Editor's Note: We're finishing up Steven's amazing series of essays on forgotten music theater history this month. Check out the collection to enjoy his encyclopedic knowledge and get ideas for crowd-pleasing musicals to revive.
Unless they’ve just emerged from a black hole, is there anyone on the planet who is not aware of Cole Porter? Along with Gershwin, Berlin, and Rodgers, Porter is one of the most readily recognizable composers. His music has been recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra to U2 and Annie Lennox. His output includes the scores for sixteen stage musicals, at least that many movie musicals, and countless contributions to the Great American Songbook.
Surprisingly, these days only two of his works, Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate, are regularly produced. In recent years, his most famous movie musical, High Society, was brought to the stage with mixed results.
Yet three Porter musicals, each with a superb score, are in need of new productions.
A pre-Forum Forum
Following the overwhelming success of Kiss Me, Kate, Dwight Taylor and Reginald Lawrence adapted the Roman comedy, Amphitryon by Plautus (author of the Pseudolus plays that became A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) into the risqué 1950 musical Out of this World. Cole Porter provided the score, Agnes De Mille and George Abbott directed, with choreography by Hanya Holm, who would later stage My Fair Lady.
Kiss Me, Kate moved to Broadway’s centerpiece theater, the Schubert, where it continued playing for 2 years, while Out of this World only lasted 20 weeks.
The story follows Mercury and Jupiter looking for humans on which they can play tricks. They find newlyweds, Helen and Art, on their honeymoon in Athens. Mercury plans to break up the couple, with Jupiter wielding his power, just for laughs. Meanwhile, Juno (Jupiter’s wife) is having her own bit of fun with an inept gangster.
The plot may not sound like much, but played in a Vaudeville style (similar to The Boys from Syracuse) it’s a light, pleasant evening of adult musical comedy. Porter loved using innuendoes in his lyrics, and the songs here are among his most racy. While the show was in previews, the song that would become its most renowned, “From this Moment On,” would be cut, but would be used as one of Bob Fosse’s first production numbers in the film of Kiss Me, Kate.
The show had trouble out of town, and it was felt that the show was too much like those “girly” musicals of the 1920s, something the critics failed to see was the point of the show. However, they raved when Charlotte Greenwood performed “Nobody’s Chasing Me,” “Climb Up the Mountain,” and “I Sleep Easier Now.”
Greenwood, a tall and extremely limber dancer (on display in the film version of Oklahoma! where she plays Aunt Eller), stole the show with her comic turns, and Juno is a great role for an older woman.
The original cast recording is a listening pleasure in itself. An inventive director could easily imagine staging an imaginative and pleasurable show!
American in Paris
Cole Porter fell in love with the City of Light when he was a young man, but late in his career he created the scores for two musicals with a Paris setting.
With a script by Abe Burrows and Porter’s music, Can-Can was popular in the early 1950s, and the 1960 film version stars Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Frank Sinatra, and Shirley MacLaine. While there have been attempts to revive this scintillating show, the show really needs attention. After all, what could be wrong with a show that includes such musical numbers as “C’est Magnifique,” “It’s All Right With Me,” and “I Love Paris?”
Set in a Montmartre dance hall, this is the story of a sanctimonious judge who considers the notorious dance tasteless and a moral issue. When he invents an alias, love steps in, but he’s revealed and complications including a duel, his disbarment, and public attention force him to reconsider. Of course, all ends happily.
While the show starred the popular French chanteuse Lilo, along with Hans Conreid and Erik Rhodes, with choreography by Michael Kidd, it was a charming young lady named Gwen Verdon who received the most attention. Verdon would, of course, win four Tony Awards for her roles in this show and Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town and Sweet Charity.
On a side note, the day that director Walter Lang was filming the Apache Dance, Nikita Kruschev and his wife visited the set. They were offended by the dance, which is a highlight of the movie. While your theater may not cause a scandal, Can-Can would be a genuine challenge to any local theater. But whatever the outcome, it would be worth the effort to see this incredible show!
The stars come out for this
By 1939, Greta Garbo was one of the top stars at MGM. Her performances in Anna Christie, Queen Christina, and Camille are cinematic treasures. However, Garbo had never done comedy. That is, until 1939 when she was cast opposite Melvyn Douglas in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. (While its politics are dated, along with Lubitsch’s daring comedy To Be or Not to Be starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, this is one of the top comedy classics!)
Fifteen years later, George S. Kaufman, his wife Leueen McGrath, and Abe Burrows collaborated with Porter to transform the movie into the musical Silk Stockings.
Three commissars have been sent to Paris to sell the Romanov jewels. Instead, they are enjoying the Parisian high life. When they fail to return to Moscow, Ninotchka Yaschenko is sent to accompany them back. At first only wanting to observe the city’s municipal works, she softens as she falls in love with theatrical agent Steven Canfield.
Meanwhile, Janice Dayton, a character based on Esther Williams, is romancing Russia’s “greatest composer,” Peter Boroff, to get him to compose the score for a musical version of War and Peace.
German film star, Hildegard Knef was cast as Ninotchka, and film actor Don Ameche (who would later win an Oscar for Cocoon) played Steven. Gretchen Wyler made her first appearance on Broadway as Janice. George Tobias (Bewitched) and Julie Newmar (Batman’s first TV Catwoman) were also in the cast. Porter’s last score for Broadway was among his best with
“Too Bad,” “Paris Loves Lovers,” “Stereophonic Sound,” “The Red Blues” and the romantic “All of You” highlighting the story. The show played a year on Broadway, toured and was presented in London’s West End.
In 1957, MGM produced the film, one of the last from the Arthur Freed unit. Fred Astaire took over the role of Steven Canfield, with Cyd Charisse giving one of her best performances as Ninotchka. Brassy Janis Paige is delightful as Janis Dayton, while George Tobias (repeating his stage performances) is joined by Jules Munshin and Peter Lorre as the commissars.
Astaire and Charisse, whose “Dancing in the Dark” is an MGM highlight (see That’s Entertainment for reference to it) are again well-matched and the pleasures of this musical are enhanced by their dancing.
Local theaters generally look toward Broadway for their musical selections, along with one or possibly two classics in the mix. Silk Stockings is just the sort of classic that deserves a new production. Even without all the talent that made it one of most pleasurable musicals of the 1950s.