ON THE RECORD: Truly Unknown Porter and a new Porterish Pastiche

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Truly Unknown Porter and a new Porterish Pastiche UNMINED COLE (Centaur CRC 2387)
A little known label out of Baton Rouge has seen fit to release an album of undiscovered songs by Cole Porter, under the title "Unmined Cole." Unlike similar albums which invariably describe their contents as incredibly rare, many of these Porter songs are truly unknown.

UNMINED COLE (Centaur CRC 2387)
A little known label out of Baton Rouge has seen fit to release an album of undiscovered songs by Cole Porter, under the title "Unmined Cole." Unlike similar albums which invariably describe their contents as incredibly rare, many of these Porter songs are truly unknown.

Porter, certainly, was one of Broadway's major songwriters, and he wrote enough great songs to require no apologies. But I've always found his output curious; once you get past those great songs, there is a large amount of moderate material. Unlike other top songwriters who sprinkled great songs among the not-so-great, Porter -- as a composer -- seems to have had vast, barren stretches.

Porter's career spanned forty-two years, from his first Broadway score in 1916 to his last TV score in 1958. Of my twenty-five favorite Porter songs -- I just made a list -- all but three seem to have been written in two, brief stretches, from 1928-35 and 1948-53. Over the other twenty nine years of his active career, only three songs make the grade. In my opinion, anyway. Mind you, Porter wrote several successful musicals over these years; few of those songs, like those from his all-but-forgotten World War II hits Let's Face It, Something for the Boys, and Panama Hattie, make it to my list.

Listening to the twenty selections on Unmined Cole, you might well ask two questions. How is the album? Fascinating for serious Porter fans, without question. How are the songs themselves? Well. . . I suppose hardcore Porterites will leap up and embrace them, but I'm afraid there is little here that begs for discovery. In fact, Porter displays considerable unease in some of the music.

There's only one that I'd send you out of your way to hear, an unused comedy number intended for Eve Arden in the aforementioned Let's Face It (1941). Porter makes sly reference to the then-running Gertrude Lawrence hit Lady in the Dark; more specifically, he is tweaking that show's author, his former collaborator Moss Hart, who was just then loudly touting the science of psychiatry. The punch line: "Make a Date with a Great Psychoanalyst," (pause) "and lie down." Other than this, there's no unmined songs especially worth mining. "There's a Fan" (cut from the 1938 Leave It to Me) is somewhat interesting, a genteel little ditty which works its way into a striptease but doesn't quite pay off. (The liner notes indicate that it was written for Sophie Tucker, but I'd guess that it was intended for Mary Martin to sing before Porter came up with "My Heart Belongs to Daddy.") Another song, "Once Upon a Time," was ineffectively recycled into the recent High Society. There are attempts at operetta-like songs and gypsy songs and Irish mother songs and even a China-doll-in-London song a la "Limehouse Blues." None of these work; several sound like the kind of unfinished, unpolished song Porter might have deserted and filed away, not expecting someone to mine through his discards seventy years later and record them. Nevertheless, dedicated Porter fans should be thrilled that these songs are suddenly, and unexpectedly, now available.

Soprano Paulina Stark gives an adequate rendering of the songs, I suppose, although Porter surely did not write 'em for the voice of a concert soprano. (Which is to say, they might sound less stilted if they were sung by people like Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin.) Ms. Stark is, fortunately, able to pull off some of the comedy material. The album is helped inestimably by the presence of pianist Judy Brown, who researched and edited the material. She clearly knows her Porter, and the composer's work is in good hands.

Also in the Centaur catalogue is a somewhat related album, "Jerome Kern: Lost Treasures" (CRC 2371). Unlike the Porter songs, though, these are not really lost; simply long out of print. While I am quite appreciative of Kern's work, I've never been able to generate much enthusiasm for anything he wrote before his startlingly modern "They Didn't Believe Me" in 1914. The twenty-four songs on this disc, written from 1906-1913, handily support my viewpoint. "The Ragtime Restaurant" and "De Goblin's Glide" are lively in a friendly sort of way, but those are the only tracks of interest. Neither am I impressed by the performers, soprano Anne Sciolla and pianist Brian Kovach. Listeners keen on early Kern will be glad for the opportunity to hear these songs, though, and so I devote a lone paragraph to this disc.

A SAINT SHE AIN'T (First Night CastCD73)
I had no sooner finished referring to Porter's undistinguished wartime hits when a pocket-sized pastiche musical -- which seems to harken back to the Merman vehicles Panama Hattie and Something for the Boys - arrived via post from London. Those shows were good-natured, rambunctious, and somewhat risque, marked by cleverly snappy lyrics set to functional-but-pedestrian tunes. Which is a pretty accurate description of A Saint She Ain't, which originated at the King's Head in April and is scheduled to open this week at the Apollo in the West End. (This should not be confused with M-G-M's Doris Day vehicle of the same title, which was never made. A musicalization of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, Bob Merrill's score was refashioned for Broadway, arriving as New Girl in Town.)

The action is set in Hollywood during World War II, about a tap-dancing gob and his all American gal. They get mixed up, somehow or other, with a Mae West-like character named Faye Bogle; her father Snaveley T. Bogle, who sounds an awful lot like Jimmy Durante; her better half Willoughby Dittenfeffer, who is supposed to sound like W. C. Fields; and what appears to be a Betty Hutton clone as well. (I'm personally not big on performers impersonating performers; in this case, Barry Cryer -- the Durante -- seems to be giving a good performance on his own account.)

It's hard to tell much from the liner notes, which include a complete set of lyrics but little other information on the show; not even the fact that it is based on a comedy hit from the 1659-60 season by, oddly enough, Moliere. Loosely based, one would guess. Book and lyrics are by Dick Vosburgh (who performed similar duties on A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine and the Front Page-derived musical Windy City); music by Denis King; and direction by Ned Sherrin.

The tunes -- performed by what sound like two pianos -- are mostly adequate skeletons upon which to fit Vosburgh's neatly pun-filled lyrics. The title song has the same rambunctious likability as secondary Porter list songs like "A Picture of Me without You"; "I Can't Help Dancing" is as cheerfully catchy as the dance tunes Sandy Wilson used to whip up; and composer King also does well with his jazzy ballad "The Joke's on Me." As for Vosburgh, he's working with a rhyming dictionary that's positively Harburgish. Here's a fellow who has his all-too-American tenor rhyme "hosanna" with "Star Spangled Banna"; who pairs "Willoughby" with "Triliby"; and who mates "ecstasy" with "neckstasy." (Neckstasy, as in "all the girls are craning their neckstasy.") Vosburgh's Durante sings of "Da bullfinch and da cowfinch -- dat's his wife." That might be authentic Durante, but I kind of hope Vosburgh came up with it himself.

On the other hand, I would be remiss to neglect to mention that he also felt the need to provide an eleven o'clock song which is mirthlessly dirty. No one liked slipping in double entendres more than Porter; but he was careful to slip them in stealthily, evading the censors and startling his unsuspecting audience into raucous belly laughs. Mr. Vosburgh takes off from a famous quip of Ms. West's -- something about what some fellow's got in his pocket -- and has his own little holiday. Ms. West presumably made the joke once, in whatever play or movie for which she wrote it. Mr. Vosburgh gives us twenty-three variations of the line in two choruses, which is twenty two -- or, for me, twenty-three -- times too many, whopping us over the head with frankfurters and javelins and pickles and swizzle sticks. The joke wears itself out long before Mr. Vosburgh does, I'm afraid. The song in question, I hesitate to add, is entitled "The Banana for My Pie," set to one of Mr. King's best tunes.

Nevertheless, A Saint She Ain't -- on CD, at least -- makes for charming, good-natured fun. Fans of shows like Dames at Sea and The Boy Friend are likely to like this one. And this just in: The City Center Encores! concert version of Comden, Green & Styne's Do-Re-Mi arrived too late for inclusion. It will be discussed in the next column, but it sounds pretty good, so you should feel free to pick it up if you happen to see it in the interim.

Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com