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.

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