Cole Porter has been described as the quintessential American songwriter. With hit musicals like Kiss Me, Kate and Anything Goes it is hard to argue with such a proclamation. But it was Porter’s ability to write both his own tunes and lyrics that separated him from his peers during musical theater’s heyday.
Images of Porter’s life and career will be on display in Concord when a new production company, Buck Hill Productions, presents Cole, A Musical Memoir. The performance, which will be in a cabaret setting and will include an ensemble of five singers, a piano player, a bass and a drum, will blend lyrics and narrative as the story travels through Porter’s life from Peru, Ind., to his years at Yale, then New York, then Paris and then back to Broadway.
“When you listen to this show I guarantee there will be songs where people will say, ‘Cole Porter did that?’” said the show’s director, John McCluggage.
McCluggage said what distinguished Porter, who was born in 1891 and died in 1964, from his peers, legends like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, was that he wrote both his own tunes and the lyrics. McCluggage said there is a joke in the show when Porter is asked which comes first, the words or the music, and Porter answers “yes.” This ability in and of itself isn’t unusual, but it was the quality that McCluggage says made Porter so special.
“He could craft songs that stuck in your head because of the catchy tune but also made you think because of the lyrics,” McCluggage said.
McCluggage said the reason the company is not simply performing a musical tribute or “best of collection” is that Porter’s songs can stand on their own. He said Porter could write a song for a musical that went with the over-arching theme of the musical and helped aid the narrative and develop characters. But, removed from the musical, the song could still be enjoyed as its own entity. He said with recent changes in the music industry, this is a gift that may never be replicated.
McCluggage said in the past music fans would wait for a Beatles or Bruce Springsteen album to come out. Now artists create singles to be sold on iTunes. He said the thought of composing an entire album, thinking about which song follows which, etc., is beyond many of today’s artists. A musical is an album that comes to life.
In today’s market the cost of musicals is astronomic and so producers are unlikely to get behind one unless it is about a subject that is already marketable. Even that isn’t necessarily a recipe for success (Spiderman, anyone?). He said in Porter’s time, musicals could be tried out in Yale or New Haven before going on to Broadway. There were more opportunities to get shows out. Now musicals have to deliver right away and that is incredibly challenging and intimidating, according to McCluggage.
“In Porter’s day a show could have stunk but one or two songs were amazing,” McCluggage said. “That couldn’t happen anymore.”
Which is why Porter’s body of work becomes even more impressive over time. McCluggage, who was born in St. Louis, was involved with the original production of the show in California. When he moved to New Hampshire in hopes of opening his own production company, he knew Cole was how he wanted to introduce himself to Granite State audiences.
McCluggage said singers love performing Porter’s work because he had such a gift of language that he could, like Shakespeare, use words to show singers what he wanted emphasized in his songs.
“He allows singers to go there,” McCluggage said. “He gives singers a wide range of interpretation but also the ability to grasp what he’s trying to say.”
For fans of Porter, McCluggage said the evening would provide more than a few surprises. And for any music lovers out there who have yet to discover his genius, he said the night will be one you won’t forget.