Monday, October 5, 2015

Kiss Me, Kate: The Composer

“People know these Cole Porter tunes,” said Elisabeth Harrington, music director of the HSU production of Kiss Me, Kate, “even if they don’t know they are from this show.”

"Another Opening, Another Show," "Too Darn Hot," "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and "From This Moment On" are just a few of the enduring songs from Kiss Me, Kate.

 But there are other Cole Porter songs that might be a surprise.  "Anything Goes," "You're the Top" may be familiar as Porter songs, but how about "Don’t Fence Me In,” “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Let’s Do It,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “True Love?”

They are all Porter compositions—and they are all from his Broadway shows or Hollywood musicals. These and other songs have been kept alive through recording and reinterpretations by several generations of singers, from Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald through Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carly Simon and Celine Dion to U2, Annie Lennox, 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.

“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 made a fortune, starting with a dry goods business supplying miners during the California Gold Rush. His mother was born in Brandy City in Sierra County, California, now a ghost town. His grandfather was determined that Cole would be a businessman, but his parents--especially 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 study law, but after a 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 his social circles intersected with Picasso, Stravinsky and Scott Fitzgerald, and where he met and married another American, Linda Lee. Though Cole Porter was gay and this marriage was in part a cover, 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.”

 His songs won praise in the communities of artists and wealthy sophisticates in 1920s Paris and New York but they were not mainstream enough for Broadway. Popular tastes caught up to him in a big way in the 1930s, resulting in steady work and a string of hit musicals on stage and screen.

He had hit shows and movies well into the 1950s, with songs introduced by Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Mary Martin, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly.

But in the mid 1940s he 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 a writer he’d worked with before came to him representing an idea for a Broadway musical based on, of all things, a play by Shakespeare.

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