By Steven Suskin
16 May 1999
HIGH SOCIETY (DRG)
It must have seemed a natural to mix the highly sophisticated, society songwriter Cole Porter and the highly sophisticated, society playwright Philip Barry. The canny director Burt Shevelove -- abetted by musical director Buster Davis -- tried it in 1980, turning Barry's Holiday into Happy New Year. They found out it wasn't such a good idea, after all (except for featured actor John McMartin, who more or less stole the show). Eighteen years later to the day, a less canny group tried it again with Barry's The Philadelphia Story, featuring the same scene-stealing McMartin and achieving the same results. That is not to say High Society couldn't have been made to work; just that it was sure to be deceptively difficult.
Both efforts were foredoomed by the same problem. Porter was a high society sophisticate, certainly; but while Barry gently kidded the denizens of the upper crust, Porter more or less burlesqued them. Porter's "society" songs were written to order for low-comedy clowns like Billy Gaxton, Jimmy Durante, Bert Lahr, and that Astoria-born stenographer, Ethel Merman.
For example, take Ethel's rambunctious "I'm Throwing a Ball Tonight," to which she invited all of society's socialites -- who needless to say didn't deign to attend her shindig. Now, you can put that song in the mouth of High Society's high society heroine Tracy Lord; you can even have Cole Porter's lyrics rewritten by Susan Birkenhead (although it's unfathomable they would choose to use a Cole Porter list song, without the list). The spirit of that song, in any case, remains miles away from Oyster Bay. (The locale was moved from Philadelphia for the 1956 movie.)
This is further demonstrated with "Ridin' High." Ethel, here, was so hap-happy she's slap-happy; love had socked her and knocked her for a loop. These are pugilistic allusions; when she says she's "ridin' high," she's not talking about the hunting season. In High Society, star Melissa Errico made her grand entrance riding high -- in jodhpurs -- and was apparently directed to pronounce the "g" which Porter specifically omitted from the word "ridin'." (She does sing "How'm I riding," as opposed to the more grammatical "How am I riding"; but that would require an extra note of music.) The point is, Porter wrote the song in breezy slang; this character, though, doesn't quite speak the language in which the song is written. No one in his right mind would take Ethel Merman's costumes and dress Katharine Hepburn up in them; but that is pretty much what the High Society creators did. That's what the Happy New Year creators did, too, alas.
"Broadway's new musical by Cole Porter" faced another big musical problem. The core of the score was written in 1955, when Porter was old and sick and weary and depressed. (One song, "True Love," the pleasingly gentle waltz, is sweet; the rest were quickly forgotten.) The action of the stage version takes place late in the Depression, which justified adding some late-1930s songs. (The Philadelphia Story was written to order in 1938 for Hepburn -- so much so that Phil Barry named the heroine "Tracy.") To fill out the score, they went rummaging through the Porter songbag; thus we have a couple of World War II-era songs as well as some from the roaring Twenties. (The latter were used mostly to show how frisky dirty old man John McMartin was back when he was young; but if High Society took place in 1939 and Uncle Willie was about sixty, shouldn't he be singing songs from the turn of the century?) The result of all this was a musical mismatch. The songs share the same author, but that's about all they have in common.
This is not as much a problem on the disc as it was in the theater; the album is actually surprisingly sprightly, for the first half at least. But we're then met with some unfathomable choices. That quintessential 1928 jazz-band tune "Let's Misbehave" turns up cloaked in a South American dance rhythm, for example; and the brooding 1952 ballad "It's All Right with Me" (from Can-Can), given an airy reading with its driving rhythm removed, seems a peculiar choice for Tracy's final solo. This is also the leading lady's only solo in the second act, which in itself is indicative of a troubled musical.
The performers do all they can, although no one especially shines. I imagine I should say a word about Melissa Errico, who -- despite the fact that, Eliza Doolittle aside, this was her first Broadway starring role ever -- was expected to single-handedly carry this deadweight of a musical. The word is: hey, it's not her fault. Errico is highly talented, though apparently not too good at vehicle picking. She'll be back again, and hopefully soon, and hopefully in a real show rather than a retreaded patchwork hybrid.