PORTER: Can-Can / Mexican Hayride

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Can-Can (Original Broadway Cast 1953)

Mexican Hayride (Original Broadway Cast 1944)

The Pirate (Original Film Soundtrack 1948)

Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter


Cole Porter was – without a doubt – the most well-travelled of all Broadway composers. His parties in Venice, cruises down the Rhine and hot nights in Bora-Bora were the stuff of legend.

But, most intriguingly, Porter's love of travel also made its way into his work. Some shows were set on cruises (Anything Goes), others on global journeys (Nymph Errant), or some in the kind of out-of-the-way places he adored, like Siberia (Leave It To Me) or the Panama Canal (Panama Hattie).

This collection is devoted to three musicals (two for stage, one for screen) that he wrote during the decade from 1943-1953 and it reflects a trio of his different geographic passions – France (Can-Can), Latin America (Mexican Hayride) and the Caribbean (The Pirate).

What's worth noting is the way that in each of the pieces he manages to give you a real flavour of the place you're visiting, while remaining quintessentially Cole Porter – with witty, wry lyrics and plangently haunting melodies.

Can-Can began with its producers, Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin. Feuer came back from a stint with the army in Paris during World War II convinced he wanted to do a musical set in Montmartre in the 1890s. Martin, who spent his life fighting censorship, knew the cultural climate of the times and felt it would make a great story.

The two men had scored their initial hits with Where's Charley? and Guys and Dolls, both scored by Frank Loesser, but they felt they needed a different sound this time around.

With musicals like Paris and Fifty Million Frenchmen under his belt, it's no wonder they turned to Porter. He instantly approved of the idea, but had no desire to meet with the librettist, Abe Burrows.

Even in this post-Oklahoma! era of increasingly integrated musicals, Porter wanted to keep working the way he always had.

'Just tell me what you want and I'll write it', he said to Feuer and Martin, 'let me stick to what I can do'.

Martin offered Porter one piece of advice before he began writing. He told him to avoid creating any songs about Paris itself because 'Songs about Paris are so stale'.

Had he known his composer better, he would have realized this was like waving a red flag at a bull. After one early production meeting, where Porter saw designer Jo Mielziner's spectacular painted backdrop of Paris, he calmly went home and went to work.

He didn't just write 'any song about Paris', but the classic song about the City of Light – 'I Love Paris'.

Even Martin had to grudgingly admit its genius, once he heard the song's unforgettable release ('I love Paris every moment …') and marvelled at the way Porter could make 'things we've heard a hundred times before suddenly sound new'.

But while some of the Can-Can score is vintage champagne ('It's All Right With Me', 'C'est Magnifique'), a lot of the numbers, especially the comedy ones ('Never, Never Be an Artist', 'Come Along With Me') have very little fizz.

A lot of that can be attributed to the personal trauma he went through during the writing of the show. His beloved mother, Katie, the major influence in his life suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and Porter rushed to her side in the Indiana town where he grew up.

To take his mind off the pain, he later recalled beating the orgiastic rhythm of the 'Can-Can'  finale on the porch railing outside her bedroom and trying to avoid thinking about the specter of his mother's death by creating lyrics like:

'If Van Gogh and Matisse and Cezanne can, Baby, you can can-can too.'

Katie Porter passed away on 2 August 1952 and although Cole continued to write the score for Can-Can, a lot of it was simply duty work and his heart wasn't it.

The show itself went through its own share of diva drama on the road. Lilo, the tempestuous German baroness who had married a French Marquis, was cast in the leading role of the show and got the lion's share of the songs.

But during rehearsals, she realized that choreographer Michael Kidd was stacking the deck in favour of a stunning young redheaded dancer named Gwen Verdon.

Verdon had only appeared in the chorus of a short-lived revue called Alive and Kicking, so she was virtually a new discovery.

Lilo tried to have her billing reduced, her scenes slashed and her songs eliminated. In fact, you'll only find Verdon briefly in one selection on this recording ('If You Loved Me Truly').

But Lilo couldn't stop Kidd from giving Verdon more and more to do in the dance numbers. On 7 May 1953, the night the show opened on Broadway, Verdon got all the audience's applause.

In fact, after one number, they wouldn't stop clapping. 'I was naked in my dressing room,' Verdon recalled, 'when [Michael Kidd] came rushing in and told me they wouldn't stop applauding. He wrapped a towel around me and shoved me back on the stage. They had already changed the scenery, and I found myself standing where I'd never been before, in a towel, while the people clapped and cheered.'

There was also a 1960 film version, starring Maurice Chevalier, Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra, best remembered for Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev visiting the set during shooting and sounding off on the 'Western decadence' of the project.

But in the end, Can-Can will best be remembered for making Gwen Verdon a star and inspiring Cole Porter to come up with some of his loveliest bittersweet ballads.

Mexican Hayride is one of those oddities: a show that was a 481-performance hit during its initial 1944 run and now only exists as a footnote in musical comedy history.

Produced by the flamboyant Mike Todd, it mainly existed as a vehicle for eccentric comic Bobby Clark, best known for his disguises. (In this one, for example, he appeared as a mariachi musician and a tortilla vendor.)

Porter's score was there to provide Mexican 'atmosphere', charm songs for leading lady June Havoc and a popular hit to help sell tickets. He did just that with 'I Love You'. His friend, the acerbic Monty Woolley, inspired the song's creation when he defied Porter to write a successful song using the hopelessly trite and clichéd title.

As always, Porter rose to a challenge and the soaring melody heard here, sung by Wilbur Evans, sent the song to the top of the charts, despite, as Porter admitted, 'its rather prosaic lyric'.

The Pirate proved to be one of the great disappointments of Porter's career. He was thrilled to be invited to create a score for Arthur Freed's famous movie musical unit at MGM, and the idea of writing to a libretto by the witty S.N. Behrman, directed by the sophis
Disc: 1
The Pirate (Original Film Soundtrack)
1 Introduction
2 Maidens Typical Of France
3 Never Give Anything Away
4 C'est Magnifique
5 Quadrille
6 Come Along With Me
7 Live And Let Live
8 I Am In Love
9 If You Loved Me Truly
10 Montmart'
11 Allez-vous en, Go Away
12 Never, Never Be An Artist
13 It's All Right With Me
14 Every Man Is A Stupid Man
15 I Love Paris
16 Can-Can
17 There Must Be Someone For Me
18 I Love You
19 Abracadabra
20 Count Your Blessings
21 The Pirate (Original Film Soundtrack): Mack The Bl
22 Pirate Ballet
23 Love Of My Life
24 Nina
25 You Can Do No Wrong
26 Be A Clown
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