21 September 2006: Porter and Kopit, High Society

Still at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Festival Theatre. Music by Cole Porter, new book by Arthur Kopit, lyrics by Porter, additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Kelly Robinson.

I heard at third-hand about some people who walked out at intermission, at a previous performance, and I can understand why; but that seems to me an ex­treme reaction. My guess is that they had high hopes, enough to purchase tickets, but the hopes were dashed when they discovered not only a new book, by Kopit, long an admirer of Barry and his play, but that certain songs had been lifted from other Cole Porter musicals and inserted at appropriate points into the action. So it may have seemed to these people that they were in the presence of something that ought to have been called “Cole Porter Tonight.” And they hated it.

Another way of thinking about what Kopit & Co. have done here is to say that they have trifled with enshrined cultural memory. There are several layers of memory in question: the original play, The Philadelphia Story, by Philip Barry, in which Katherine Hepburn resuscitated her floundering career; the film of the same title, which millions can continue to see by courtesy of their neighborhood video store; the film musical High Society, based on that earlier film but with some new songs by Porter written especially for the new film and its stars — Grace Kelly (in the last film she made before becoming Princess of Monaco), Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra — and Louis Armstrong, a memorable presence — a film that can probably be found in even more video stores than The Philadelphia Story. These cultural artifacts bear strong, continuing visual memory images, and aural memories as well. For people of a certain age, they most definitely get in the way of any attempt to update or refresh what has long since achieved classic status three times over. If you go to see a re-make of a famous musical with these kinds of memories in tow, you are bound to be disappointed.

And I was. The only thing missing in this melange of classics was Spencer Tracy, who was never part of the mix anyway. For younger audience members, these things may just not matter, and, regardless, there is no reason why a new generation of book writers and lyricists shouldn’t try their hands at bringing a somewhat more up-to-date style and idiom to a familiar classic, while keeping the musical line and most of the lyrics intact. Nothing wrong with employing contemporary stagecraft and stage technology — especially double-faced rolling wagons, seemingly the sine qua non of the business these days. (A few years back, I saw the latest revival of Death of a Salesman, a road show in Boston, with Brian Dennehy, directed by the Chicago master Robert Falls, and they had trans­formed the original fixed set of backdrop and outlined house by Mielziner and made it all — wagons! Horrid thing to do, I thought — but I didn’t walk out, and they made it work.)

Finally, the problem for me is that I just don’t like musicals. It’s odd that this should be so, considering that I grew up loving them as a youth, Guys and Dolls especially, which I saw on tour in Baltimore, probably in 1952, as I was about to begin college at Johns Hopkins, and considering further that I wrote the music for one, played the juvenile lead in it, and started another, as an undergraduate. (Peter Fischer, a fellow undergraduate, wrote the book and lyrics for that mus­ical, then went off to Hollywood and ultimately television, where he succeeded as the producer of a hit series, Murder She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury.) Ultimately I fell out of love with them (musicals, that is) and stopped trying to like the Broadway musical, which had come to seem superficial and in fact brainless, and in add­ition was full of false emotion and excessive showmanship with its underlying ethos of dance-till-you-drop. I wanted Chekhov and Turgen­ev and Synge and O’Casey: the real stuff, not the glitz and the bogus sentiment­ality of Rogers and Hammerstein. Yes, there were, of course, exceptions: West Side Story (everyone’s exception); parts of Carousel; My Fair Lady; a few others.

So why did I include this re-make-cum-revival of High Society in my Shaw Festival sojourn? I can’t exactly say. Perhaps I wanted to revisit some scenes of my youth. Leave it at that. Maybe I was just curious about what might be done with it. And I did get the high standard of mise en scène and performance that one expects to find here. Camilla Scott was full-voiced and strong as Tracy Lord. Jeff Madden, standing in for Dan Chameroy as Dexter Haven (the Jimmy Stewart role), had a relaxed, quiet authority and a pretty fair light baritone that were right for the role. In the generally full-to-overflowing mounting of the show, in which not a moment is allowed to go by without some wagon, or stage prop, or bit of business being introduced, there was all you expect in the production of this sort of thing.

But it doesn’t reach the part of you that you want to be reached in the course of two or three hours in the theatre. I want both less and more for my money, final­­ly, and I didn’t get it. I won’t be going back to a musical again for a long time.

But opera — that’s another story . . .


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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