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.”