Songs for the Season

Unique Musical Programs

Cole Porter and Me

No doubt leading ladies and leading men rule as the queens and kings of cabaret.  But there is also room for the jester.  Comedy acts have always been the other attraction in clubs and cabaret, a comfortable contrast to the purveyors of romance.

As a character actor in the musical theatre I often played the clown that put the comedy in musical comedy.  So I envision my choice of material for my own act to be largely centered round novelty material.

Let me explain a bit.  In as much as you can generalize, Tin Pan Alley had three genera of songs, Ballads, Up-tunes (dance tunes), and Novelty numbers.  Novelty numbers could, and often did, include funny songs, but also charming or off-beat conceptions that extended the other genera into places that were not typical, hence: the name “novelty.”  So a novelty song could be a ballad or up-tune that had comedic intent.  In musical comedy this often involved special material written for a certain known comedian’s persona.

In comedy, I think it is vital for the performer to know his place in the universe.  You must understand and have command of your image: how you appear to the audience, how the public perceives your personal character. This is a vital element on which your ability to amuse depends.  In my case, I have two classic characters in which I find fertile comic ground.   These two comic “types” are both ones with which I can identify and which an audience readily identifies in me, the performer.

The “buffoon” is the first classic type I’m talking about.  Both inept villains and pompous know-it-alls (and absent minded professors) fall into the buffoon type and I’ve played many.  The fun comes from an audience’s perception of the distance between what the character thinks of himself and the obvious truth.  Roles of this type for me include Clarence Cutler in “Boy Meets Boy” and an assortment of other bumbling ‘sneeds’ and ‘snidelys’ that I’ve played.

The “pathetic clown” is the other classic gold I’ve prospected over the years.  One of my friends in graduate school, Carolyn Martino, who, incidentally, has become a solo performer herself, having observed my work for some time told me she thought I was a “Victor Moore” type.  It was years before I realized fully what she meant.  But when I finally got it, it was very helpful.  I was eventually cast in a summer-stock production of Anything Goes playing the role that Cole Porter and company created for Victor Moore.  And the part fit like a glove.

Victor Moore is one of “The Great Clowns of Broadway” profiled by Stanley Green in book by that title.  To summarize, Moore had a lengthy career from the turn of the 20th Century to the 1960’s and was featured in stage and screen works by George M. Cohen, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins and, most notably, by Cole Porter.  He is known more today for his screen work, particularly as the side-kick to Fred Astaire in the movie “Swing Time.”  His parts written for stage are notoriously hard to cast these days (Joel Grey is playing his role as an old vaudevillian in the current revival of Anything Goes) because Victor Moore was so distinctly inimitable, one of a kind.  But I nailed him.  Of course, I came by it naturally, as my friend Carolyn (bless her heart) pointed out.

According to Green, Moore’s professional persona was evident early on.  As a juvenile he co-starred in Cohen’s “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway” with Fay Templeton.  He played a “reformed” boxer with a gentle, sentimental side.  He went on to specialize in scrappy, street smart characters with a sentimental heart of gold.  In more mature roles he was often cast as a lovable if nefarious con-man or politician.  His gentle, unassuming personality sent up the incongruous professions of his characters, none more than when he played Vice-president Throttlebottom in Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.” His portrayal is said to have crystalized the public’s estimation of that second-banana in the government (the Vice-President) as being a non-entity.

To me, Moore epitomized the classic sad clown who is always out of his depth, but manages to triumph in an orgy of passive aggression, exaggeratedly self-effacing, but completely adorable.

Victor Moore was eulogized (by playwrights Lindsay and Crouse) as “someone all the members of the audience wanted to take home with them.”

I researched  Moore’s career thoroughly, and tried to track down every piece of music written for him.  My interest paid off, when in 1988 I won the Victor Moore role in a revival of Cole Porter’s “Leave It to Me” at the Equity Library Theatre.  Moore’s main song in this show was a big hit for me and resulted in some great notices and led on to other opportunities.

It also led me to continue my association with Cole Porter.  For some years I tried to put together an act for cabaret featuring Porter’s more sophisticated novelty material working with performance coach James Followell.  I tried to associate the material with the persona of Porter’s friend and mentor Monty Woolley.  That act never came off, but it kept me engaged with Porter tunes for a very long time.

In reflecting on that failure, I realized how much I liked the thread in Porter’s work that I call “Americana.”  Every so often, Porter just let his Hoosier roots rip and the results were some very charming inventions.  Some of them, including one introduced by Victor Moore, will be included “In the Good Old Summertime.”

So in devising the program at hand, I’m finding material that relates to fun in the summer.  I’m looking for nostalgic charm, and sentiment, the sort of entertainment that would have worked in the family parlor or with a small band at a seaside resort.  And yes, some of it will be funny!

I’ll also be taking a closer look at the Judy Garland film “In the Good Old Summertime.” Although it wasn’t my first frame of reference for my act, I don’t want to disappoint audience expectations since I’ve lately discovered it’s known and loved by many.

I’ll have more to share about how this project is developing, coming soon.

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