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Archive for the tag “Monty Woolley”

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.

Whiteside_plots

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.

davenportspianobar.com/

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:

WW-poster-web

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.

Whiteside_plots
“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 davenportspianobar.com/ 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.

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.

Mini-Monty

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.

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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