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Cole Porter's Secret Life

Sean Hayden's show provides insights into the songwriter's identity as a gay man.

October 15, 2000|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

The Cole Porter song "I Loved Him, but He Didn't Love Me" is usually sung by a woman. But in "Confidentially, Cole," the one-person show opening Saturday at the Tiffany Theater, the 1929 tune will be sung by a young man, Sean Hayden. And that's where the "confidentially" comes in.

For the inspiration of the show is not the Porter who was the darling of cafe society, the soigne composer of "Anything Goes" and "Kiss Me, Kate" who held court with his socialite wife, Linda, in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria and his palazzo in Venice. It's also far from the Porter whom Cary Grant played in the 1946 movie "Night and Day," as a devoted lover and husband whose songs were more witty than passionate.

The ghost that hovers over "Confidentially, Cole" is the Porter who picked up sailors on the docks, who dressed up his tricks as delivery men, and who wrote desperate and passionate love letters, like this one to the Russian poet Boris Kochno: "I miss you so much that I am falling apart and if this continues this utter silence I don't dare think what I could do."

"This was a man who was pouring his heart out in these songs, and I wondered how many people really knew about that side of him," says Hayden over lunch at the Monkey Bar in midtown Manhattan, which, in the '40 and '50s, had been a favorite watering hole for the likes of Porter, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams (who lived upstairs), Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and other celebrities whose pictures now adorn its walls. "He was screaming to be heard."

William McBrien, author of "Cole Porter: A Biography" (Knopf, 1998, and to be released in paperback by Vintage next month), makes a compelling argument that the composer's homosexual love affairs inspired his most personal and passionate work. "Easy to Love," for example, was written for Ed Tauch, an architect whom Porter fancied; "Night and Day" was inspired by Nelson Barclift, a choreographer who, like Kochno, was one of the composer's great loves.

"The love songs were very coded. They make sly references," McBrien says. "And there is a wonderful ambiguity to most of them. That's why they could get so much heterosexual mileage. Cole was aware that if you disclosed too much in Hollywood, you were likely to lose your job--and your audience."

Hayden was never much of a fan of Cole Porter, whose currency has been increased lately by the smash hit revival of "Kiss Me, Kate" on Broadway. The performer says he always found Porter too aloof. But a couple of years ago, as a 33-year-old Dallas lawyer moonlighting as an actor, he discovered "I Loved Him, but He Didn't Love Me." The bittersweet lyrics struck Hayden as contemporary as the conversation he'd had the night before with some gay friends. "I played the song on my piano, and it nearly knocked me off the bench," he says. "It was so fresh, so cutting edge."

Moving to New York two years ago to escape the boredom of corporate law and further a theatrical career, Hayden delved deeper into the composer's trunk of more than 800 songs, hoping he might develop a vehicle for himself. As he did, the actor says, he was overwhelmed by the fiery emotions he encountered. His thesis of Porter as a tortured, not to mention libidinous, romantic became the basis for "Confidentially, Cole," which premiered last fall in a well-received showcase at the Triad on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The objective, says Hayden, "wasn't to 'out' Cole but to show that he was a very complex individual whose music had so many different levels. I think that makes him even more of a genius."

In the show, which is directed by Matt Lenz, Porter's nostalgie de la boue ("nostalgia for the mud"), as the French call it, is expressed through the alter-egos of two characters (both played by Hayden): Cliff is a jaded bisexual gigolo and entertainer who gets drafted during World War II and finds himself in love with "a soldier boy." Decades later his nephew, Chase, must confront some of the same emotional contradictions while navigating the treacherous terrain of gay love in the 21st century. Within that context, the lust and longing expressed in Porter's lyrics--"my daddy might spank" or "a marine for his queen?" or "this torment won't be through till you let me spend my life making love to you"--take on a more loaded meaning.

The need to lead a double life can spawn cynicism, rage and even rebellion, and Hayden says that he can detect that subtext in the composer's work--even in such light mischief as "Let's Misbehave."

"It's not polite music," he says, adding that Porter's icon status and the "conservatism" of the cabaret world have been responsible for glossing over the complexities of his music.

*

As the son of a Southern fundamentalist preacher who led tent revivals first in Florida and then in Texas, Hayden himself is familiar with repression and rebellion. As his father's accompanist at the services, he also learned something about raw theatricality and holding an audience.

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