What Is This Thing Called Cole?
I’d like to think Mr. Porter wouldn’t mind my making use of most of the title of one of his standards from 1929’s “Wake Up and Dream”.
It’s not the easiest question to answer. The Composer/Lyricist, Cole Albert Porter 1891-1964) from Peru, Indiana was heir to a fortune and was educated at Yale and Harvard before America entered The Great War of 1914-1918, and our adventurous subject entered no less than The French Foreign Legion in 1917.
He’d had his first Broadway engagement in 1916 with, “See America First”, which featured the first song in the revue that’s being reviewed here, a curiosity called ” I’ve a Shooting Box in Scotland”. It was meant to be a satire involving the war ongoing in Europe, but as George S. Kaufman once quipped, “Satire is something that closes on Saturday night.” And, so it did. (Interesting that America’s most popular satire for the last 40 years has been on Saturday nights).
However, one early failure, an enlistment in the Foreign Legion and a world war – not to mention a complex liberal sexual orientation marriage to a rich divorcee, and his own inheritance of millions (when indeed that was an enormous amount of money) was not about to thwart a true genius for both beguiling melodies and a nearly incomparable wit for sophisticated lyrics. His songs, originally sung at his own parties, got the attention of international show folk, among them no less than the enthusiastic praise of Irving Berlin, and Porter’s works were by the end of the 20’s, mesmerizing audiences on Broadway and the West End of London.
This revue compiled and directed by Ben Bagley was first performed in New York’s Square East (15 West 4th St., which was later to become The Bottom Line). It opened in 1965, just months after Porter’s passing and revitalized the interest in a plethora of his less well-known songs from his immeasurable oeuvre.
It originally featured Broadway stars, Kaye Ballard, and Harold Lang, along with the then lesser known, Carmen Alverez, William Hickey, and Elmarie Wendel.
It’s interesting to note that this composer’s overview, playing in Greenwich Village, was sandwiched in the decade just between “A Kurt Weill Cabaret” (1963 at The Village Gate) and “Jaques Brel Is Alive And Well and Living In Paris” (1967 also at the Gate). All of these shows were substantial and significant hits and all for the same reason: they featured brilliant songs brilliantly performed.
Bagley’s Porter revue ran more than a season and launched a National Tour as well as engagement in Washington, San Francisco, and two in Chicago in the 70’s: the first being a flop at The First Chicago Center. It featured some celebrated names, but no dice. The second one that opened in November, 1979 at The Body Politic, and was the hit of the season in the city Mr. Bagley dissed as ” That Cow Town”, after that first disappointment.
He was later astonished at the unexpected enthusiasm featuring total unknowns at the modest venue on Lincoln Avenue. I know. I was fortunate enough to have been in it.
It was directed with a faithful simplicity by Dean Button and Dennis Grimaldi with a cast of two men and three women, per the original. To be immersed in the genius of this American nonesuch for nearly a year, and to actually be paid an Equity salary in so doing was something of a slice of heaven.
What the York Theater is providing now for the remainder of this week until Sunday afternoon is a delicious taste of that quintessential New York slice. Director Pamela Hunt has assembled a quartet of Broadway veterans consisting of two lovely young ladies, a youthful song and dance man and a venerable elder statesman of musical theater from the Great White Way: Lauren Molina (a brilliant soprano of considerable allure), Diane Phelan (a brassy dame, with a strong voice and comedic, chops), Danny Gardner (a strong singer and extraordinary dancer, with a decided echoes of Fred Astaire, and Clifton Webb), and the indefatigable Lee Roy Reams of nearly countless New York and London credits. With this Musical in Mufti setting, they’ve had but 30 hours rehearsal to present the show, “On Book”, as it were, and yet deliver with charm, the passage of history of several decades through the eyes of this inimitable being called Cole. Six performances are left: Thursday the 17th at 2:30, and 8:00, Friday, the 18th at 8:00, Sat. the 19th at 2:30,& 8:00 and Sunday closing matinee at 2:30.
Those who cherish Mr. Porter’s sensibilities must rush to 54th and Lex before the entire world declines anymore!
All Photos: Ben Strothmann
The York Theatre Company’s Fall 2019 Series Celebrating Broadways’ Legendary Cole Porter- Musicals in Mufti @ Theater at St. Peter’s Church, 54th St., East of Lexington, Manhattan-Box Office 212- 935- 5820. Tickets: $50.