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21st century Porter

August 15, 2004

Gary Giddins seems to suggest that Cole Porter's work should be immune to modern treatment.

Sure, we all join Giddins in enjoying Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine." And who doesn't like Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin"? And of course we admire Ella Fitzgerald's and Rosemary Clooney's interpretations of any Porter song. But the question is, should it be left there, or can't Porter's songs be performed by new artists who come along in the 21st and 22nd centuries in new ways?

Some might claim that William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" should not have been made into a "West Side Story," or that "The Tempest" should not have been modernized by Paul Mazursky. I suspect Shakespeare might relate to Natalie Wood's "Juliet." I think he would appreciate Mazursky's modern, mystical, tempestuous island. I also suspect that Porter, who had not only a great sense of rhyme but also an easy sense of humor, wouldn't really mind hearing "Begin the Beguine" sung by a performer who, it seems, intentionally tries to avoid hitting most of the correct notes in the song. And Porter might smile if he heard the Chipmunks singing "Let's Do It." And he might enjoy hearing other interpretations that depart from the traditional.

Cole Porter might even simply say to any elaborate analysis, "Anything goes!"

Sam McCarver

Dana Point


I certainly agree with Gary Giddins' basic premise about "De-Lovely": It was a horrendous mistake -- or more likely just a cynical commercial move -- to have entrusted Cole Porter's songs to the contemporary singers in the movie.

However, Mr. Giddins didn't go far enough, especially in the case of Sheryl Crow and "Begin the Beguine." He calls her rendition "morbidly tenuous," which doesn't even begin to describe the absolutely excruciating reworking of that song. (To quote one lyric, "How strange the change from major to minor!") What were they thinking when they did such a stupid thing?

Amy Albani



I think Gary Giddins missed an important point -- Porter was writing for musical comedy, a difficult task for those performers not well versed or trained in the ways of the American musical. Ethel Merman wasn't a particularly "good" singer as such, but certainly she had a way with Mr. Porter's work!

Nearly 40 years ago, before Joan Sutherland recorded her album of Noel Coward songs and Beverly Sills made one of operetta works, I was a producer at EMI in London. A mutual friend and confidant of Maria Callas (one of our contract artists) told me that Callas wished to make a double album of Cole Porter songs. It was pointed out that when not singing operatic material, she had an American accent, which would be well suited to the Porter material. The diva's one request was that Leonard Bernstein should make the musical arrangements and conduct as they had worked together at La Scala. Being very young (one of only five producers at Manchester Square), it didn't occur to me to contact Bernstein's agent; instead I called directly to U.S. Columbia and spoke to Goddard Lieberson, since his permission would be necessary for Bernstein to record for us. I explained what was needed, to which his protective reply was, "Why would Mr. Bernstein want to do that -- after all, he is a symphonic conductor!" And that put an end to the project.

David Gooch

Van Nuys

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