Monday, November 21, 2016

COLE PORTER'S KISS ME, KATE


Leave It To Me! (1938) was Cole Porter’s kind of musical, the zany tale of a small-town, middle-aged creampuff who becomes our ambassador to Russia and, homesick, keeps trying (and failing) to get fired. The show was fast, funny, and sexy. William Gaxton played a globe-trotting journalist—a favorite hero type of the day—and his recurring partner, the whining Victor Moore, played the ambassador. Sophie Tucker was Moore’s wife, bustling about our embassy in Moscow with decorators in tow. That wall goes. Put a fireplace there. Something  Victorian in that corner. Then, indicating her husband: “And rip out that monstrosity.”

     The entire show had the merrily unbelievable and slightly heartless air that Porter felt most comfortable with. He didn’t care for political or romantic musicals—he more or less despised operetta—and he didn’t worry about consistency of character. Porter wasn’t an author of musicals. He was a songwriter, a composer-lyricist who conjured up a world in which nothing is forbidden except virtue and everybody’s welcome except the innocent. A Porter show was risqué, worldly fun.

     Leave It To Me!’s script, by the husband-and-wife team of Sam and Bella Spewack, gave Porter the platform he needed on which to raise a score that was snappy, mournful, or sophisticated as needed. Snappy: Sophie Tucker’s establishing number, “I’m Taking the Steps To Russia,” outlined her personal foreign policy—the latest dances will soothe Soviet gloom. Mournful: Gaxton’s vis-à-vis, the exotically mononymous Tamara, sang “Get Out of Town,” a valentine in the minor key. “Why wish me harm?” Tamara cried, because love is torture. And sophisticated: Mary Martin, in her Broadway debut, sang a salute to carnal knowledge, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” atop a trunk in a Siberian railroad station. The number was so full of double meanings (“to dine on my fine finan haddie”) that Tucker had to advise Martin on how to finesse them. “Put your hand over your heart and look up at heaven, my dear,” Tucker told her. “And they’ll forgive you anything.”

     That was when Porter was a prince of Broadway. In the days before the original-cast album publicized a musical’s score as a whole, shows were judged by the number of hit tunes they threw off. Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) offered five, which was almost a record, and Porter’s other shows generally counted one or two hits each.

     Then, suddenly, Porter hit a speed bump. Starting with Something For the Boys (1943) the shows might be hits but the scores sounded like Porter on automatic pilot. Worse, some of the shows failed, and, in Hollywood, Porter’s songs for a lavish MGM musical with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, The Pirate (1948), were just plain dull. It did have a hit, “Be a Clown.” But Porter talking of circus loons wasn’t the Porter the public loved. Up and down Broadway, word was out: Porter was over.

     And then Bella Spewack approached Porter with an idea for The Taming of the Shrew as a musical. Porter thought Shakespeare too poetic for the Porter kind of show, but he had had a good relationship with Bella on Leave It To Me!, and he heard her out. There had already been two Broadway musicals based on Shakespeare. Rodgers and Hart did The Comedy of Errors as The Boys from Syracuse (1938), using the original plot, characters, and setting. Then came Swingin’ the Dream (1939), an updating of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a mixed-race cast and lots of musical jive.

     So, as Bella saw it, they couldn’t do The Taming of the Shrew straight and they couldn’t update it. What they could do was a backstager about a company putting on the Shrew. The new show’s co-producer Saint Subber said he got the idea, from having worked on a Shrew with another husband-and-wife team, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The Lunts were constantly bickering with each other offstage, and wouldn’t that make a dandy premise for this new musical?

     However, Bella hated Subber, and not cordially, in the Broadway manner, where you want to keep open all options for future employment. She hated him, period. The premise for the new musical, Bella insisted, was Bella’s and Bella’s alone. And she gave Porter advice as good as that given to Mary Martin by Sophie Tucker: Ignore the management and trust the artists.

     If it had been anyone but Bella, Porter might have refused, but he tried out a few numbers and began to see the possibilities. Still, with the period costumes and the elevated language, didn’t the whole thing smack of…operetta? Wouldn’t Kate have to be an opera soprano? Porter liked the breed well enough as long as they stayed where they belong: in opera. In musicals, Porter preferred the men to be comics and the women to be Mary Martin or even that mysterious Tamara. It’s no accident that the performer Porter wrote the most shows for—five—was Ethel Merman, as far from an opera soprano as one could get.

     But there is this: from his very first musical after college, See America First (1916), to his last, the television fantasy Aladdin (1958), there were two Cole Porters. One was the popular Porter, always looking for a simple hook out of which to fashion these hit tunes that gave a show prestige and notability. The other Porter was classically-trained, ambitious, and ingenious, toying with his forms; bedeviling his legatos with jazzy syncopations even in ballads; constructing musical scenes suggestive of Gilbert and Sullivan; or creating two separate choral strains that would then be sung simultaneously.

     The second Porter was always afraid of alienating the public. “Polished, urbane, and adult [writing] in the musical field,” Porter noted in the mid-1930s, “is strictly a creative luxury.” Nevertheless, after Anything Goes’ smash success, Porter felt free to unveil his most ambitious score till then in Jubilee (1935), painting on a huge canvas in  twenty-two vocal scenes, trying out every one of the Porter genres from the Latin rhythm number (in “Begin the Beguine”) to the list song (in “A Picture of Me Without You”). And Jubilee had a captivating storyline of typical Porter nonsense: the members of a more or less English royal family run off with fizzy show-biz personalities. The Queen pairs off with Tarzan, the King gets professional gossip Elsa Maxwell, the Princess meets Noël Coward, and the Prince wins Ginger Rogers. (The names were changed, of course; Tarzan was called Mowgli.)

     Jubilee got a terrific set of notices—but Jubilee failed. There was just too much music, too many ideas in the lyrics, for the public to collect the score at one hearing. So, on his next job, MGM’s Born To Dance (1936), starring Eleanor Powell, Porter reverted to his popular style, and he had hits with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Easy To Love” (which had actually been written for Anything Goes).

     And now, in 1948, Porter would surely have employed his popular sound on Kiss Me, Kate, to try to overcome his slump. But something else happened. Naturally, the Spewacks plotted Kate around the typical two couples that musicals had been depending on since Mozart’s day (as in The Abduction From the Seraglio and The Magic Flute). One pair is serious; the other is silly. With the Shakespearean atmosphere arousing his artistic side, Porter saw the first couple—actor-manager Fred Graham and his ex-wife and co-star, Lilli Vanessi—as romantic. They play comedy, too, yes—but there’s a touch of operetta about them. Porter would give them ambitious numbers, with an Elizabethan air, as in his “Were Thine That Special Face,” in Porter’s beguine style, and her “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” one of the very few songs Porter composed to someone else’s words. Shakespeare’s.

     In fact, Fred and Lilli’s music got so grand that they called for what Broadway termed “legit” voices, and Broadway baritone Alfred Drake and Metropolitan Opera star Jarmila Novotna were lined up for the roles. Novotna was an opera singer Porter could delight in, a looker with a sharp sense of theatre. But she became suddenly unavailable, and Porter was forced to face the possibility of one of those…you know, sopranos. Then Patricia Morison turned up, another beauty whose creamy mezzo sound had a high extension; coincidentally, she and Drake had played together in The Two Bouquets (1938), a West End import that was one of the first “jukebox” musicals, its score made of Victorian melodies with new lyrics. Porter was thrilled with Morison. “Deck her out,” he said—his customary phrase for “Give her a contract, put her in a costume, and set her on the stage.”

     And of course the second couple—Bill and Lois, two youngsters in the Shrew company—would sing the “popular” Porter. His “Bianca” is so simplistic that one wonders if Porter was expressing his contempt for the original Bill, Harold Lang, a dancer with surprising vocal tone but a somewhat unprofessional attitude. And  Lisa  Kirk, as  Lois, got  numbers that immediately became standards, “Why Can’t You Behave?” and “Always True To You in My Fashion,” characterful and clever but irresistibly catchy. Even here, Porter couldn’t keep himself from distinguishing his art. “Behave” features a sly little doodad of a figure between the vocal lines that quotes the main strain of a different Kate number, “Another Opnin’, Another Show.” And “Fashion” gives us the educated Porter, as the title references a line from a poem by Ernest Dowson, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”

     Porter’s only really large composition besides Jubilee, Kiss Me, Kate counts seventeen numbers (besides reprises), many of them in a pastiche style evoking the Italy of the Shrew scenes—the ostinato drum  figure of “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily in Padua” or the tarantella that fires up “I Sing of Love.” The two Porters thus invented two completely different “musics” in Kiss Me, Kate, one for a musical comedy (in the backstage scenes) and the other for a…well, it really is a sort of operetta (in the Shrew scenes), though the lowdown and the ritzy collide with amusing dissonance in some of the songs. One instance is “Tom, Dick or Harry,” so prim and Elizabethan—there’s a touch of madrigal in it—till the last repeated phrase, one of the wicked little jests without which no Porter show was complete. Another instance is “We Open in Venice,” which, despite an accompaniment suggestive of a plucked lute, has its coarse side. Suddenly, Porter goes highbrow at the close: as the singers finish on the word “Venice!,” we hear the orchestra play the first eight notes of the tenor’s solo in the “Miserere” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

     What brought all this on? Put simply, it was the “musical play,” the more or less new genre developed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. By the time Porter started work on Kate, their Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), and the very experimental and unappreciated Allegro (1947) had revealed a new way of writing musicals. Leave It To Me! marked the old way: its essential elements were star performers and an enjoyable score. In the musical play, the essential element was a story made of arresting character conflict. This gave the performers parts of real bite and the score lots of emotional content. A homesick ambassador who tries to get fired isn’t arresting. But Carousel presented a belligerent hero who meets the one thing that can knock him down: love. That’s arresting.

     Porter told friends that Rodgers and Hammerstein had made life difficult for everyone writing musicals, because the public was now accustomed to the more intense drama of the musical play. And Kiss Me, Kate gave them that…in its score. It is Porter’s contribution that elevates Kate, texturing the crazy commotions of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with the waltzing gallantry of “Wunderbar,” Lilli’s spoofy coloratura in the first-act finale with the masochistic hunger of “So in Love.” As for hit tunes, the show itself was one big hit tune. Porter’s slump was over, and he was a prince of Broadway once more. It’s worth noting that when Hollywood began to concentrate on filming Broadway musicals faithfully rather than in reckless alterations, Kiss Me, Kate was one of the first so chosen. In my latest book, When Broadway Went To Hollywood, I had to deal in part with what happens to stage shows when they go California. I didn’t have room for Kiss, Me Kate in the book, because the history of the American musical—on both stage and screen—has become too rich for a single volume. So I’m doing it here.

     And it is indeed one of our classics, because with Kate Porter did not renounce the fun-filled show. Rather, he gave it—to quote Ernest Dowson’s “Cynara” poem again—“madder music and stronger wine”: a Big Sing score, with variety, hunger, nuance. Love music, we might say. Observant to a fault, Porter knew all about love except, perhaps, how to be in it. He understood how Fred and Lilli could part even when they’re wild about each other, and why their broken union must be mended. For all Kiss Me, Kate’s merriment, it nurtures powerful feelings at its core. The difference between what Porter used to write and what he wrote later is that Kiss Me, Kate has a heart.

 

2 comments:

  1. Once again, thanks for the article. I was wondering why no Kiss Me Kate in the book - this was appreciated. Don't we have to give the movie points for three things? 3) It keeps almost the whole score (expurgated and trilled though it may be) 2) the dancing is first rate, which leads to 1) Ann Miller (of all people!) is So Darn Good in this! Later.

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    1. Thank you for commenting.

      I left Kiss me, Kate out simply because of space considerations. Although I must admit I find the MGM adaptations from Broadway in Kiss Me, Kate's era heavy-handed.

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