H e was the top. He was delightful, delicious, de-lovely. Night and day, he was the one. And he was all that right here in New Haven for a little while in the 1910s.
New Haven has chosen an interesting year in which to honor songwriter and bon vivant Cole Porter. It’s not the centennial of his birth: Cole Porter was born in 1891 in Peru, Indiana. It’s not the anniversary of his death: Cole Porter died in 1964 in Santa Monica, California; the semicentennial of that event would be next year. It’s not a significant anniversary of any of his hit shows: Anything Goes debuted in 1934, Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 and the film High Society in 1956.
October 24, 2012, did mark the 75th anniversary of a horse riding accident that left Porter wheelchair-bound and in great pain for the last 27 years of his life; but that’s not the sort of thing you go around celebrating.
No, the date of destiny which spurred a semester’s worth of tributes to one of the most celebrated pop composers of the 20th century is from the spring of 1913.
That’s when Cole Porter graduated from Yale University.
Porter did his graduate studies at Harvard, where he intended to study law but soon switched to music. It remains to be seen if Cambridge, Mass. will soon be resonating with Porter melodies. But of all the fierce Harvard/Yale rivalries, bragging rights to Cole Porter’s student years goes uncontested. He was a Yale man.
The university figures mightily in the movie biography Night and Day, which starred Cary Grant as Cole Porter and the composer’s Yale classmate Monty Woolley (Broadway star of The Man Who Came to Dinner and the director of several early Cole Porter musicals) as himself. In the film, every time young Cole has a flop show, there’s a scene where numerous Yalies are shown being touched for loans to float the composer’s next endeavor, to help a fellow alum.
Even in non-anniversary years, Cole Porter is duly celebrated in this area. The Long Wharf Theatre once workshopped a new musical called Let’s Do It, built around Cole Porter songs with a fresh script by playwright A.R. Gurney (of Love Letters fame). In 2010, the Long Wharf revived Gurney’s man-and-his-dog comedy Sylvia, which has a particularly fetching scene in which a couple croons the Porter ballad “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” Numerous national tours of hit Porter musicals such as Kiss Me, Kate and Anything Goes have visited the state. When she was at the Yale School of Drama, actress Suzanne Cryer (later to gain immortality as “the Yada Yada Girl” on an episode of Seinfeld) devised a feminist revision of Kiss Me, Kate and the Shakespeare comedy which inspired it, retitled Kiss Me Shrew.
Connecticut’s allegiance to Cole Porter has been commendable, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the composer’s birth state of Indiana. Porter’s relatives still maintain the family homestead in Peru, and keep actively involved with Cole Porter projects.
Inside the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, there’s a special “Cole Porter Room,” styled like a cocktail lounge, replete with grand piano. When you visit the room, you can peruse a menu of Cole Porter classics and request that a well-dressed vocalist, standing by, sing your selection. It’s a most fitting tribute to the man whose songs can class up any joint, from a basement theater to a historical society.
Yale doesn’t have a shrine such as the Cole Porter Room devoted to that sterling member of the class of ’13, but his spirit on campus has never dissipated. The actual Yale School of Drama building—and that graduate program itself—may have been created a decade or so after Porter’s graduation, but he belonged to the same undergraduate group, the Yale Dramat, which stages shows there today. Likewise, Cole Porter was a Whiffenpoof. When you go to a Yale football game and chant “Bulldog! Bulldog! Bow, wow, wow! Our team can never fail!,” you are performing a Cole Porter composition.
This year’s Yale tributes to Cole Porter’s graduation from the university may not have been as pronounced as, say, last year’s Shakespeare at Yale celebration. (Porter may well have not had a problem with that; the songwriter did, after all, insist that audiences “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”) But there were several noteworthy events. The “Cole Porter at Yale” series kicked off last September with a couple of music concerts. A major event followed in January: a concert reading of the newly reconstructed original score of Kiss Me, Kate. This lavish affair featured an all-star cast and a full orchestra. (It will also be remembered for the moment when playwright Christopher Durang, performing the role of one of the hoods who sings “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” fell while tripping down an onstage stair and had to be hospitalized.)
This Saturday, the celebration moves off-campus to New Haven Free Public Library—a building Cole Porter would surely have been aware of in his school times spent wandering the New Haven Green (not least because the building first opened to the public while Porter was a student, in 1911). From 3 to 4 p.m., singer Julie Harris, guitarist Stephen Roane and keyboardist David Childs will perform selections from Porter’s vast catalogue of popular songs. It’s billed as Afternoon Tea with Cole Porter, an event for the entire family with iced tea and lemonade and cookies as refreshments.
This is a far cry from the sozzled duet of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby slurring “Well, Did You Evah?” in the Porter-scored film High Society, set around the bar in a private library on a lavish estate in Newport, Rhode Island. A sparkling nightclub at 3 a.m. was more of a natural haunt for Cole Porter than a public library at 3 in the afternoon, and a martini a more accustomed accessory than iced tea. But it’s the thought that counts. As in that line from “In the Still of the Night”: “My thoughts all stray to you.”
There’s another reason to recommend a Cole Porter concert at this time of year. Many of his songs resonate most strongly in summertime: “Night and Day.” “When the Summer Moon Comes Along.” “Hot House Rose.” “I Love Paris” (“…in the summer, when it sizzles”). “You’re the Top” (“You’re the purple light/of a summer night in Spain”). “Be Like the Bluebird.” “As On Through the Seasons We Sail.”
And of course, “Too Darn Hot.”
Afternoon Tea with Cole Porter
Saturday, June 29, at 3 p.m. at the New Haven Free Public Library
133 Elm Street, New Haven (map)
Written by Christopher Arnott.