With the 2014 edition of Summer Sounds receding in the rear-view mirror, my thoughts turn again to Cole Porter’s inner circle. As I continue to study the biographies of Porter’s intimate friends I’ve been meditating on the effects of the closet on his artistic out-put. His satiric impulse which encouraged him to lampoon life as he knew it as a gay man forced him to make enormous adjustments to succeed in a straight world. To me it was his greatest creative tension.
His shows tended to alternate between pieces that primarily appeal to the sensibilities of his coterie audience (Nymph Errant, Gay Divorce, Jubilee, Out of This World) dispersed between efforts that appealed to the public at large (Fifty Million Frenchmen, Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate). It was a life-long struggle. He was constantly being accused of not rising to his own standards. It seems to me he always rose to “his own standards” when the target audience was a group of close friends around the piano at a private party. When he was trying for the general audience, those that bought his records, listened to him on the radio, or spent money for theatre tickets after opening night, things were a little more hit and miss.
For my one-man show (a work in progress I’m calling Wilde and Woolley), I want to primarily work with the material which he wrote for the inner-circle. As a result I’m a little short of standards (his biggest hits tend to be missing) and long on novelty pieces and specialty numbers. That’s good for me as a character actor, but maybe short of popular appeal. Funny how this mirrors the creative tension with which Porter lived.
For starters I’m working on finding a theme song and identifying his most characteristic styles. For the former I have two candidates, “Wake Up and Dream” and “A Picture of Me without You” and the latter: “The Kling-Kling Bird on the Divi-Divi Tree”.
“Wake Up and Dream” was the theme song he wrote for a review in London which transferred to NYC in 1929. To me it seems to be one of the more personal statements of his creative credo. The reference to J. M. Barrie and Peter Pan is very revealing of the place that impishness and being in touch with the “inner child” meant to him.
“A Picture of Me without You” is a lilting ballad which employs his characteristic list song technique something he learned from W.S. Gilbert. It situates universal values in specific cultural (and sometimes satiric) contexts. In this case it woes the hearer by comparing their indispensability with other irresistible associations.
“Kling-Kling Bird” is a lampoon in the manner of Noel Coward. It protests that in spite of several exotic temptations on a tropical cruise he remains faithful to his first love. The irony is that the temptations are not gay, but straight, and therefore not really temptations at all. The ballad form employing the “little bird told me” trope is evocative of gay sensibilities making the whole impression amusingly off center (and mildly subversive).
I’ll be working on these three pieces as a mini-version of the Monty Woolley show (which will be the subject of my efforts in the winter of 2015) as a kind of warm up and preview. I’ll try to present these selections for upcoming open-mic nights.