Two stars drew Kathy and me to Ravinia last night. One of them was David Hyde Pierce, famous the world over as Niles in the sitcom “Frasier.” whose song and dance talents we enjoyed on Broadway in his Tony-winning performance in a show called Curtains. The other was soprano Victoria Clark, who set all of Broadway ablaze with her stupendous performance in The Light in the Piazza, a tour de force we feel very privileged to have experienced in person. The thought of the two of them on one stage was absolutely irresistible to us. . . and rather beside the point (at least for me) was that they were going to be singing songs by Cole Porter.
I read those words I just typed and am genuinely embarrassed by them. How could I be so dismissive of one of the most brilliantly gifted songwriters of all time? I suppose the short answer is that Cole Porter was a terribly troubled genius. . . obnoxiously self-absorbed. . . capable of staggering unkindness and insensitivity. . . and responsible for plenty of clunkers. But at his best, Cole Porter was The Best Of Them All. . . and last night what wowed me even more than Mr. Pierce and Ms. Clark were the endlessly inventive songs of Mr. Porter.
One of the neatest things about the concert- which was sung without intermission (thank you!) is that we were treated to twenty songs that both Kathy and I thought were perfectly balanced between beloved classics (“You’re the Top” / “True Love” / “De-Lovely” / “Night and Day”) and much more obscure songs that were completely unknown to nearly all of us in the audience (“The Physician” / “The Extra Man” / “Dream Dancing”). That’s what gave the evening a delicious sense of both revisiting old friends and meeting brand new ones.
And something else I loved is how they sang these songs without smothering them in intrusive “interpretation.” This was Cole Porter sung fairly “straight” – which is not to say lifelessly or inexpressively, but sung rather close to how Mr. Porter would have heard them in his day. I didn’t even fully appreciate that until the ride home, as we listened to a CD we bought at the Ravinia Gift Shop titled “Cocktails with Cole Porter.” The title should have alerted me to the fact that these would be recordings with a lot of the noodling that one hears from lounge singers . . . which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but I much prefer my Cole Porter songs straight! And as we listened to Dean Martin & Co. crooning and swooning, we realized how much we loved the way these songs had been sung to us on that Ravinia stage.
And as we watched the concert unfold both on the stage itself and on the large screens hung on either side of the stage, it made me wish that this concert could show up on PBS so the whole country could enjoy what we were enjoying. But thinking about that just got me depressed about how little one gets to see of truly first-rate music making on television anymore. . . (at least what is my idea of first-rate music making) . . . and especially how little one gets to hear of the classic songs from the Great American Songbook. Sorry if I sound like one of those cranky curmudgeons who sits around McDonald’s from 7am until noon, crabbing about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. In many respects I don’t look at the world that way at all. But when it comes to music – and especially the music one sees on television – I am Archie Bunker, Fred Sanford, and Frank Barrone rolled into one. (Isn’t that a pretty picture?) But the flip side is that for an hour and fifteen minutes under the stars we were treated to one fantastic song after another, sung by two of the greatest singers around. . . and if there was anything that proved the greatness of what we were seeing and hearing, it was that the notoriously talkative Ravinia audience sat in rapt silence through every single song. It was that kind of night. And my only regret is that it couldn’t be enjoyed by even more people than the thousands who filled the grounds of Ravinia almost to the brim. (The pavilion was completely sold out.)
Favorite moments? I was utterly beguiled by a song called “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” in which Victoria Clark did some of her most tender singing of the night, about the way in which we die a little with every goodbye. I also loved the funny duet with a million verses called “Let’s Do It” with lines like: “Birds do it; Bees do it; Even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love!” Of course, it was sheer joy to have the air filled with the sheer gorgeousness of a song like “Night and Day.” And the second to the last number was a gorgeous duet called “After You, Who?” which includes these wonderful lyrics:
After you, who
could supply my sky of blue?
After you, who
Could I love?
After you, why
Should I take the time to try,
For who else could qualify
after you? Who?
Hold my hand and swear
You’ll never cease to care,
for without you there what could I do?
I could search for years
But who else could change my tears
into Laughter, after you?
I don’t know who writes lyrics as wonderful as that anymore.
After they finished up with “You’re the Top” – and then, as a first encore, sang the famous “dirty” verse which was written by Irving Berlin (complete with something that rhymes with Venus) – they brought the evening to an absolutely perfect end with the duet “True Love.” It was so beautiful that even the cicadas – buzzing all night long – found themselves hushed as these tender lyrics filled the night air:
I give to you and you give to me
True Love, True Love.
So on and on it will always be
True Love, True Love.
For you and I have a guardian angel on high
with nothing to do
but to give to you and to give to me
Love Forever True.
The sad thing is that Cole Porter experienced so very little “True Love” in his personal life. . . but maybe the fact that he longed for it so desperately is what galvanized him to write such discerning songs about it. Who can say? All we know for certain is that he gave the world some of the most imaginative, original, and compelling songs ever written – – – and the next time I have the chance to hear an evening of Cole Porter, I will jump at the chance – and will only hope that the performers can even approach the magic which Mr. Pierce and Ms. Clark delivered last night under the stars of Ravinia.
Pictured above: David Hyde Pierce and Victoria Clark singing their final encore of the night. By the way, I really did enjoy the movie “De-Lovely” – the recent film about Cole Porter – but I was really ticked off by most of the musical performances it contained. They did such an amazing job of recreating Cole Porter’s era, right down to the smallest visual details- but then when it came to those moments when we heard Porter’s songs sung, they were done in very self-consciously modernized renditions that could not have been less authentic. It would be a little like someone making a very authentic-looking film about Puccini but then using Michael Bolton or Arethra Franklin in the soundtrack. So watch “De-Lovely” but be forewarned- Someone apparently got the mistaken impression that the songs of Cole Porter would fail to entertain today’s audiences if done authentically. . . and that they would benefit from a little Modernizing. Blech!!! Last night at Ravinia demonstrated the utter wrongheadedness of that assumption.