Today, vocalist, raconteur Harvey Granat’s Y Series (Songs and Stories) continues with a salute to the incomparable Cole Porter. Who better to shed light on the life and work of this extraordinary talent than writer/editor/ historian Robert Kimball whose excavating scholarship and wit have gifted us Cole, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter and The Unpublished Cole Porter as well as numerous volumes on other seminal composers and lyricists? Granat introduces his guest as one of the very few in the field of whom he’s in awe.
Cole Porter (1891-1964) was “born in the show biz capital of the world, Peru, Indiana,” Granat begins. Unlike other struggling artists of that era, his grandfather’s coal and timber businesses more than amply provided for the family. Though he was expected to be a lawyer, the boy began piano at eight, wrote his first operetta at ten, hundreds of songs at Yale (Including the Bulldog fight ditty), and was finally advised by the Dean of Harvard Law School to “Leave here and write songs.” Thank God.
Granat opens with a rich, resonant version of “From This Moment On” (dropped from Out of This World) in which “hoop-de-doo” sounds organic, followed by the sophisticated “I Concentrate on You,” giving us a glimpse of Porter’s range. The vocalist strolls a bit, looking in faces. We buy it. “See America First,” an attempt, we’re told, “to Americanize Gilbert and Sullivan,” was the artist’s first Broadway show. One prominent review read “See America Last.” At this point, Irving Berlin was trying to get the young man to be himself musically. Later, it would be this humble giant who’d recommended Porter for his first big commission.
With a check from his grandfather, Porter traveled widely abroad, honing the elegant, cosmopolitan, dissipate life he would musicalize with gimlet eye. He met and married Linda Lee Thomas with whom a deep and abiding friendship lasted throughout his life despite innumerable outside liaisons. Revue work followed. By 1929, Porter had three successful shows on Broadway despite The Depression. We sing along with “You Do Something to Me” (Fifty Million Frenchmen). These programs are always happily, partly participatory. Most of the audience inevitably knows lyrics.
“Let’s Fall in Love” (Paris) once began, Chinks do it/Japs do it/Even Laplanders up in Lap do it…and was corrected. Years later, another change ensued when a part of Porter’s uber-familiar “I Get a Kick Out of You” ran: I shouldn’t care/For nights in the air/That the fair Mrs. Lindbergh goes through… which was written before the famous kidnapping. Lyrics were duly changed. Granat points out internal rhymes. Anything Goes, host to the song, was the first of nine shows that ran in New York over a year. Nine. “Not even Rodgers and Hammerstein topped that,” muses Kimball.
Original Sheet Music for “Anything Goes”
The New Yorkers gave us “Love for Sale,” evidently one of Porter’s favorite songs, which was banned on the radio for 30 years. …Appetizing young love for sale/If you want to buy her/his wares/Follow her/him and climb the stairs… is now sung by both men and women. Hang out with the erudite Robert Kimball and this is the kind of thing one learns. “What Is This Thing Called Love?” arrives with Granat’s heart in his throat. You took my heart– stage whisper: and you threw it away…Lahm’s accompaniment is sigh-worthy.
A buoyant “You’re the Top” is exemplary of Porter’s laundry list numbers. Granat effervescently bubbles through this one, punctuating with his left hand. An ocean liner trip with Moss Hart, ostensibly to write Jubilee, stopped in Fiji and Indonesia “where,” our host notes, “Porter heard an unfamiliar beat.” The initial result was 106 bar “Begin the Beguine.” (Most songs are 36 bars.) Conjuring chiffon and tails, Granat croons a lovely version. His voice soars and curls back on itself, never going out where the air’s too thin. “It was 23 years before Arte Shaw’s hit interpretation,” Kimball notes.
1934 saw Porter’s show The Gay Divorce turn into the film The Gay Divorcee. (The Hayes Office wouldn’t allow “divorce” in a film title.) “Today,” Granat quips, “It would be called That f-up marriage.” Too true. The host’s interpretation of “Night and Day” is not just lilting, but poignant. How often does a singer recognize that aspect of the song let alone convey it?
“One of the honors I’ve enjoyed during this series is to have this gentleman in my audience,” our host says paving Steve Ross’s path to the piano. Arguably the best interpreter we have of Porter today is using his own battered and beloved 1970s copy of Kimball’s The Unpublished Cole Porter for music. “This book changed my life,” he says respectfully. (The two evidence a mutual admiration society. In fact, the three of them do.)
We’re treated to an immutable “Who Said Gay Paree?” – halting, tender, wistful; stripped down to its essence, and an exuberant “Can Can”- with crisp phrasing that manages to raise an eyebrow without losing a stitch. The latter then turns into a waltz, a minuet, and finally, circles infectiously back to the kick line. This is happy! How many times have we heard this song?! With panache and phrasing, Ross manages to evoke laughter.
Ironically, Kimball just missed meeting Porter. He was to be among attendees at a presentation of an honorary degree from Yale bestowed on the artist at The Waldorf. Too many people, the icon’s handlers declared. Fate. Little could the young man guess he’d end up as Artistic Advisor to Porter’s estate
Porter’s horrific riding accident, Kiss Me Kate, and the utterly lovely “Samantha” from High Society-“Sing out! This is the finale!” Granat urges us, round out the thoroughly entertaining program.
Photos of Cole Porter, sheet music cover, and posters courtesy of Wikipedia
Opening: Harvey Granat, Cole Porter, Robert Kimball
Songs and Stories with Harvey Granat presents
The Music & Lyrics of Cole Porter
Special Guests: Robert Kimball, Steve Ross
Musical Director/Piano David Lahm
November 16, 2016
92nd and Lexington Avenue
Venue Web Site
NEXT: The Lyrics of E.Y. Yip Harburg
Special Guests: Ernie Harburg and Deena Rosenberg Harburg
Thursday December 14 at 12:00