In July 1953, Irving Berlin took his youngest daughter, Elizabeth, to see Cole Porter's new musical “Can-Can.” Duly impressed by his colleague's new show, Berlin dashed off a letter to Porter: “It's a swell show and I still say, to paraphrase an old barroom ballad, ‘anything I can do, you can do better.'”
The reference, of course, was to the verbal battle between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler in Berlin's own “Annie Get Your Gun.” But more importantly, the composer's totally unselfish gesture toward Porter was rare in a business known more for huge egos, competitive maneuvering, even backbiting. Think of today's television series “Smash.”
Yet by 1953, Porter had long been recognized as a master songwriter, his career then entering its fifth decade. And the list of hit musicals he had produced during that period was astonishing: “Anything Goes,” “Jubilee,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Out of This World,” to name but a few.
Many of Porter's tunes became instant classics and would subsequently become part of the Great American Songbook. Nearly two dozen of these standouts will be featured in the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's upcoming “Cole Porter Songbook,” part of the orchestra's pops series.
Guest vocalists are Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, who took the best featured actress prize for “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2006, and Ted Keegan, a performer who enjoyed a long run playing the title character in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
While numbers such as “Ridin' High,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Anything Goes,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Begin the Beguine” and “I've Got You Under My Skin” have long been admired for their infectious melodies, it's easy to overlook Porter's remarkable facility with a lyric.
Consider the diverse references in “You're the Top,” a standout from “Anything Goes.” “You're the top! You're the Colosseum. You're the top! You're the Louvre Museum. You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss, You're a Bendel bonnet, A Shakespeare sonnet, You're Mickey Mouse.”
“His lyrics were often topical but they were also sophisticated, something theater audiences were expected to be at the time,” said Joel Levine, music director of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. “There was the idea that an audience would be able to infer what things were about in his lyrics. In a Porter list song (such as “You're the Top”), he thought the lyrics were vastly more important than the music. It's all about the words.”
In Robert Kimball and Brendan Gill's book “Cole,” Gill discussed how Porter's extraordinary musical talent worked perfectly in tandem with his remarkable intelligence: “The Porter lyrics, composed at the same time as his music and indissolubly wedded to it bar by bar, syllable by syllable, were a product of intense intellectual concentration; the seemingly effortless rhythms came not from heaven but from a rhyming dictionary. Cole literally sweated to make good.”
For the Philharmonic's upcoming pops concert pair, Levine set out to sample the full range of Porter's compositional output, with a mix of American standards and clever, but lesser-known tunes that deserve greater exposure. The program features music from shows that spanned nearly 30 years, from 1928's “Paris” to 1957's “Les Girls.”
After narrowing his musical selections, Levine began the arduous task of finding suitable orchestral arrangements that would serve double duty: showcase the soloists' unique vocal talents with sophisticated charts that cast Porter's tunes in the best possible light.
“I found some terrific arrangements that Jack Everly created for his Symphonic Pops Consortium, another that the Indianapolis Symphony commissioned from Wayne Barker, Larry Blank's ‘A Cole Porter Festival Overture' that we'll use to open the second half, and then we commissioned Fred Barton to create arrangements of ‘I've Got You Under My Skin' and ‘Let's Do It' for us,” Levine said.
“Everybody in the pops business networks with each other. When you're depending on the kindness of the people we work with, it's good to have friends in this business. Putting this concert together has really been a labor of love.”