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  • Peter McGuire

Why Do Musicals Sound Like That? The 20s–40s

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

This episode is best experienced as audio. There is a long version and a short version. The written article is a mix of both. Thank you very much to Jess for joining me for this episode

WARNING: This episode discusses racism in American entertainment using period-correct terms.

Short Version:

Long Version:

How did we get from this to this? The answer is a century of dismantling racism. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation.

Cole Porter was the only surviving child of a wealthy family and his life shows all the marks of that privilege. He grew up with a doting mother who strongly encouraged his musical talents, first on violin and piano, and then as a writer. At age 14 he shipped off to boarding school with an upright piano and found that his playing and singing could make him the center of a wide social circle. When he graduated, he majored in English at Yale with a minor in music. He joined a fraternity, contributed to the Yale humor magazine and was the president and principal soloist of the glee club. He was also an early member of the Yale Wiffenpoofs, an a capella group [Wiffenpoof Song]

In college, Porter’s social life took off. The connection between music and his urbane nightlife comes through in many of his songs. This line from a major Porter hit gets regularly dropped for being too risque/ [“I get no kick from cocaine”]. In the 1936 movie version, Ethel Merman renders it this way. [“Some like that perfume from Spain”] One of Porter’s more famous songs creates a fairly realistic impression of party small talk. [Well Did You Evah?]

Despite his great virtuosity and the urging of his wife, Porter never made the jump to symphonic music aside from a single ballet called “Within The Quota” that satirized anti-immigrant sentiment in America. Instead, Porter had a soft spot for the silly. One of his most beautiful compositions is inspired by a silly language joke. If things can be delicious and delightful, then surely they can also be De-Lovely.

Porter’s first Broadway play, See America First, opened in 1916. The book was written by a friend of Porter’s from school and critics acknowledged that it had limited appeal. The New York Herald wrote "it would be delightful as a college play” and the Tribune wrote, “Gotham [a nickname for New York] is a big town and it may be that the sisters, aunts, and cousins of its Yale men will be sufficient to guarantee prosperity for See America First." This was wrong and it closed after two weeks.

Apparently, it was a spoof of American patriotic musicals in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan (which makes it hard to believe it would flop). The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote that "The lyrics are studiously copied after the Gilbertian pattern in the long and complicated rhyme effects achieved. The music, however, gives the impression that its composer, after the first hour, gave up the task of recreating a Sullivan atmosphere, preferring to seek his inspiration in our own George M. Cohan." Who was George M. Cohan? I’m so glad you asked because I’m going to tell you.

During the time that Cole Porter was learning to make music, American popular music was dominated by marches and patriotic music. Cohan was a major figure in vaudeville, both producing and performing, and he wrote several songs that entered the patriotic canon. Popular ones were [Yankee Doodle Boy] [Grand Old Flag] and [Over There]. That was the voice of Billy Murray, “The Denver Nightingale”, who was one of the most popular singers of the time.

John Philip Sousa was another leading figure of American music who, along with his extensive work with marching bands, also wrote for Broadway. He incorporated the enormously popular song “The Washington Post” into his operetta “El Capitan”. It also has this part that sounds like it inspired “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down”. Sousa also had a soft spot for Gilbert and Sullivan, and he adapted the overture of The Mikado (which we listened to parts of last time) into a march. American military bands marching to Gilbert and Sullivan is a funny image to me.

It might be strange for us today to think of military marches as popular music. For us, pop music tends to be recordings. You can listen to them at home or on your phone or maybe you’ll hear them on the radio or in public places. Before recording technology came into widespread use, if you were going to listen to music, you needed to go to a performance or perform the music yourself from sheet music. Many performances were local, unlicensed troupes. Apparently, Gilbert and Sullivan made almost nothing on royalties from America despite the thousands of performances of their plays and copycat plays across the country.

Upright pianos were common in middle-class homes and a common way to make money as a musician was to teach piano to middle-class women across the country. There came to be a stigma around the piano teacher as he tended to be young, unestablished, and had unique access to the parlor rooms debutantes.

Consequently, sheet music was big business. Most cities in America had one or two major publishers of sheet music. These publishers took their cues from the hub of pop music publication, a block in Manhattan called Tin Pan Alley. This is what Porter references when he writes “this verse you’ve started seems to me, the tin-pan-tithesis of melody.” As in, the opposite of Tin Pan Alley. There are different theories about the name, but the connection has something to do with a block of upright pianos banging out different tunes at the same time. Most published the work of many different independent composers and essentially let the market decide which ones were the hits. As such it was a fairly open marketplace for composers, performers, and producers to create work that would be profitable. This confluence also created the major musician guilds and unions that sculpted the progress of pop music. As we move into the era of recorded music, Tin Pan Alley continued to be a major engine for the careers of performers, composers, and producers.

Many of the plays that ran on Broadway were revues, which were performances of a collection of songs either by a particular writer, a publishing house, or style and they had skits or sometimes even a plot that wove the songs together. This informs the kind of play that Cole Porter wrote. The songs were paramount and could stand alone from the show. When these plays are performed today, sometimes the songs are moved around in reference to the play or given to other characters. The songs had a separate life in sheet music that could be enjoyed by a family around a piano or be played in a club.

So, given the limited access to music, military marches were a major form of pop music that could be performed by a local marching band or the town band at the bandstand in the park. This music took on enormous significance in 1916 and ‘17 as the nation ramped up for war. As part of the massive recruitment and justification effort that Wilson initiated for World War I, an enormous thirst appeared for patriotic music both from audiences and from the hundreds of new military bands. Because of the tastes of pop music of the time, this also introduced hundreds of thousands of white rural Americans to jazz music for the first time. That is why so many of those Cohan and Sousa songs have become part of the patriotic music canon that you hear on the 4th of July. These songs suddenly became ingrained in the shared American memory because they meant so much to so many at such a stressful time.

Now we have caught back up to Porter and the next part of his life. A year after his—let me repeat it—Gilbert and Sullivan style parody of the patriotic musical flopped in 1916, Cole Porter shipped off for Paris. He apparently served with the French Foreign Legion, as improbable as that seems. The Foreign Legion does acknowledge his service. But most of Porter’s time was spent at his luxury apartment entertaining the Parisian social set with "much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs."

Cole Porter was able to live more freely in Paris, further away from his Yale community. Most biographers agree that he was gay. Most also mostly agree that he had some romantic and sexual interactions with women. The word for that is bisexual but bisexuality is erased in history even more than homosexuality is. It was during this time that he met and married Linda Lee Thomas, an American divorcee eight years his senior. This is sometimes considered a lavender marriage because Linda Lee also had homosexual relationships. Marriage provided both with an air of respectability and deniability in a world that still prosecuted and punished homosexuality. This is a theme we’ll revisit as we continue to look at musicals. Many of the prominent architects of the musical needed to hide their queerness from the American and British public so they could be accepted in society and succeed. Linda Lee Porter lived in fear that her husband’s well-known homosexual romances would ruin both of their reputations.

Cole Porter liked to party, had the money to do so, and loved to be outrageous. Many of his songs gave voice to changing ideas about sexuality in the 1920s. Johnathan Katz in The Invention of Heterosexuality, describes this time as the great coming-out of heterosexuality. Others have described it as the “first sexual revolution,” but if it was a revolution, it was confined to the white, straight and middle-class. At this time, “heterosexual” was a relatively academic term that referred to people who seek out sex without the desire or intention to have children. In the previous decade, heterosexuality was considered a pathological compulsion that had much in common with and could lead to homosexuality. In 1895, a leading American medical journal published, “Sexuality cannot be the goal of existence for superior persons whether homosexual or heterosexual. There is no line of demarcation between the heterosexual and the homosexual.” Much of the century passed before the medical mainstream would again see homo- and heterosexuality as equal.

A new generation of psychologists as well as writers and artists laid claim to a new definition of sexuality that excluded family and even marriage, most following the writing of Sigmund Freud and the concept of the positive Pleasure Principle. Freud described sexuality as evolving out of polymorphous perversity, a general sexual desire, into properly structured heterosexuality: a healthy, adult expression. In doing so he stigmatized all kinks, fetishes, and homosexual acts as childish, stunted sexuality that could lead to deviancy and criminal behavior. Heterosexuality asserted itself as normal but did so at the expense of all other definitions of normal sexuality.

Perhaps it is ironic then, or fitting, how many gay and bisexual composers, writers and artists created this new normal. Cole Porter broke new ground with his boldly sexual lyrics. He reintroduced himself to Broadway in 1928 with a new musical called Paris. Its centerpiece became one of Porter’s signature tunes. [Let’s Do it]. That line break between “let’s do it/ let’s fall in love” was certainly no accident. The production was characterized by constant recasting and rewriting. The song that “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” replaced is this delightful number. [Let’s Misbehave]. “We’re not above birds.” Love a good literal joke. And let’s listen to the original opening lyrics of Let’s Do It [“Chinks do it, Japs do it”]. It just wouldn’t be the ‘20s without some casual racism.

The sexual language is bold but still euphemistic. The advantage is that it can be applied to either gender. In fact, reworkings of these plays sometimes change the gender of the singer or turn them into duets. This ambiguity is part of why the songs live on so well.

The title song to his great hit play Anything Goes is even more explicit about the changing times. [Anything Goes]. That’s the voice of Porter himself. He’s talking about a lot of stuff that you might ascribe to the culture of ‘60s. Every night he’s saying they intrude in nudist parties. Later versions included this chorus [“if love affairs you like with young bears you like”]. From what I can tell that means exactly what you think it does.

This is what I mean when I say musicals are shmaltzy. A lot of the musical sound derives from this vaudevillian, broad style. A major part of this story that we’re not really going to touch on is dancing style. Many of these songs have long built-in tap breaks. Musically, tap creates a sort of rhythmic harmony that plays with and against the rhythm of the song. This creates the opportunity for songs where the rhythm of the melody is different from the beat of the song in general. Both Irving Berlin and Cole Porter were masters of this technique. Listen to this example and think about how the melody seems to speed up and overtake the rhythm of the accompaniment. [Puttin on the Ritz]. Now compare that again with Anything Goes. You get the same frenetic, rushed feeling that’s characteristic of this era in jazz.

So, what is jazz and what does it have to do with musicals? Jazz, broadly understood, is a subculture, an aesthetic, a music, and a performing style that developed in black American communities and came to be the main American musical idiom of the 20th century. It reigned supreme in pop music into the 1960s and left an indelible effect on the music of symphonies and musicals.

Jazz is the result of a uniquely American mixing of peoples and cultures. Mass human trafficking had populated America, particularly the south, with black Africans who brought with them a musical tradition far different from European and Asian traditions. African music focused on rhythm and micro-tonalities along with a wide range of vocalizations that are distinct from singing. Our music is most indebted to the music of the Togo/Benin area, a region that Europeans called the Slave Coast because is was where most intercontinental slave trade departed. In America, this folk musical tradition came in contact with the English and Irish melodies of the agricultural lower class, the guitar of Spanish music, the French rhythms of quadrilles and beguines, and the brasses and woodwinds of European symphonic music.

These influences reached their confluence in New Orleans, where a quick succession of innovators popularized blues, ragtime, and finally, jazz to popular audiences (and, in particular, white audiences). Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton created early blues and swing styles of jazz. The increasingly affluent and respected cultural hub of Harlem contributed Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

Jazz was almost immediately embraced by the serious musical establishment because it fit so well with two major movements in symphonic music of the time. The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák became a leading light while teaching in New York. He was already famous for his folk symphonies: his ability to weave the so-called “primitive” melodies of Czech peasants into serious symphonic works. In 1893, he published his 9th Symphony, entitled “From the New World,” which evokes American folk music, both black and white. He builds around the pentatonic scale, scales that are neither major nor minor and feature strongly in both European and African folk melodies. Here is the theme. [New World Symphony].

At the same time, European composers like Stravinski and Schoenberg were fascinated with atonality and polytonality, ways to compose outside of the stable, pleasant consonance described by Classical music and elaborated upon in Romantic music. This movement sought to both elevate music beyond its tonal origins and, at the same time, return music to a primitive, raw state. A famous example is [The Rite of Spring].

Jazz seemed to fulfill both of these aesthetic concerns. It drew on a strong tradition of gospel and plantation song melodies that evoke an ancient folk tradition. Dvorak wrote in 1893, “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

At the same time, jazz, when played in European scales, offered a new take on dissonance that surprised and amazed composers. Dissonance didn’t have to be a difficult, frightening thing. The use of blue notes (notes that exist between the notes of the Western scale), extreme pitch bends in melody and the stacking of notes that made chords neither neatly major nor minor allowed composers new ways to escape the diatonic Western tradition. In 1963, the great black American composer Duke Ellington told a journalist “That's the Negro's life…. Hear that chord! Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part”

One of the most remarkable and original achievements of this confluence of jazz and symphonic music was first performed in 1924 as part of a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music.” George Gershwin, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who grew up in a tenement in New York City’s Yiddish Theatre District, was rocketed from Tin Pan Alley song-plugger to the darling of the academic musical world overnight. We are told that audience members such as Igor Stravinski and John Philip Sousa were losing patience towards the end of the 26-piece-long concert in a stuffy, hot auditorium when a clarinet glissando shocked the room. [Rhapsody in Blue].

The piece alternates between solo piano and orchestral sections. The orchestral sections were written out but instead of a number of rests, the score simply said “wait for nod.” Gershwin didn’t commit his piano part to paper until after the initial performance, so it’s possible that he was still improvising up to and through the first performance. We can hear both symphonic and jazz influence in the treatment of solos and the huge, dramatic scales that seem to evade both traditional tonality and dissonance. The piece represented a landmark in American music, seamlessly blending the uniquely-American jazz movement into the European canon of great composers. You can hear in this piece both the jazz club and the sound that movie music would imitate for decades to come.

However, despite the black origin of jazz and its enormous black influence, virtually all jazz composers of the ‘20s and ‘30s were white. Alex Ross writes in The Rest is Noise, “To tell the story of American composition in the early 20th Century is to circle around an absent center. The great African-American orchestral works that Dvorak prophesied are mostly absent, their promise transmuted into jazz.” This wasn’t caused by a lack of conservatory educated, affluent black musicians and composers. In fact, some black musicians learned from great universities tuition-free as a limited form of reparations. The issue was not the quality or availability of black composers, the issue was a musical establishment that refused to take black compositions seriously and a concert-going audience that shunned black composers.

Black composers didn’t fare much better on Broadway. Showbiz was condescending towards black music in an even more overt way. When the musical made its leap to the silver screen in 1927 with The Jazz Singer, it did so with blackface. Al Jolson, one of the all-time most popular American singers, starred in a story not dissimilar to his own life. The protagonist of The Jazz Singer grows up destitute in a Manhattan Jewish ghetto and finds himself torn between seeking his fame and fortune in showbiz and staying true to his Jewish roots. In the end he reconciles with his parents and sings Jolson’s signature number “My Mammy.” One of the first movies with synced recording of film and sound, Jolsen was said to have shocked audiences when his character declares, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.” The final scene fades between Jolson singing a heartfelt rendition of “My Mammy” in blackface and his mother crying for joy in the audience. [My Mammy]

It’s not an accident that the first musical performances in film are in blackface. This wasn’t some kind of fluke. He continued depicting blackface minstrels into the 1930s and continued performing his hit songs into the ‘40s. In film he’s often cast as an old-guard song-and-dance man and his blackface performances are depicted as a nostalgic holdover from vaudeville acts, where Jolson and so many performers of the ‘20s got their start. Vaudeville was a form of stage comedy that incorporated a wide range of acts including singing, dancing, comedy, trained animals, magic, strongmen, acrobats, jugglers and minstrels. American vaudeville inherited much of its traditional acts from minstrel shows.

Minstrel shows were the preeminent form of American entertainment in the early and mid 19th century. These performances had a certain structure that made it like any other comedy revue. Silly stumps speeches satirized politicians, high art like Shakespeare and opera were simplified and translated into popular songs and slapstick comedy was developed. This would perhaps be something we fondly perform today like Punch and Judy in the U.K. except that minstrel shows were set on plantations, portrayed slaves as lazy and dimwitted, glorified the supposedly easy life of the slave, and were acted almost exclusively by white performers in blackface. Like most comedy revue-type performances, there were stock characters that could communicate quickly with the audience what type of character it was. Some of the stock characters for minstrel shows were the mammy, the old darky, the black soldier and the provocative mulatto wench. And, just to clarify that last character, “mulatto” here means mixed race and the implication is that she’s slutty because her mother was slutty because she had sex with a white man. Instead of recognizing that situation as, you know, rape.

Minstrel shows were popular before slavery was abolished, sufficiently so that Frederick Douglass described blackface performers as "...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens."

It’s hard to understate just how explicitly degrading and dehumanizing minstrel shows were. I think we can pretty much get the picture from this clip of one of those comedic, satirical stump speeches. You’ll hear, it mostly just serves to mock the supposedly loose grasp that black Americans had on the language and mock the idea that they could meaningfully participate in politics. This is from 1902. ["A Meeting of the Limkiln Club"]

So that sucks that this was a central form of American entertainment across the country.

The part of minstrelsy that Al Jolson participated in was the genre of his music called “coon song.” This form arose in the mid 19th Century. Across Europe, academics and artists were delving into their folk traditions to resurrect, popularize and codify their national traditions. The Brothers Grimm collecting fairy tales is an example of this movement. Many folk songs were written into musical notation for the first time, which of course was affected by the training and ear of the transcriber. In many ways, folk songs were warped to fit academic models of pitch and rhythm. Of course, America being so dominated by racial slavery, this process was particularly racist in America.

Coon songs were essentially white impressions of the folk music of the south. By 1880, sheet music for coon songs was big business. We can see this as the first phase of a recurring theme in popular music. In the ‘20s jazz came to dominate pop and symphonic music. In the ‘50s, rock music took over. In the ‘80s, hip hop and rap became central to pop. White America continually falls in love with black music. In this earliest variation—sheet music for coon songs—the lyrics set to black melodies and rhythms were explicitly degrading. Big hits were “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon,” “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” and “Nigga Love a Watermellon, Ha! Ha! Ha!”

When you look into the history of this entertainment, you find lots of apologist articles arguing that minstrel shows were no different from variety shows and that coon songs were lovingly inspired by black music. I think simply listening to them is enough to dispel those notions. How can you listen to white composers gloating about black American’s stolen heritage and think it’s anything but evil. [Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon]

Black performers were not excluded entirely from showbiz. Some found success within the coon song genre. Ernest Hogan, one of the first famous black American performers and composers and author of “All Coons Look Alike to Me” explained his place in the history of music. He said towards the end of his life in 1909, “(That) song caused a lot of trouble in and out of show business…. With the publication of that song, a new musical rhythm was given to the people. Its popularity grew and it sold like wildfire... That one song opened the way for a lot of colored and white songwriters. Finding the rhythm so great, they stuck to it ... and now you get hit songs without the word 'coon.' Ragtime was the rhythm played in backrooms and cafes and such places. The ragtime players were the boys who played just by ear their own creations of music which would have been lost to the world if I had not put it on paper”

Several black composers and musicians worked within the minstrel show form as part of their quest to be included in American music and theater. The first all-black musical debuted in 1897 and was titled A Trip to Coontown. It ran off and on for three years with controversy amongst white people for having an all-black cast and amongst the black intelligencia for repeating racist stereotypes. The composer, Bob Cole, struggled to find success with his later musicals that were funded by black producers eschewed the racist stock characters. He committed suicide by drowning himself in a creek in 1911.

Another prominent black composer was Will Marion Cook, who studied under Dvorak. Despite the acclaim he’d garnered for his virtuoso violin playing, Cook had trouble getting his own compositions taken seriously within the musical establishment. Like many others, he turned to pop music to make his mark. His plays Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk and In Dahomey (Dahomey was then the name of the country of Benin) ran on Broadway and featured all-black casts. These plays stuck close to the stock characters of minstrel shows, but Cook included his hopes for a future where black music would be ascendant. He wrote, somewhat prophetically, “All you white folks clear de way,... when day hear dem ragtime tunes/ White fo’ks try to pass fo’ coons/ on Emancipation day.”

We do finally get black composers and bandleaders in the public eye as we enter the 30s. Cab Calloway was able to make his name in entertainment with his own perspective on the jazz tradition. He performed both in jazz and in musicals, starring in Stormy Weather, Porgy and Bess, and Hello Dolly! He had a major hit with American audiences with 1931’s [Minnie the Moocher]

The music of the ‘20s to the ‘40s stands at these crossroads: the sophisticated jazz and the coon song, both white appropriations of black traditions. There are amazing works by black composers throughout this time period, but very few in musical theater. Instead, theater music is written by Jewish immigrants like Irving Berlin and Yale graduates like Cole Porter. Their great success was due to their ability to fold both coon song and jazz into the American music tradition. The song that is hailed as Cole Porter’s greatest work displays this confluence clearly. [Night and Day].

George Gershwin had a complicated relationship with black culture, his fame built on his masterful handling of jazz as high art. He had a close friendship with Duke Ellington and collaborated with black peers to tell their stories and find them platforms for their work. The fact remains that he first rose to prominence with a rag song called Swanee. [Swanee]. Which sounds all well and fine until you hear it the way it was popularized by Al Jolson. [Swanee]. It may be worth mentioning that Jolson, like other white performers of self-consciously black music, insisted that his black co-stars receive equal billing, pay, and insisted they not be segregated in white clubs (as was the custom). Even if the work was overtly racist, the performers and musicians were on the front line of desegregating the entertainment industry.

We tend to focus on the performers and writers of problematic works of art because they are the face and the words that actually create these works. But artists working in creative industries ultimately have limited control over what they create if they want to reach the elusive level of success that keeps us talking about them decades later. The system that creates George Gershwins and Al Jolsons is complex and involves the business interests of investors and the tastes of audiences. The hard truth I’ve come to is that white American performers and writers and artists often did what they could to include and promote black peers while both black and white performers operated in an overwhelmingly racist paradigm. It is an ongoing project in American culture to break down the capitalist cycle that promotes the work of white artists over non-white artists. So I think we need to look at something like Al Jolson singing in blackface as more of an indictment of American society than a failing on Jolson’s part.

One of Gershwin’s most ambitious works was his opera Porgy and Bess. It opened in Boston in 1935 and tells the story of a destitute black community in Charleston. Porgy falls for the sultry Bess and loyally provides for her as she goes from thug to drug dealer. Unlike virtually every prior Gershwin work, the play was a critical and commercial failure. Opera critics hated the showtunes. Showbiz critics hated the dissonant operatic sections. And black commentators found it, no matter how well-intentioned, condescending and appropriative. It’s not hard to see why. Although attempting to show the fullness of the drama of black lives, Gershwin gives voice to all kinds of unexamined prejudices. The lyrics are written entirely in dialect, so a white writer’s impression of black speech. It apparently caused a falling out between him and Duke Ellington because the Duke insisted that a white man could not write the great black opera. Ellington himself struggled for many years to write his own black opera but found himself unable to compose long-form. He worked with bands to create his music and an opera was too solitary of a venture. Sadly, Gershwin died at age 38 the following year, shortly after doctors removed a large brain tumor. He never heard his work find new life in Ella Fizgerald and Louis Armstrong’s 1957 recording. [Summertime]

Nina Simone also found success reinterpreting Porgy and Bess in the ‘50s [I Loves You Porgy]

Cole Porter, on the other hand, lived to see the resurgence in his work. He hit his peak of popularity in the ‘30s with The Gay Divorce which featured “Night and Day” and Anything Goes which featured “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick out of You,” “You’re the Top” It also has a pretty perfect Gilbert and Sullivan parody. [Public Enemy Number One]. 1936 saw the release of the film version of Anything Goes and the premier of Red, Hot and Blue, which featured the song It’s De-Lovely as sung by Ethel Merman and Bob Hope. It absolutely blows my mind that Bob Hope was starring in Cole Porter premiers and then, during my lifetime, doing USO tours for Bush’s War on Terror.

Porter was on top of the entertainment world after Anything Goes in 1934 but his carefree life would come to an end just three years later. While horseback riding in New York, his horse was spooked and fell on his leg, crushing it and breaking it in several places. Porter opted to keep the leg so that he could still work the piano pedals but spent the rest of his life in severe chronic pain. He underwent eight further surgeries but the pain never went away. He lost his relevance as the center of showbiz social life and his professional career declined.

Porter took to the more steady career of writing tunes for movie musicals. Weirdly, he wrote “Don’t Fence Me In” for a cowboy film that was a flop until later resurrected by other cowboy movies. [Don’t Fence Me In] Porter found that writing for film studios was profitable if unfulfilling. Most of his work during this time has been largely forgotten and plagiarized by imitators. Porter wrote this song for the 1948 Gene Kelly vehicle The Pirate. [Be A Clown]. Just four years later, another Gene Kelly musical, Singin’ in the Rain, featured this song. [Make em Laugh] Despite being almost identical to Porter’s song, he was not credited on “Make 'em Laugh” and did not get royalties. Studios of that time kept actors and writers under long, iron-clad contracts that other studios rarely undermined by poaching each others’ talent. As a result, Porter couldn’t sue MGM for stealing his songs without seriously risking ending his career. He had one final success on Broadway with Kiss Me, Kate in 1949. The play was roughly based on The Taming of the Shrew and remained one of Porter’s proudest accomplishments.

Porter’s mother died in ‘52, his wife in ‘54 and by ‘58 his leg had developed life-threatening ulcers. He underwent 34 operations before finally amputating the leg. His friend Noël Coward visited him in the hospital and wrote in his diary, "The lines of ceaseless pain have been wiped from his face...I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly." Sadly, Porter never wrote another song and lived largely in seclusion in his apartment in the Waldorf Towers in New York until his death of kidney failure in 1964 at age 73.

But, as I mentioned earlier, Porter lived long enough to see his work included in the pantheon of American greats. In 1956, Americans were still listening to “Night and Day” but now it sounded like this. [Night and Day] A new generation of American performers were immortalizing Porter’s work, codified into what was called the Great American Songbook. Bing Crosby was born in 1903, Frank Sinatra in 1915 and Ella Fitzgerald in 1917. This new generation of singers grew up listening to the jazz songs of the ‘20s and ‘30s and by the ‘50s, seemingly every pop musician had done renditions of all the hits of the previous generation. This, in turn, solidified these songs as essential classics in the minds of the baby boomers who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The new generation were broadly termed crooners because of the smooth style of their singing. Indeed we can hear a huge departure from the singing styles in early recordings of Porter songs and later recordings. Ethel Merman sings like this [Delovely] while Ella Fitzgerald sings like this [Delovely]. Technology plays an interesting role in this shift. Around the 1920s two inventions revolutionized singing: the electric microphone and the recording cylinder. For the first time in the ‘20s and ‘30s, Americans began to enjoy recorded music in their own homes. Radio had been growing in popularity but now Americans could listen to their favorite singers whenever they wanted. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison’s labs put out commercial record players and the brand name gramophone was used to refer to recording devices. That’s why our top award for musical excellence is called The Grammys.

A little later, the electric microphone revolutionized singing on stage. Since the beginning of singing, large choirs have been used to create a sound large enough to perform for a large audience. Much of the style of opera singing is intended to maximize the power and volume of a single human voice. Al Jolson made his mark in entertainment at a time when he needed to be heard above the accompaniment by a whole room. Part of why his style sounds so strange is that he needed to throw all his power into every note. This causes him to use hard attacks and short notes. He could only hold a note so loud for so long. He didn’t have the benefit of an opera education. [Toot, Toot, Tootsie] His whistling could also cut right through the murmuring of a crowd. Bing Crosby, learning to sing into microphones on stage, radio, and recording, especially as recording quality improved, could employ a much smoother and freer style of singing. Loudness was no longer the important thing in singing. [Learn to Croon]

The crooner generation loved the works of Cole Porter and his friend Irving Berlin and their works were widely recorded and performed by white and black solo singers. In 1946, Technicolor Warner Bros. made a biopic of Porter’s life which he consulted on called Night and Day. Bizarrely, it starred Cary Grant. Ella Fitzgerald set down some of the quintessential recordings of ‘20s and ‘30s jazz in a series of albums focusing on composers' careers throughout the ‘50s, immortalizing Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart. [The Lady is a Tramp]

While the stage musical developed towards shows where the songs are an essential part of the story, a movement led by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the revue musical found a second life on screen. In 1954, Paramount produced White Christmas which is built around the work of Irving Berlin. [White Christmas] Two years later, MGM released High Society starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong based around the work of Cole Porter. Porter was involved and wrote a few new songs, including this one. [Now You Has Jazz]

I would love to leave this on a harmonious note and say, look, these black performers found their way into popular acclaim and were being promoted as equals of white performers by the ‘50s. The performing community had come to embrace black talents as well as black culture. This vision will be undercut by the fact that every name you just heard Bing Crosby give to the performers (other than Louis) was wrong. He mixed up all their names and it was released that way. Despite the growing support for desegregation and the growing respect for black contributions, black performers still struggled to find respect and acclaim for their talents. We’re still half a century away from Hamilton, where a story about white characters is told in the black vernacular of rap.

This has been my tour of the musicals of the ‘20s to the ‘40s. The next step will focus on the work of the ‘50s and ‘60s where musicals hit their peak popularity and begin to decline as pop music. But to leave on a happy note, let’s listen to my favorite parodist Tom Lehrer and his performance of how Cole Porter might have rendered the folk song Clementine.

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20 de jul. de 2023

As you wanted to build a bridge to the American musical in the wake of Gilbert & Sullivan, how come no mention of Victor Herbert? He was America's King of Operetta and his music was used in many early Broadway musicals. He was a contemporary of Sousa and Kern and a prolific composer of orchestral works and operetta which started informing the foundations of American Musical theatre. He was also one of the founders of ASCAP. It will be the 100th anniversary of his passing in 2024.


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