Nearly 100 years after Cole Porter 1913 graduated from Yale, historian Robert Kimball ’61 discussed the musical legend’s college life at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea.
Over 30 students, faculty and alumni gathered last Friday to attend the Tea, one of a series of events celebrating the centennial of the composer’s graduation. Both a master class sponsored by the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater — a program of courses administered by the Department of Music — and a Master’s Tea, the event consisted of performances by Shen Curriculum students and a lecture by Kimball detailing Porter’s work in musical theater and his relationship with the University.
“[Porter] was a great champion of civil entertainment,” Kimball said. “He wanted people to be enjoying themselves in the theater. Period.”
The Tea was part of a yearlong celebration entitled “100 Years of Cole Porter at Yale,” through which the University is commemorating Porter’s graduation and musical influence with a sequence of performances, lectures and social activities. The centennial began with the January production of “Kiss Me, Kate,” which involved both student and alumni performers. On March 2, the Graduate Club was the site of the Cole Porter Swing Dance, featuring performances by the Bales-Gitlin Band and student ballroom and swing dance groups. The Porter centennial will conclude next fall with a gala concert featuring notable Cole Porter experts and student performers.
Students and alumni from the Shen Curriculum kick-started the Tea with performances of Porter’s songs. Accompanied on the piano by Alex Ratner ’14 and Andrew Rubenoff DRA ’83, singer Kelly Hill MUS ’13 gave an operatic rendition of “In the Still of the Night.” Nathaniel Janis ’14 performed “Easy to Love,” followed by Rebecca Brudner ’16 with “Goodbye Little Dream, Goodbye.” Amber Edwards ’82, a former student of Kimball’s, tackled two of Porter’s hits — “At Long Last Love” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”
After the performance, Robert Kimball addressed the history behind the five songs. Each was composed in the 1930s, the peak of Porter’s career. The origins of “At Long Last Love” revealed Porter’s dedication to his art — having been thrown from a horse, the composer thought of the song’s iconic lines as he lay prostrate on the ground.
Kimball also read an excerpt from “Cole Porter at Yale,” an essay that will appear in his 2014 book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Porter’s death. The excerpt depicted the arrival of the freshman class of 1913, a celebration that would include “torchlight parades” and the “shepherding” of freshmen to York Street. Porter, who came to Yale from Indiana, had to reinvent himself, history professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 told the News in September.
“[Porter] was an outsider, but he had a wonderful time at Yale,” Kimball said.
A boy who “mostly roomed alone to play piano into the night,” Porter got his start in songwriting by composing football songs. By the time he graduated, Porter had written “Bingo Eli Yale” and “Bulldog.” Also involved in multiple music groups and the Yale Dramat, Porter composed four musicals for Yale productions during his undergraduate career, as well as an additional show after he graduated. After failing to succeed on Broadway with “See America First,” Porter returned to Yale, writing the score for the Dramat’s 1925 production of “Out of Luck.”
“[The University] gave him his start in musical theater,” Kimball said. “He was forever grateful to Yale for that.”
During the 1930s, Porter became “the foremost person in musical theater,” Kimball said. He composed nine Broadway shows that ran for over a year, surpassing all other composers to date. His risqué lyrics received a great deal of controversy — “I’ll Get A Kick Out Of You” mentioned cocaine, while the lyrics of “Love For Sale,” a song about a prostitute, were censored across national airwaves.
“Porter was a man who began the tradition of writing adult songs for musical theater,” Kimball said. “His willingness to take chances made it easier for lyric writers to tackle any subject.”
Five audience members interviewed said they enjoyed both Kimball’s lecture and the student performances.
“It was very interesting that the style of each performance was so different,” said Suzanne Lovejoy, a librarian at the Music Library in Sterling Memorial Library. “The first one was operatic. The second was like he was speaking to you, like it was a cabaret. And of course, Amber [Edwards] has great presence.”
Hill called Kimball’s lecture “a beautiful narrative,” noting Kimball’s apparent “love and dedication” for Porter. Piyumi Fernando ’13 said Kimball helped her see the composer as more than just a great songwriter, adding that the songs and the lecture reinforced her love for Yale.
“Cole Porter, as a proud son of Yale and as one of the most accomplished songwriters in history, gives every Yale musical theater composer, writer and performer permission to dream big and to pursue their own voice in the next generation of writers and thinkers in this great American art form,” Dan Egan, coordinator of the Shen Curriculum, said in an email.
The Shen Curriculum will host its next master class, featuring “In the Heights” director Tommy Kail, on April 8.