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Just a Cole Porter Song


I became a Cole Porter aficionado while still a teenager in high school. My gateway drug was the OBCR of Kiss Me, Kate, and soon I was also regularly listening to Can-Can, Silk Stockings, and the soundtrack of High Society. While I was in college, Columbia Records reissued the OBCR of Porter’s 1950 flop Out of This World in its Special Products Series, and for a time that took over as my favorite Porter score. Also during college, the scores for The Pirate and Les Girls were rereleased by MGM as part of the Silver Screen Soundtrack Series, and I also managed to acquire a copy of the out-of-print soundtrack to the TV special Aladdin by trading my studio recording of White House Inn for it with one of my teachers.

The above scores have one thing in common beside their author: They are all written for book musicals, in which the songs dramatize action and character in furtherance of storytelling, and, at first, though I knew Porter started writing musicals in 1929, I thought he belonged to the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe. Indeed, I even produced, directed, and performed in a musical revue, RH, LL, & Cole, in the summer of 1973, equating the songwriters with each other.

However, during college I discovered the OCR of the Ben Bagley revue The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, and my eyes were opened. The integrated book musical was not Porter’s natural state. Most of his career had been spent writing for jerrybuilt musical comedies in which the songs, the dances, the production values, and particularly the stars were all more important than plot and character. I also found an interview with Porter in the 1950s in which he was asked what was the most important development in musical theatre in his lifetime, and he answered, “Rodgers and Hammerstein.” I remember getting the distinct sense from reading that interview that Porter said it with some regret. He knew he had to write book musicals going forward, but he really preferred the older form.

Surprisingly, considering that I was devoted to book shows, this knowledge didn’t turn me off but spurred me into wanting to find as many pre–Kiss Me, Kate Porter songs as I could. I bought the OCR of the 1962 off-Broadway revival of Anything Goes, which became a favorite. Porter’s own demos for Jubilee came out during my college years, and I listened to them over and over. There was also a Bagley album released called Unpublished Cole Porter that dovetailed with the publication of a songbook of the same name containing some of the songs on the LP. I bought both, of course. Ultimately, Bagley released five LPs of older Porter material in his Revisited Series, and I grabbed them greedily.

Finally, the 1975 Peter Bogdanovich jukebox musical film At Long Last Love was another Porter milestone for me during college, despite its failure with critics and audiences. In its first-run engagement in Chicago, it kept losing songs and getting shorter with each week of the run. Restored and released on Blu-ray DVD in 2013, I think it’s better than its reputation, though hardly without flaws. It’s worth it just to see Madeline Kahn and Eileen Brennan exercise their musical-theatre chops on screen.

All of this is a way of saying that this column will be devoted not to Porter shows, but to Porter songs. The Indiana native could be self-deprecating about his work: “Have I the right hunch/Or have I the wrong?/Will it be Bach I shall hear/Or just a Cole Porter song?” he wrote in the lyric of  “At Long Last Love.” Philistine that I am, I’ll take Porter over Bach any day. Here is a playlist of a dozen favorite rarities.

“Please Don’t Monkey With Broadway,” from the film Broadway Melody of 1940
Fred Astaire and George Murphy introduced this jaunty paean to the Great White Way. The lyric includes such fun things as “Close those Village honky-tonks/Suppress cheering in the Bronx” and “Move Grant’s tomb to Union Square/And put Brooklyn anywhere.” Patti LuPone sang it, with slight alterations to the lyric, as the opening number of her 2017 show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Don’t Monkey With Broadway.

“Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” from the West End play O Mistress Mine
I don’t remember how Porter was inveigled to produce this triste ballad for a play in London, but he was, crafting it for French operetta star Yvonne Printemps, whose original performance you can hear on Cole Porter in London, Vol. 1. More recently the song was interpolated for Laura Osnes to sing as Hope Harcourt in Roundabout’s 2011 revisal of Anything Goes.

“Kate the Great,” cut from Anything Goes
Ethel Merman refused to sing this enthusiastic tribute to the sexual voraciousness of Russian Empress Catherine II because of the line “she made the maid who made the room.” Merman insisted that she couldn’t say that in front of her mother. John McGlinn preserved it for posterity on his 1989 studio recording, for which the show’s original orchestrator, Hans Spialek, finally did an orchestration 55 years after Anything Goes opened, just a few months before he died. Kim Criswell stands in for Merman.

“We Shall Never Be Younger,” cut from Kiss Me, Kate
Written for Lilli Vanessi to sing about her ex-husband, this song apparently never even made it into rehearsals. I’ve never heard the music for the verse, in which Lilli says that she was too “worldly-wise” to try to stop her husband’s adultery, but I love the ache of mortality in the resigned chorus. Bobby Short performing at the Café Carlyle swings the song on the 1999 CD You’re the Top: Love Songs of Cole Porter, but for a more romantic approach listen to Jack and Sally Jenkins, playing Cole and Linda Porter, in a 1974 musical produced in Atlanta, RSVP: The Cole Porters. Porter reused the music for the release verbatim in the song “No Lover” from Out of This World.

“Tale of the Oyster,” from Fifty Million Frenchmen
Originally a party song called “The Scampi” that Porter wrote to amuse his friends while living in Venice, it got rewritten to become less “inside” and added to Frenchmen for comedian Helen Broderick. Kay McClelland does a good job on Evans Haile’s studio recording, but the definitive version is Kaye Ballard’s on Ben Bagley’s Cole Porter Revisited, whose out-of-print CD can be found at premium prices on Amazon. Stevie Holland gives a good account of the original version in her cabaret act Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter.

“You Don’t Know Paree,” from Fifty Million Frenchmen
This knowing ballad makes the distinction between Paris and Paree one of romantic disillusionment. Howard McGillin does very nicely by it on Haile’s studio recording, but Bobby Short is positively thrilling in his rendition on Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter. “Paree will still be laughing after every one of us disappears/But don’t forget her laughter is the laughter that hides the tears.”

“Red, Hot, and Blue,” from Red, Hot, and Blue
Porter’s favorite star, Ethel Merman, introduced the title song for this 1936 musical. Playing a character named “Nails” O’Reilly Duquesne, a wealthy young widow who used to be a manicurist and whose passion is the rehabilitation of ex-convicts, she expresses her preference for popular music over classical in the show’s finale. Only Merman could make this rhyme work: “I’m for the guy that eee-ludes/Bach sonatas and Chopin preee-ludes.”

“Who Said Gay Paree?,” cut from Can-Can
Yet another Porter song about Paree, this was intended for Peter Cookson as Judge Aristide Forestier to sing after the sober judge has broken up with La Môme Pistache, who runs a Montmartre dance hall in which the titular dance is performed. Robert Kimball’s The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter says it was never used, but Wikipedia claims that the song opened Act 2 but was cut before Broadway. If so, it was no doubt replaced by “It’s All Right With Me,” which performs the same function of romantic disillusionment and was indeed written on the road. I like both songs, but “Who Said Gay Paree?” has a particular ache to it that gets me every time, and I especially admire the internal rhyme in the release: “I thought our love, so brightly begun/Would burn through eternity.” You can hear Porter himself sing it on a demo recording.

“Solomon,” from Nymph Errant
Evangeline Edwards is an English girl recently graduated from a Swiss finishing school who is on a quest to lose her virginity. That quest lands her in a Turkish harem in Act 2, and it’s there that a fellow wife sings this lament about the lack of faithfulness of King Solomon’s wives. Elisabeth Welch got to preserve her original London cast performance in 1933 (the show is the only one Porter wrote directly for the West End, where it was a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence), which can be found on Cole Porter in London, Vol. 1. I got to see Welch do the song 53 years later in Elisabeth Welch: Time to Start Living off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, a show that was recorded live a few months later at London’s Donmar Warehouse under the title Elisabeth Welch in Concert. The lady was sensational.

“Dream Dancing,” from the film You’ll Never Get Rich
I became enamored of this long-lined ballad when I found it in a used sheet music bin during college, and I often stumbled my way through it on piano in our dorm basement. Fred Astaire should have sung it on screen, and perhaps he did at one point, but not in the released film; there he just dances to it. It should have become a standard but somehow never did, even though Ella Fitzgerald used it as the title of a 1978 all-Porter LP. Tony Bennett waxed a version with Bill Evans at the piano on 1976’s Together Again. Most recently, jazz artist Gabrielle Stravelli released it as a single in 2015.

“The Kling-Kling Bird on the Divi-Divi Tree,” from Jubilee
I don’t remember how, but I became aware of this unusual Porter song title early on in my Portermania, and I was very frustrated that I couldn’t find a recording of it. Then in 1973 Columbia Records put out an LP simply called Cole, which included author demos for the 1935 musical. I was, shall we say, jubilant when I finally heard this witty warning against indecorous foreign sexual entanglements. “That damned oiseau/Would begin to crow/In a voice just a bit off-key” indeed.

“Why Don’t We Try Staying Home,” cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen
Robert Kimball’s liner notes for 1971’s Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter list this song as being “unpublished” and don’t link it to a Porter score, as they do for the 21 other songs on the two-LP set. However, his 1983 Porter lyrics tome has the song being written for Frenchmen but cut during rehearsals, so I guess he did additional research in the intervening years. In the song a jet-setting couple contemplate changing their ways by embracing quiet domesticity. It makes a mellow ending for Short’s indispensible recording, so I thought I’d use it for the same purpose on this playlist.

Bonus: Ben Bagley’s Unpublished Cole Porter (or Cole Porter Revisited Vol. II)
This 1972 LP was crucial in beginning the process of changing my understanding of what kind of musical theatre writer Porter was most comfortable being. The original LP carried the subtitle “Soon to be produced as a major Broadway musical,” but Bagley was never able to raise the money, as he says in his notes for its 1991 rerelease (with four additional tracks to fill out the CD). It consists mostly of risqué comedy songs that went unrecorded because they would never have been allowed radio broadcast. Whether it’s Alice Playten being delightfully naughty on “After All, I’m Only a Schoolgirl,” “If You Like Les Belles Poitrines,” and “Pets,” Carmen Alvarez offering faux-wide-eyed innocence on “Humble Hollywood Executive,” or the great Karen Morrow belting the hell out of “Kate the Great,” there’s a delight on virtually every track. You can find used copies of the CD for exorbitant prices on Amazon, but I hope Bruce Kimmel, who has been gradually rereleasing the Bagley Revisited Series on CD on his Kritzerland label, does this one sooner rather than later. I gather Kimmel deplores digital downloads, which is why he only issues CDs in numerically limited releases. I fear that battle has already been lost, but at least he’s putting the material back out there, so here’s to him!

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