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The Land Where the Good Songs Go

Though the weather report promises but little joy, though due dates for theses and applications loom menacingly over us like steadily advancing diplodoci, though the ice and snowdrifts cling to the pavement as clings the tritone to Vitellio Scarpia, though we are, if not actually disgruntled, far from being gruntled, yet be of good cheer, gentle library patrons, for a brief escape to the enchanted land of Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern is but a mouseclick or two away.

Sheet music, recordings, and a couple of other pleasant, nostalgic things.

Between 1915 and 1924 Jerome Kern, often in cahoots with P. G. Wodehouse (brilliant lyricist as well as brilliant novelist; life is not fair) and Guy Bolton (the wizard of plot and pun) wrote several musicals for the small, stylish Princess Theater in New York.    Their intricate, tuneful scores  and believably nonsensical books distinguished the Princess shows from Ziegfeld’s extravaganzas and Cohan’s revues.  Kern and Wodehouse created songs which advanced the plot and illuminated the characters, rather than a series of interchangeable numbers for interchangeable soubrettes and juveniles.  The world of these shows is long, long gone, but the songs are as fresh as ever.

If you are stuck in your room with the cold that’s going around,  Music Online streams an utterly beguiling album of Wodehouse lyrics (mostly set to Kern’s music) called “The Land Where the Good Songs Go.” Sylvia McNair (she of the voice like silver honey), joins forces with pianist Steven Blier and tenor/Wodehouse buff Hal Cazalet for songs like “You Can’t Make Love By Wireless” and “Non-Stop Dancing” (“Father pluckily continues, though he’s sprained eleven sinews, since we got the non-stop dancing craze.”)  Those interested in the evolution of singing styles might want to listen to the vintage recordings of many of the same songs on “The Theatre Lyrics of P. G. Wodehouse”.  Some of these tracks date back to 1905, and there’s an interview with Wodehouse about working with Kern.

For the full Bertie Wooster experience, try visiting the UCLA Archive of Popular American Music, printing out a .pdf of the original sheet music for “The Sirens’ Song” or “Sir Galahad” and playing through it on the nearest keyboard.  You never know what might summon up Jeeves, tray in hand and mammoth brain at the ready to solve all your problems.

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Behind the Camera for Porter’s Last Musical

Among the Merritt Room’s holdings are several continuity scripts for classic musicals, including one for Les Girls (1957) Cole Porter’s last major work (apart from a children’s television production of “Aladdin”) before his retirement in 1958. In tandem with the DVD, it offers a unique look over the shoulder of director George Cukor (legendary for his skill with “women’s pictures”) as he assembles a movie.

It seems at first ironic that this film is billed as “Cole Porter’s Les Girls“, when Porter himself admitted the Les Girls songs were not up to his usual standard*. Suffering from the cumulative effects of a host of physical ailments and a series of heavy personal losses, Porter had been unable to summon up the sparkle and gleam of the previous year’s “High Society” score. Yet the picture itself, helmed and staffed by some of the most elegant minds in the business and starring Gene Kelly and three beautiful lead actresses (including the blazingly talented Kay Kendall), is redolent of the world of accessible sophistication conjured up by a good Porter song.

Color consultant George Hoyningen-Huene (the man behind the haunting deep blues in Cukor’s “A Star is Born”) fills the frame with glowing blacks and startling pinks and rigs up a feathery collage for the credit sequence (note how he handles the transition between the credit for Porter’s music and that of Adolph Deutsch, who adapted and conducted it); John Patrick’s screenplay offers a clever, Rashomon-like plot (Taina Elg and Kendall play former showgirls with Kelly’s troupe, one of whom sues the other over an allegedly libelous memoir) and some wicked one-liners, and Jack Cole choreographs some lively dances (performed in clothes by Orry-Kelly).  Robert Surtees’ cinematography makes the most of the multiple points of view and flashbacks upon flashbacks.

Even tired Porter is still Porter. Les Girls is set mostly in Paris, in the backstage world of crowded dressing rooms, tiny, shared flats, cheap restaurants and third-class train carriages. In the musical numbers, this tawdry milieu suddenly becomes the scene for dazzling light romance. It’s not a bad last look at the man whose music and lyrics could confer instant urbanity on anyone who sang or played them.

– Sarah Barton

*Eells, George. The Life That Late He Led: a Biography of Cole Porter. Putnam, New York, 1967. p.307

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