Star-studded production celebrates 100 years of Cole Porter

Cole Porter, composer and lyricist for many legendary Broadway musicals, was a member of the Yale class of 1913.
Cole Porter, composer and lyricist for many legendary Broadway musicals, was a member of the Yale class of 1913. Photo by Cole Porter Trust.

Generations of past and current Yale actors and musicians will come together this Saturday to honor the musical legacy of Cole Porter 1913 in a staged reading of “Kiss Me Kate,” one of Porter’s best-known musicals.

“Kiss Me Kate” will be the kickoff performance for a year’s worth of events at Yale commemorating the 100th anniversary of Porter’s Yale College graduation. Aided in part by the speed with which staged readings can come together, the organizers were able to bring in many illustrious professional alumni to take part in the performance as volunteers.

The event will also mark the premier of a critical edition of the musical’s orchestral score created by acclaimed conductor David Charles Abell ’81. While it is common for scholars to produce authoritative critical editions for classical music works, they rarely do the same for musicals, Abell explained. As with scholarly versions of Shakespeare’s text, critical editions of musical works compile sections of competing versions of the score and include annotation.

“I’m giving the respect granted those European masters to our own American musical theater,” Abell said. “It’s our American art form — it’s what we have to offer the world.”

The Cole Porter estate hired Abell to take on the project of fully restoring the orchestral score, which previously contained errors and was not readily available to the public. Abell worked by digging up and comparing various versions of the orchestration to decipher Porter’s original intent.

“[The result is] as close as possible to what the orchestra would have had in front of them on the show’s opening night in 1948,” Abell said.

The music will be the star of this weekend’s staged reading — the enormous 44-piece orchestra will sit on the stage rather than in the orchestra pit below, producer Amber Edwards ’82 said.

Ethan Freeman ’81, who will play the male lead, Fred Graham/Petruchio, said classical, operatic musicals like Porter’s are rarely performed in the world of professional musical theater,

“That level of vocalism is very different from the kinds of noises I usually make on stage,” Freeman said. “You’re not usually required to sing in such a fine and cultivated manner.”

Terrence Chin-Loy ’14, who will sing the part of Hortensio, said he was drawn to the performance because it provided an unusual chance to work with prominent, professional arts alumni and to sing in a more traditional musical.

“Kiss Me Kate” will be done on script, and without the costumes, blocking and dance numbers required of a full production. Opera soprano Sari Gruber ’93, who will sing the lead role of Lilli Vanessi/Kate, said the singers will need to convey a great deal of emotion through their voices alone to get the story across.

“You have to think of different ways to deliver the comedy and deliver the drama because it’s all coming from voice and body language,” Chin-Loy explained.

Edwards said the show will be recorded, both for archival purposes and for eventual release as a CD, making it even more important that the music stand on its own.

Director Marc Vietor ’83 explained that “Kiss Me Kate” is a highly visual show, full of physical comedy — the characters hit and throw objects and roll around. The reading’s challenge was “to tell a story in as amusing and witty and elegant a way as we can, without being able to throw a flowerpot on stage,” he said.

To compensate for the absence of physical staging to convey the comedic element, the production is borrowing a technique from old-time radio plays: Ensemble members Raphael Shapiro ’13 and Bonnie Antosh ’13 will also serve as Foley artists, who create sound effects with everyday objects. The two will stand at a table on stage and use various tools to reproduce the noises that should accompany action not actually being shown, Vietor said.

“The sound effects created a whole third layer of the script,” Edwards said. “It’s as if the audience was walking into the [National Broadcasting Service] studios in 1948.”

“Kiss Me Kate” will run at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Jan. 19 at the University Theater. The next event in the centennial celebration will be a Cole Porter-themed swing dance in Jonathan Edwards College.

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