made his sails move.”


Linda Porter
They were in Paris in the 1920s, among notable American expatriates in the unique artistic ferment of this time and place. One summer the Porters rented a seaside chateau at Cap d’Antibes, an unheard of place to spend the hot months. They invited Porter’s Yale friend Gerald Murphy and his wife to join them for two weeks.

The Murphys loved the place, and returned for many summers afterwards, bringing with them such friends as Picasso, Stravinsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Eric Satie. The Murphys (celebrated in Calvin Tomkins’ book, Living Well Is The Best Revenge) essentially created the Riviera. But Cole Porter had discovered it.

 In 1923 Murphy and Porter collaborated on an American ballet to be performed as a curtain-raiser for La Creation du Monde, a ballet by French composer Darius Milhaud. Porter wrote the score, a “witty parody of the piano music played in silent-movie theaters” (according to Calvin Tomkins) while Murphy wrote the story and painted “a striking backdrop, which was a parody of the Hearst newspapers of the day.”

 Murphy also helped Porter’s musical education. He arranged with Jimmy Durante’s drummer to send him the latest American jazz records every month, and he knew and sang still obscure American folk songs and spirituals.

The Murphys and Porters in Venice 1923
 Throughout his life Porter loved to travel around the world. He absorbed the local music wherever he went, and made use of it in his songs. In this era, if you wanted the world’s music, you mostly had to go and find it.

 Porter’s ballet score and his songs for various theatrical events won the enthusiasm of the artistic community and wealthy sophisticates in Paris and New York, but they were not mainstream enough for Broadway in the 1920s.

 Then popular tastes caught up to him in a big way in the 30s. He got his first Broadway revues thanks to recommendations by Irving Berlin, and a string of hit shows followed, notably the enduring classic Anything Goes.

 He transitioned to Hollywood with the star of one of his Broadway shows, Fred Astaire. Porter alternated between Broadway and Hollywood, often doing one show and one movie a year. His movie work continued into the 1950s.

 A performer friend described him as “kind, gentle, very elegant.” A journalist called him “The Indiana lad with the Buddha gaze.” He lived in luxury in a huge apartment in Manhattan’s Waldorf Towers with his two cats, Anything and Goes.

 But in the mid 1940s he’d hit a dry spell. Though it had been nearly 10 years since a riding accident crushed his legs, he was still in near constant pain. He saw that musical theatre was changing, and he wondered if he could change with it.

 Then he was presented with an idea for a Broadway musical based on, of all things, a play by Shakespeare. Kiss Me, Kate became his biggest hit and as a complete show, his most enduring success.

By this time, Cole Porter was deeply involved in all aspects of his Broadway productions--he raised money, participated in casting, attended rehearsals and largely staged the show.  This makes the success of  Kiss Me, Kate even more the success of Cole Porter.

Kiss Me, Kate Meets Cinderella

Patricia Morison in Hollywood
What would a hit musical be without a Cinderella story? In this case it wasn’t in the plot but in the original production.

 Cole Porter often wrote songs with the vocal range of the actor/singer in mind. But he started writing for Kiss Me, Kate before all the roles were cast, especially the female lead, the characters of Lilli and Kate.

 In the early stages, opera star Jarmilla Novotna was the likely choice. But eventually she couldn't commit to the show. Cole Porter offered the role to another operatic singer and actor, Lily Pons, and considered yet another opera singer, Dorothy Kirsten. Pons couldn't do it, and Kirsten wasn't interested.

 So Porter found himself without a leading lady. The show’s director suggested an unknown: Patricia Morison, not an opera singer or a professional singer of any kind. She was a working movie actress in supporting roles, from B pictures (Queen of the Amazons) to a cut above that. She has the distinction of performing in the last film of three popular series: the Thin Man, the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes.

 Though she sang for soldiers on USO tours and at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II, she hadn’t sung a note in the movies. Cole Porter invited her to sing for him at his house in Hollywood. Her agent told her it wasn’t for any particular role, and she did it just for the contact and the experience. But according to Porter, as soon as she walked in he knew she was the one—if she could sing.

He accompanied her on piano, and discovered, yes, she could.

 After she’d taken lessons to strengthen her voice, worked on some of the show's songs and brushed up her Shakespeare, Porter was even more convinced. He believed that overnight she might become “a great new star.”

 But the producers were still considering other possibilities, and the writers had to be consulted. Unfortunately they were all in New York, and Patricia couldn’t afford the plane fare to go meet them. Then out of the blue she was invited to sing at a Bob Hope USO reunion concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The producers and writer Bella Sprewack were in the audience, and they all were enthusiastic. Patricia Morison got the role as Lilli Vanessi.

She was an immediate success. At the opening night party, after the rave reviews came in, she told everyone that she felt Cole Porter “has just lifted me out of my pumpkin coach.” It was a Cinderella story for real.

After 1,077 performances on Broadway, Patricia Morison starred in the London production for another 400 performances. In the backstory she created for Lilli, Morison used her own life--disillusioned with Hollywood, seeking redemption through a hit stage play.

 Morison had another success in the original production of The King and I, both on Broadway and on its national tour. She subsequently sang in many touring musicals, and performed her starring role in Kiss Me, Kate many times, including in a television movie in 1964, onstage in Seattle in 1965 and for the last time, in Birmingham, England in 1978—30 years after her Broadway opening.


Patricia Morison turned 100 earlier this year [2015], and is the last surviving member of the original cast of Kiss Me, Kate. She lives in southern California.