Music: Begin the Beguine again
Friday 29 May 1998
In the wake of Frank Sinatra's death, the BBC screened the Cole Porter musical High Society, in which he sang "Who wants to be a millionaire? I don't" Oh really? That's pretty rich coming from Porter, who had money and married a whole heap more. But then this dazzling sophisticate who, unlike the rest of the Tin Pan Alley gang, wasn't poor, Jewish or straight, was already the all-time winner of the world's most disingenuous lyric award for the verse to his 1934 duet, "You're the Top": "At words poetic, I'm so pathetic/ That I often have found it best/ Instead of getting `em off my chest, to let `em rest unexpressed." Unexpressed? Please.
Leaving aside the wit which uses assonance and a quadruple rhyme to hint that the character is really a verbal whiz, Porter then launches into seven (yes, seven) refrains, an unceasing comic litany of superlatives that just gets funnier as it goes along. "You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire /You're an O'Neill drama You're Whistler's mama/ You're Camembert."
Beneath the dazzling surface, the orchestration never changes. Using a phrase borrowed from baritone Thomas Hampson, conductor and musical theatre supreme John McGlinn has told orchestras that for them "it's as boring as batshit, but when the singers are doing it, believe me, the people who paid $75 a seat are going to be having a wonderful time." He's right. Porter uses his verbal felicity not only to show off - though he was good at that - but in this instance to show his characters' energetic, heady pleasure in each other's company.
Yet that very conscious linguistic flair has led some detractors to link him with the American musical's other great composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, both of whom stand accused of being cold. McGlinn has little time for such criticism of either party. "In the work of both men there is a quite conscious sense of glee in the virtuosity of the word-spinning. It draws such attention to itself, you can't do anything other than sit there and gasp at the audacity. It's like watching Einstein scribble equations on a blackboard. Yet unlike, say, Lorenz Hart, neither of them ever violates the sense of a line for a rhyme. Porter is technically perfect."
And musically? This is where it gets really interesting. It's hardly controversial to announce that Porter knew how to write lyrics clever or cloudy, deft or deliciously dirty (there are plenty of those), but all that has blinded people to his musical strengths.
On Sunday night, McGlinn is conducting a concert of Porter material, from the well-known to London premieres. Anyone out there heard "Bulldog", his college fight song written while he was a sophomore at Yale? I thought not. With singers of the calibre of George Dvorsky, Kim Criswell and more, not to mention the BBC Concert Orchestra and a 24-strong chorus, McGlinn will be able to place Porter's musical gifts up where they belong. Preparing for the concert, McGlinn was surprised to discover that he has recorded more Porter than any other composer, even Jerome Kern, whose revolutionary work Show Boat was turned into a landmark recording by McGlinn a decade ago. (How many recordings do you know that inspired a sixteen- page essay in the New Yorker?)
Yet McGlinn has spent months working on the orchestrations which he intends to be as close as possible to the originals, many of which have been lost. Other songs have never been orchestrated before, "The computer plays all the parts back to you, without the words, which makes you realise how strong the music is. Except in certain circumstances, like the big baritone ballads "Begin the Beguine" or "In The Still of the Night", the music doesn't draw attention to itself. It's as it Porter had some barometer which meant that he could keep the music out of the way of those extraordinary words."
Not that the music is simple. Far from it. We may be able to hum along to "Good authors too who once knew better words/ Now only use four-letter words/ Writing prose/ Anything goes," but look at the score and you'll see how tight and neat the rhythm is.
Now try singing "Begin the Beguine". Back then the standard popular song was 32 bars long. This weighs in at 108. The basic rhythmic cells are like a slightly fast rhumba over which the melody twists and turns. Every time the melody's second line appears, it rises to a different pitch. Singers have nightmares about it.
Then there's his undervalued harmonic complexity. It's terribly deceptive. So much that sounds obvious is constructed out of key changes and harmonic shifts that make other musicians gasp. Of all the Broadway composers of the "golden age", he was the most technically grounded. In the 1920s he wrote a ballet, Within the Quota: "It's got quadruple counterpoint inversions, he knew how to do it. That he ended up doing work that didn't much call for that doesn't alter the fact that he knew how to balance melody, to make it rise or fall."
He also has a rather subtle trademark chromaticism. After its endlessly insistent one note opening phrases, the sinuous "Night and Day" slithers up and down the scale with barely a note that isn't a tone or a semitone away from the previous one. Perhaps that's why everyone from Fred Astaire to Tracy Thorn of Everyone But the Girl has recorded it.
Interpretation is something McGlinn is particularly beady about. "I know he just died, but to hear what Frank Sinatra does to a Cole Porter song... Performances like that are about the singer, not the song. Arrangements were tailored for the singer's personality so they all become the same. I've been accused of being more Catholic than the Pope in this regard but few of them have an awful lot to do with what the song is about. Of course, it doesn't mean I don't like Ella Fitzgerald's recordings. I do."
But for McGlinn, it's not the singer but the song. Hence the constant search for any and every indication of what the composer wanted. "That's why it's so important to hear how these were intended to be heard. 100 years from now it's going to be way too late."
`Side by Side by Porter' is on Sunday night at the Palace Theatre, London 0171 420 0171
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