Asked once whether his songs would endure, Cole Porter replied “I never gave it a thought…my enjoyment was in writing them.”
Porter’s passion for music was socially embedded; his personal performances were as central to his life as his songwriting. From early in his career, he loved references to historical as well as contemporary figures, usually in some brash situation that flatters his audience.
As a lyricist, Porter loved metonymic things, particularly lists. On the one hand, these lists frame a particular kind of eroticism—they most often appear in songs of romance (however ambivalent) and employ potentially endless wit, since the list could hypothetically continue to exhaustion, in the service of courtship.
But the list also serves to create an implied social world in which Cole’s immediate audience, which certainly recognized the references, was joined by a larger and more inchoate audience through magazines, recordings, and radio. Still, he depended heavily on the evanescence of the references, so his lists can have an unusually short cultural half-life—which is a cornerstone of their charm.
This according to “Lists of louche living: Music in Cole Porter’s social world” by Mitchell Morris, an essay included in A Cole Porter companion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016 73–85; RILM Abstracts 2016-2611).
Today is Porter’s 130th birthday! Above, with his wife, Linda Lee Thomas; below, Anything goesincludes numerous references to café society figures and events that were well known in Porter’s time, but are largely unfamiliar to today’s audiences.
The construction of Company combines aspects of a concept musical with a psychological narrative. An investigation of the musical’s dramatic layers furthers a metadramatic understanding of Sondheim’s unique and innovative version of the concept musical—a version that refuses to subjugate character development and emotional accessibility for conceptual didacticism.
This according to “Concept meets narrative in Sondheim’s Company: Metadrama as a method of analysis” by Natalie Draper (Studies in musical theatre IV/2  pp. 171–83).
Today is Sondheim’s 90th birthday! Above, a photo from around the time Company was produced; below, the show’s climactic song, Being alive, from a 2011 concert production.
Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.
The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.
Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.
Vlack described the drink, which is made with Mandarine Napoléon liqueur and Kritter Brut sparkling wine, as “very much like the great singer in that it is slightly bittersweet, gentle but potent (even volatile), and is, in color, a light orange, the tint of her hair.”
This according to “Lenya: A moment in history (and a drink)” (Kurt Weill newsletter XXIX/2 [fall 2011] p. 9).
Today is Lenya’s 130th birthday! Above, enjoying her namesake aperitif at the opening reception; below, singing Seeräuber-Jenny, one of her signature songs.
Gertrud “Trude” Rittmann was on her way to becoming one of Germany’s most promising young composers when the rise of Nazism forced her to flee to the United States in 1937.
Through her work as accompanist and music director in the New York ballet world, Rittman met Agnes De Mille; the two subsequently collaborated closely on the creation of dance music for several landmark Broadway shows.
This according to “A composer in her own right: Arrangers, musical directors and conductors” by Jennifer Jones Cavenaugh, an essay included in Women in American musical theatre: Essays on composers, lyricists, librettists, arrangers, choreographers, designers, directors, producers and performance artists (Jefferson: McFarland, 2008, pp. 77–91).
Today is Rittmann’s 110th birthday! Below, a performance of Small house of Uncle Thomas in 2012.
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Oscar Asche’s Chu Chin Chow was the most popular musical in Britain during World War I, playing 2,235 performances over almost five years. Much of its success was due to the era’s fascination with the Orient, and it contained accessible music by Frederic Norton that generally only hinted at exoticism.
This according to “Chu Chin Chow and Orientalist musical theatre in Britain during the First World War by William A. Everett, an essay included in Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s: Portrayal of the East (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, pp. 277–96).
Above, an autographed postcard depicting Asche in the original production; below, a film about the show’s promotion.
The Takarazuka Kagekidan (Takarazuka Revue) is a Japanese all-women musical theater troupe that delivers a wide array of performances, including Broadway musicals, traditional Japanese plays, and flashy Vegas-style revues.
Performers are assigned a stage gender that, with rare exceptions, they stick to and perform as throughout their time with the company. Women who play women on stage are referred to as musumeyaku, while those who portray men are called otokoyaku.
When comparing images of otokoyaku over time there is a palpable shift in appearance, from a look that seeks to portray a convincing male to a more androgynous aesthetic. While the otokoyaku’s shift in appearance from classically male to more androgynous and almost feminine may have been instigated by the male authorities of the Takarazuka Kagekidan, this different way of presenting themselves as male can in fact be seen as liberating and offering new opportunities for expression to the performers.
This according to “Dude looks like a lady: The otokoyaku’s transformation in Japan’s Takarazuka Revue” by Michelle Johnson, an essay included in Dance ACTions: Traditions and transformations (Birmingham: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2013, pp. 193–201).
Above, the Takarazuka Revue in 1930; below, the opening of one of the musicals in the Rose of Versailles series, which provides the main examples in the article.
Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanization of Georges Bizet’s Carmen—68 years after its premiere—altered its form from the operatic genre to that of musical theater and transformed the place and time to a setting more familiar to a Broadway audience.
Instead of playing in Seville, Carmen Jones takes place in a city of the American South, African Americans become the sociological equivalent of Spanish gypsies, and the cigarette factory becomes the more topical World War II army parachute factory.
The change from bullfighting to boxing, a spectator sport that had become increasingly popular in America since the 1890s, demonstrates how Hammerstein distances the Carmen story from the world of Prosper Mérimée’s novella without diminishing its universal constants of human tragedy.
This according to “Carmen am Broadway: Oscar Hammersteins Carmen Jones” by Manfred Siebald, an essay included in Caecilia, Tosca, Carmen: Brüche und Kontinuitäten im Verhältnis von Musik und Welterleben (Tübingen: Francke Verlag, 2006, pp. 225–234).
What is most striking about the nudie musicals that ran in New York in the 1970s—aside from the many naked, jiggling bodies, of course—was just how conventional they were.
Even the raunchiest of the bunch espoused the same basic messages: Human bodies are beautiful! Sex, regardless of with whom, is natural and fun! The seismic cultural shift that is taking place right outside this theater is not threatening or confusing or scary at all!
In marked contrast with XXX theaters, peepshows, and sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat, the sex that nudie musicals featured was simulated—never real—and was almost always packaged in a familiar, age-old format: the musical revue.
While some scholars have suggested that Jerome Kern’s early work has little relevance to his later output, there are many continuities—not only in the way that Kern constructed his songs, but also in the way that he employed music to convey dramatic meaning.
Before becoming a successful writer of full scores for Broadway, Kern spent over a decade working as an interpolator, contributing songs to shows written principally by other composers. In this capacity he learned to write songs to specification for a variety of theatrical genres, including British and American musical comedy, Viennese operetta, and Broadway revue.
Kern thus gained technical fluency in numerous musical styles, and learned how these styles and their diverse associations of genre, gender, race, and social class could be harnessed to convey specific dramatic meanings. Continuities are also evident between his early and later work in his musical grammar: preferred song structures, harmonic and melodic sequences, modulations, and cadences.
This according to Becoming Jerome Kern: The early songs and shows, 1903–1915 by James Kenneth Randall, a dissertation accepted by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2004.
Today is Kern’s 130th birthday! Above, an early photograph of the composer; below, Ella Fitzgerald’s Jerome Kern songbook.
For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →
In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its … Continue reading →
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s Prove it on me blues affirms her independence from orthodox norms by boldly celebrating her lesbianism. Rainey’s sexual involvement with women was no secret with both colleagues and audiences. The advertisement for the song (above, click to … Continue reading →
The American traditional song Go tell Aunt Rhody originated as a gavotte composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his opera Le devin du village (1752). An English version of the opera was produced in London in 1766; subsequently the melody attracted … Continue reading →