Songs for the Season

Unique Musical Programs

Archive for the tag “Cole Porter”

Up next: Wilde and Woolley

Up next is a Gay Pride edition of Wilde and Woolley: a new and improved exploration of Cole Porter’s inner circle at 8:00 pm on Saturday, June 11, 2016 Davenport’s Cabaret.  When the show debuted at Dav’s last fall it was very well received.  Patrons loved the Cole Porter songs and lore, but were also very impressed with the story-telling.

So we were delighted to be asked back.  We’ve made some improvements in the show and it will also again feature the music direction, accompaniment and vocals by the multi-talented Philip Seward.

Not just a tribute to the creative resilience of two famed pre-Stonewall gay icons, it spells out the varying effect that the closet had on Cole Porter and Monty Woolley, told cabaret style with an enchanting mixture of song:  familiar standards and unique rarities by Porter and his contemporaries.


When Daniel researched the role of Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (one of his favorite theater experiences) he discovered that there was a story to tell about Cole and Monty’s friendship that was not only touching and historic but very worth knowing about and one that moved him personally.

Please join us at Davenport’s for this special Pride event.


How’d It Go?

David Stephens thinks that what makes my cabaret approach somewhat unique is that I try to bring “theater to cabaret and cabaret to theatre”. My sense is that I’m attempting a genre that is as much a small ‘one-man show’ as a cabaret set.

The experience of my audience at the Wilde and Woolley premiere bore this out. The almost universal response I received in feed-back was “what a story-teller you are”.  The audience appreciated the event as story and I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment in that I succeeded in presenting a coherent story in song and dialogue from beginning to end.

In addition to the “tell me a story” appeal, my intent was to explore the issue of how the closet affected these two pre-Stonewall gay artists. This also seemed to come across.  When they saw the show people no longer puzzled about what the “Wilde” was doing in the title.

As a try-out I learned that my program can be expanded. In the debut I had an enthusiastic audience response but came in about ten minutes short of an hour.  I cut the show to fit the demands of the one-hour only format and it worked.  However I gave short shrift to several story aspects (and songs) that I think can be added back to advantage.

The Porter novelty material works like gang busters. I’m proud to have brought rare ‘gems’ to the program, but not for its own sake.  I think that the main reason songs like ‘Football King’, ‘Kling-Kling Bird’ and ‘Pets’ aren’t that much done is because they are material for comedian/actor rather than chanteur and I have the entertainment chops to work them. That also makes my program unique.

I’m also proud that I managed to act/sing the ballads successfully. Even with a voice impaired by Rhinitis the ballads worked in the debut because they were motivated by the story and served the emotional truth of it.

So as far as self-evaluation goes, I was most pleased with my accomplishment as a writer and mostly pleased with myself as a performer. I very much look forward to continue with this project.  I think it has ‘legs’.

Wilde and Woolley Publicity Campaign Underway

I wanted to convey my enthusiasm for delving into Cole Porter’s inner circle musically. We think we found a graphic image that works:


Congratulations to my photographer Peter Ringenberg, layout artist Kat O’Connor and caricature artist Pol Subanajouy for a successful collaboration.

Event graphic details

We hope you’ll plan to join us for our one time only debut of Wilde and Woolley. Take a look at my blog to explore how my background with Cole Porter, Kaufman and Hart, and my fascination with Monty Woolley brought me to this creative place. If you decide to attend, I know you’ll enjoy the music, including both Cole Porter standards and rarities and also my tribute to the creative resiliency of pre-Stonewall gay artists.

Uncle Monty made me do it.

“Daniel Johnson plotting mayhem as Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came to Dinner”

The story of the writing of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” captured my imagination the first time I heard it. A comedy about a thinly disguised author and radio personality Alexander Woollcott (the irascible, opinionated and queer head of the Algonquin Round Table) side tracked by an injury on the icy stoop of an ordinary Ohio family when we was on a celebrity tour and the ensuing mayhem he visited upon the lives of his hapless hosts while recuperating.

Kaufman and Hart tried to write dramatic material for their friend through the years and then one weekend Woollcott visited Moss Hart’s farm in Pennsylvania and his visit created such havoc that the playwright thought such a visit might make a comedy with little exaggeration.

I read everything I could get my hands on about Woollcott, including a wonderful biography “Smart Aleck” by Howard M. Teichmann which was later turned into a one-man show. I thought that show might be a fabulous showcase for me but I could never get the rights.

Then came my stint of work in Cole Porter shows, from Mooney in “Anything Goes” and Goodhue in “Leave it to Me” to Pops, et. al. in the latest revisal of “Kiss Me Kate.” It wasn’t long before I also boned up on the life and times of Cole Porter’s side-kick Monty Woolley. The one man show on Woollcott never panned out, but I was cast as Sheridan Whiteside (the Woollcott part) in “Man” the first time I had a chance to audition for the part. And I had a delicious time playing it.

At one time in New York I realized that I’d become something of an expert on Woolley and considered taking on the task of writing a full-length biography. When I ran the idea by a theatre historian he warned me that unless I had original resource material (like letters from or to Woolley found in someone’s attic) that I probably wouldn’t succeed with the subject.

I headed that warning but continued to read anything and everything I could get my hands on concerning Monty Woolley and Cole Porter. As it turned out much of it was based on secondary sources, so there isn’t much. The best new research comes from oral histories and interviews of people now mostly gone or unapproachable.

However, the idea of the relationship between two pre-Stonewall gay icons and the varied ways they coped with the closet in their creative lives continues to fascinate me, as do all the juicy stories (some quite disreputable).

I kept thinking that if Noel Coward (Monty and Cole’s mutual friend) might have a successful club act based on his life and songs, then why couldn’t Monty had he only lived a little longer? Known throughout his life to entertain at Cole’s private parties – parties that inspired the club life of the Cafe Society, then why shouldn’t he have had such an act. And since he didn’t, why shouldn’t I do one for him.

And that’s how I fell in love with my gay Uncle Monty, not the one I knew personally, but the one who haunted my imagination. I hope the love I feel my “gay uncle” will radiate through my musical homage to Cole and Monty’s lives and times. Won’t you join me and my collaborators starting next October 15 at Davenport’s Cabaret in Chicago?  Visit or call (773) 278-1830.

Wilde and Woolley Date Set

Save the date, October 15, 2015!  If you wish you knew Cole Porter, you’ll love the show I’m working on.

Cole Porter stamp The creative heritage of Cole Porter is woven into the fabric of our lives.  Tunes and images resonate through film scores and television commercials not to mention jazz clubs and pop concerts.  We know him from “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and from the shows Anything Goes, Can-Can and Kiss Me Kate.

In my own acting career I have been privileged to play supporting roles in revivals of three of his shows and the experiences were among my most memorable, especially playing the comic lead in the 1988 revival of Leave It To Me off-Broadway in NYC.  My special take as a singing actor on Porter’s music is from the point of view of the character actor Monty Woolley, Cole’s best friend and frequent collaborator who held a storied place in Cole’s inner circle.

monty-wooleyMany of Porter’s most amusing and intriguing creations were written primarily to the taste of Woolley and his other intimate friends.  I identify closely with Monty Woolley’s biography and find the story of his relationship to Cole Porter to be fascinating.  That is the story I will tell in Wilde and Woolley, my new cabaret show.

I hope that you will find it entertaining too.  Please save the date:  October 15, 2015 at Davenport’s in Chicago.

The Magic of Spring Program

Here is the song list for “The Magic of Spring: An Earth Day Cabaret”  Please see below for other details about the event.  I hope you can join in our celebration.

Birdsong Medley, Cole Porter and others.

Spring is Here, Rodgers and Hart

Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, Tom Lehrer

Lavender Blue.  Traditional (after Burl Ives)

Queen of the May, Louise Cloutier and Daniel Johnson

Merry Haymakers,  Traditional  (after Bob Copper)

Canterbury Medley, Nevill Coghill & R. Hill, J. Hawkins (after Chaucer)

April Song, Chaucer’s Prologue and Love Will Conquer All

What’s In Your Easter Basket (parody by Daniel Johnson), Irving Berlin

This Is My Holiday, Lerner & Lowe

You Must Believe In Spring, Legrand & the Bergmans

Martha: the Last Pigeon, Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman

Mother Earth, Traditional (lyric after Neil Young)

So What’s in a Closet?

Wilde and Woolley continues in development.  As I was saying in my August 28, 2014 blog entry (below), this project explores the effects of “the closet” on the creative lives of Cole Porter and his inner circle, focusing on Cole Porter’s relationship with mentor, colleague and best friend, Monty Woolley.  What’s that to me?  Well, It should be noted that as an actor, I’m a Monty Woolley type.  To say I identify with him is an understatement.

As a pre-Stonewall gay person I have personal experience with the disapprobation heaped upon gay people in much less accommodating times.  Through much of my life being homosexual was clinically regarded as a sickness.  It wasn’t until 1973 that the psychiatric establishment declassified our orientation as a mental disorder.  In many places acting on gay impulses was illegal and dangerous.  Sodomy laws weren’t finally struck down until 2003.  We were simply forced to make adjustments in our private lives out of self-defense.  These adjustments are popularly known as being “in the closet”.  And, in my day many gay people like me grew up wondering if they were alone in their orientation.

I remember the hunger that I had as a young person to understand myself through the creative works of other gay people.  I read gay literature, sought out gay movies and plays and listened to musical theatre on record and tape.  The first time I read the song title “Kling-kling bird on the Divi-divi Tree” I knew I had found a rare bird indeed.  I devoured the works of Cole Porter along with Noel Coward and Rodgers and Hart and sought out every Painted Smiles release I could lay hands on, because I wanted to explore “The Decline and Fall of the Entire World Through the Eyes of Cole Porter.”  Later in New York after I made my debut off Broadway in a Cole Porter revival I sought out and befriended Painted Smiles’ Ben Bagley.  He was the producer of the Shoestring Reviews in the 1950’s and 60’s and his records celebrated the off-center (and often gay) material written for the musical stage and fabulous fodder for cabaret.

The place that putative gay artists found in the theatre was a precarious one pre-Stonewall.  It was often commercial to be edgy or provocative, but to be publically gay (with few later exceptions) was simply not possible.  Still we know that many gay artists thrived in the world of theatre.  The subjects of my project, Porter and Woolley were special cases because of their places within the Eastern establishment.  Both were darlings of the upper-crust.  High society was much more tolerant of gay lifestyles if the gay person, as Mrs. Campbell said, “didn’t frighten the horses”.  Our boys created public personas that were outrageous without actually being out of the closet.  There was a game that cognoscenti played gossiping about who was gay in show business:  nearly everyone playing this game had Cole Porter and Monty Woolley near the top of their lists.

It is my contention, that the material associated with them, might very well have been a successful cabaret piece concerning their closeted gay lives had they lived into the 1970’s.  We know Monty Woolley often performed the “party songs” that Porter wrote for his private friends.  I propose that he could have had such a success in cabaret in the age of gay liberation!  Compare their somewhat younger gay contemporary, Noel Coward. He had notable success as a cabaret artist when his act revived his career late in his life in Las Vegas and on television.  My show seeks to give “Monty” his chance and Cole and friends their just desserts.


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.

Davenport’s Debut

Last night I made my Davenport’s debut.

For those who are not familiar with Chicago Cabaret, Davenport’s is a prime venue which happens to be the “home-bar” of the Chicago Cabaret Professionals. The program went very well and I thought I was well received. I performed a set chosen to introduce my work to the community answering the many questions I’ve had as to when they’d be hearing me sing.

I did my opening number from Boy Meets Boy the sophisticated and witty “Me” by Bill Solly, followed by a special interpretation of “Please Don’t Make Me Be Good” by Cole Porter and finished with “Poisoning Pigeons” by Tom Lehrer which David thinks (and I agree) kind of nails my Monty Woolley image. It gave me a chance to allude to my plans for Wilde and Woolley and let those in doubt know where I’m coming from!

Many of my fellow CCPers and SongShoppers attended as well as my spouse, David, and voice teacher, Matthew. It was an honor to be chosen for this prestigious showcase and a great pleasure to work with Nick Sula who was our music director and splendid accompanist.

I heard several supportive comments about my planned Wilde and Woolley project and people wanted to know when they will see it! I guess that means I’m committed. Let’s hope that Davenport’s will be interested in hosting it. David thinks it’s the right project for next steps with CCP.

There are several other irons in the fire however and I’ll be making my way through a number of options for next steps in general. I’m working toward an open mic night later in May, but am not fixed yet on what to perform.

Meanwhile I’ll just bask in the after-glow of an excellent Davenports – CCP Strut Your Stuff debut.

Voice of the People

Before I discovered musical theater as a young person, I was quite taken by folk music. It was beat-nick – hootenanny times and my favorite singers were Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel and Burl Ives. I never lost my appreciation for roots music as popular taste moved in other directions with the rock revolution. I have always liked bluegrass and folk.

But I went deeply into musical theater while I found little interest in rock music (except for rockabilly and folk rock). I had only a detached appreciation for the great rock artists. Who doesn’t like the Beatles,

Today I think of folk music as an important component of what I like to call Americana. This is a place where folk, Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook intersect. I noticed that my favorites, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, had a strong affinity for Americana behind their enthusiasm for European models. Both were tuned in to popular music of their day: Stephen Foster / George M. Cohan meet Gilbert and Sullivan. And it is the place where my Songs for the Season repertoire primarily resides.

My experiment with performing Big Rock Candy Mountain succeeded in surprising but not altogether unexpected ways. My colleagues and audience at SongShop Live’s “Take the Ride of Your Life” seemed to agree whole heartedly that I remind them of Burl Ives and can fairly channel his musical material. This is such a rich vein of opportunity that it cannot be ignored. My one big concern about Songs for the Season is how to find an audience for my retro tastes. The Burl Ives connection may be one answer.

The enthusiasm with which BRCM was received has me thinking more seriously about a Burl Ives tribute show. One saving grace for me is that his repertoire crossed so many genera. Although he started out as a real folk troubadour, his career also encompassed film and theatre music which could lend variety and will probably be more interesting for me personally.

The other re-enforcing factor is that the more I listen to his recordings, the more impressed I am with his vocal technique as an aspirational model. He had such a pure “cantabile” quality and knack for lucid phrasing. His is a sound which I admire and can aspire toward.

So stay tuned. There may soon be more Burl Ives in the works: A Poor Wayfaring Stranger, The Foggy-foggy Dew, and yes, I happily observe that Burl Ives recorded Cole Porter’s The Kling-kling Bird in the Divi-divi Tree. Are we having fun yet?

Post Navigation