Saturday
Dec052015

Anything Goes

Pierre Senges
Translated by Jacob Siefring


August 28, 1934

Dear Alan,[1]

(. . .)

Perhaps because New York is the city where Da Ponte ended his days, Broadway’s professionals are trying to perfect stories that will rival, in stores where discs are sold and in the esteem of refined judges, librettos from the time of Don Giovanni. It’s now quite rare that a composer (me, as it so happens) is asked for a batch of ten to twelve songs before anybody even knows what the play’s going to be about—but nevertheless, here I am in that absurd situation, writing my songs, playing the piano by myself with my dictionary by my side, and waiting for a librettist of genius (genius sometimes meaning whoever has a nose for opportunity) to put them together to bring his story to its final act. As you know, I too have the American genius for opportunity: I fill orders, I act as though I preferred the professionalism of minor masters to such talent as Europe’s greatest poetry inspires—I pray to Johann-Sebastian Bach that I’ll be able to find a way to make hiring contract and celestial music jive together—in short, I do what urgently must be done, and I even have the slyness of Odysseus on my side; to do a contract like this, to write blindly, you have to be a bit of a con man, and have a sense of humor, too.

For two weeks now, I’ve been trying to write songs that are interchangeable, valid in all possible circumstances, for every era and across all genres; with a little luck, over the next fifty years, the musical comedy industry will be enamored enough of them to reuse my ten hits infinitely, once they have become prototypes—what’s the word?—the indispensable locutions or phonemes—and me, I’ll become obscenely rich, I’ll outdo Florenz Ziegfeld, I’ll have enough to buy Manhattan Island and convert it into a miniature golf course (until then, instead of spending money I haven’t yet earned, I go back to my work, and amuse myself by rhyming -oz with-iz endings).

(. . .)

 

September 4, 1934

Alan,

(. . .)

The regular polyhedra—do you remember that old Platonic rag?—they’re finite in number, there are five of them, not one extra, too bad for the sixth! The circumstances of a human life can also be counted on the fingers of two hands, three maybe, if you add in some contemporary subjects with the timeless motifs, like the plight of the actress after the invention of sound cinema. In the cabin of a translatlantic steamer, I could make a catalog of eternal songs, adapted to everything: the countless dawns of the Odyssey, the gay brigandages of Petronius, the dilemmas of courtoisie in the era of Chrétien de Troyes, the most rustic Westerns, and those hotel room dramas such as Ernst Lubitsch likes to film—a man who understands people, and upholstery, too. There would be the song of the abandoned lover (some elements from Propertius, some from Buster Keaton), the song of love at first sight, the song of the household in decline, the song of nostalgia, the song of rut expressed through litotes, the dupe’s song, the vamp’s song, the liar’s song, and a few others, too.

Despite all his savoir faire in matters of success, Vinton Freedley, the producer, is having a tough time recovering from a recent flop: Pardon My English by the Gershwin brothers failed to excite the enthusiasm of New York audiences (so easily excitable other times, though). Three weeks later, he turned up on my doorstep, fresh out of some infernal lounge, his hat on backwards, nervous, as if he owed money to the Mafia and not his banker; he doesn’t want to lose a minute, the day after tomorrow he needs to have the musical comedy that everyone on Broadway is waiting for, not a comedy for this fall, but a Comedy for the Century to Come: profits, huge crowds queueing up, fashionable choruses that will still be sung two hundred years from now when we’ve colonized the Moon. He wants to act fast, he opened his wallet, he had already written the title of the musical on a sheet of Hotel Algonquin stationery: Hard to Get (it might have been Mind the Gap—he stared a long instant at the words Hard to Get beside The Algonquin Hotel, as if they were the opposite of a prediction, a droll incantation, the producer’s sense of humor indistinguishable from that of a sophisticated drunk). 

(. . .)

 

September 21, 1934

Dear Alan,

All that I’ve been able to find out, after making lots of phone calls, is the casting: William Gaxton, Victor Moore, and the indomitable Ethel Merman, who prides herself on having the world’s most powerful diaphragm; I also have an idea of the librettists, who were found sitting on a staircase in Tin Pan Alley: Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse—and the latest word is that Howard Lindsay will be directing. I have confidence in Wodehouse, an Englishman’s cruelty goes well in American librettos, and New York audiences can at least be sure there’ll be a butler character—Wodehouse’s butlers are irresistible. I don’t know if P.G. read Herman Melville before moving to the U.S., but I’m willing to bet there’s a little of Melville’s Confidence Man in the libretto for Hard to Get, if I remember it well: a story of men and women embarked on a ship headed for Old Europe, with the growing suspicion that there’s a no-good rat among the passengers (in Melville’s case it’s a Big Crook, and for Wodehouse it’s Public Enemy #1).

(Our ideas are never new, considered in succession, one after the other: 2,500 years after Aristophanes and four centuries after William Shakespeare, the last resort of creators on Broadway is still the combinatorial arts: that is why most of them are melancholic plagiarists who try to stave off their melancholy by playing cards.)

In order to write hits by the dozen, I‘ve taken to wearing a mask—my songs have to wear masks too, in order to find their form, have character, and make themselves heard in three thousand-seat theaters. My mask, as you know, is that of Cole Porter, an American in Paris, a dandy in New York spoiled by Parisian refinements; my mask, thanks to ma demi-vie parisienne, carries a hint of the worst turpitudes, an affair with the butcher’s boy or, worse still, the habit of dunking my croissant in my coffee. And so I’ve created a character for myself, much like a person who knits to pass the hours on board a ship sailing between America’s and Europe’s coasts: I’m the son of a respectable family, a facetious charmer who the other charmers fear for his ability to gather, in the nightclubs, usually after midnight, all the ladies around the piano as he sings. On Broadway, my latest mask (or the latest wrinkle in my mask), consists of a lazy prodigality: the talent one associates with sleeping through the morning, with the sofa, with siestas, cycles of furious partying and sleepy afternoons in constant alternation—they’ll picture me writing my record-breaking masterpieces while lying on a divan, as others do crossword puzzles: seven cigarettes are enough to get the thing done; the only person who might rival me in this regard is Alexander Pushkin (and in a certain way, Pushkin helped me to cast the mold for my mask).

My songs put on an act: they need, as we all do, a story to survive, to give them their raison d’être, to have a hypothetical beginning and an epilogue that’s pure fiction; they want to have intentions and to play a role, sometimes they even want to advance the plot—and me, good servant and brave boy that I am, I have no choice but to always obey them. By what miracle do my refrains, intended as Mr. Peabody’s replies to Mrs. Chase, escape from Chase and Peabody, and take flight (isn’t that image poetic?), carried through the air on radio waves, and continue to be felt so far from the theater’s stage? I’ll surely never know—I rack my brain; presently, I hear the taxis singing.

(. . .)

 

October 12, 1934

Dear Alan,

The title’s changed, it’s not Hard to Get anymore, but Anything Goes (until the next rewrite of the script at least, by then the producers will have replaced Vera Dunn with Phyllis Brooks): Vinton Freedley has done his best to sow chaos: The rehearsals have begun without a libretto, nor even a bible, with just three of my songs and a vague plot Bolton and Wodehouse signed off on. Just imagine, then, one month before the premiere, the pianist off to one corner of the stage, the producer lurking in the shadows, the costume designers in a ruffle at not knowing whether to bring out circa-1900 dresses or blouses from the 1930s, idlers and young talented people everywhere, thirty-six chorus girls in a state of uncertainty, which must make for one superb sight—and in the middle of all this disorder (if a disorder directed by Freedley can even have a center) someone intoning the words Anything Goes: whatever, that’ll do the trick. I don’t know whether he was talking about the menu for the brunch break or about the libretto that remains to be written, probably a little of both, that’s usually how it is, but his remark has become our new title, and at noon Vinton Freedley told me to start writing the lyrics.

Everything is permitted, Anything Goes: In addition to chasing after -oz rhymes, with a butterfly net in hand, I superimpose on my Cole Porter mask another mask, the mask of a grumpy old satirist, nostalgic, critical, unenlightened, for whom Modern Times are an outright abomination—a conspiracy of klaxons and pimps. For this, I can tap Juvenal’s polemical tone: His blades were always sharp, he composed his portraits with just two quick jabs, sometimes with a tiny spoon, like someone attacking a watermelon to make tiny, sickly-sweet balls from it—he was incisive and merciless, but with every reading I wonder if his misanthropy makes him urbane or just the opposite, a philistine. My Anything Goes will be Juvenalian, it will be aristocratic or vulgar depending on how one reads it and how cheerful the reader’s mood or temperament happens to be; I’ll see to it that the recriminations all rhyme, there will be martini olives and puns, and to make them really pop (the recriminations, I mean) I’ll have them issue from the mouth of an ambiguous gentleman, such as you see hanging around various venues: a cantankerous individual who acts as though he misses the reign of King Edward VII and holds his nose whenever he talks about cinematography, but a sharp man capable of ferreting out snobbism, cowardice, and the vulgarity of Our Swooning Era—sufficiently attuned to the fashions of Broadway and the beverages served in its bars to order them with just a hint of a gesture. It’s completely up to you if you want to think of Cole Porter as that teasing, cantankerous smoothtalker, up to you, my friend: but don’t forget the mask, the mask without which no anthropophany would be possible (also, let’s not forget the definition of spectacle on Broadway and in society: it starts to exist the moment things cease to be what they are).

(. . .)

 

October 27, 1934

My dear Alan,

(. . .)

Dante Alighieri pulled off quite a feat when he smuggled all the elites of his day into the three tomes of his Divine Comedy, but only the Inferno welcomes in the fashionable leading spirits of his day who are so recondite today, like Jacopo Rusticucci, a procurer in Florence (in the circle of sodomites), Obiazo II, a seigneur from Ferrare, Pier delle Vigne, Frederick II’s minister, Bouturo Dati, a party leader and trafficker, the Polenta family in the circle of perfidious councilors, Geri del Bello, Dante’s cousin, or, in the circle of traitors, Sassol Mascheroni, about whom I don’t know much, except that that was probably his name. I know, I’m a very modest Dante, I belong to a more frivolous century than he, I’ve known divine ecstasy on the cushions of speakeasies, I don’t feel torn in my allegiance between the pope and the emperor, it’s not my job to found the English language, and I’ve ruined my talent writing hits—and yet, I have the vanity to believe that I’ve successfully made my Anything Goes into a miniature Dantesque Inferno, with some dancing. I’ve written a number of famous names into it: not necessarily the damned, but all the same, the kind of people I would love to just smack, if not for the respect and the money I owe them. In order of appearance, here’s my modest Florentine-American elite: Mae West, in the circle of wastrels and backstabbing voluptuaries; Evalyn Walsh McLean, heiress in the circle of the collectors of the world’s largest diamonds; after whom comes Max Gordon, in the circle of suddenly (too suddenly) rich producers, and then Sam Goldwyn and his Goldwynisms, Lady Mendl triply damned for being a sapphic, fashion-setting gold digger; finally the Vanderbilt and Whitney families in the circle of specious fortunes, their members long anxious at the prospect of never being able to fully purge themselves through philanthropy.

You’ll soon see how the always-too-brief genre of popular song requires me to work around its limitations with ellipses and unspoken remarks, overflowing my three couplets like sludge trickling out of Dante’s barrels. You’ll also notice that I end my song at its climax, by conjuring Eleanor Roosevelt in person, rechristened Mrs. R. (the concision of songwriting lends itself to a venomous elegance): the President’s wife, no less, whom I picture in a homely evening gown, a hand on her hip, descending one of those staircases our imaginationless choreographers are so fond of.

(I sometimes have the feeling that I’m the director and not the songwriter, and that I’m making the actors take turns auditioning for me—they offer themselves up to my judgment, they are exactly as they appear; their sole recourse is their ability to act, while I, invisible and untouchable in the darkness, which is also a comfortable void, I judge them.)

(. . .)

 

November 1, 1934

My dear Al,

(. . .)

Je meurs de soif auprès de la fontaine[2]: do you remember the old poetry competitions on the theme of reversals? Well, my Anything Goes has its fun too in marrying opposites: that’s just the sort of slothful virtuosity I’m capable of, on which my fortune rests (I don’t turn down easy effects, easiness being one of Broadway’s character traits, but I do try to ingeniously embellish; I want to be unrivalled, in other words without a single competitor, in the art of making things look easy; I act as if my virtuosity were rooted in comfort, were concealed there, cloaked by a false modesty, only to be revealed to the connoisseurs as the truth of an enigma, in little dribs and drabs). It won’t take me long to write my little swinging Inferno on the basis of a single title, not once I decide to write my vocalises on the theme of the inversion of all values—in the couplets and in the choruses good becomes evil, the destitute become rich, black becomes white, man is a woman and vice versa, and the President’s wife becomes a mattress seller. I’m writing myself into that gallery of oxymorons too; I have conjured an afternoon ambiance of Times Square fools, where a donkey is elevated to a king’s dignity, and because opposites are joined, I get to play the role of accused and accuser simultaneously.

(. . .)

 

Boston, November 5, 1934

Dear Al,

(. . .)

My French friends, who write books and articles, are sometimes envious of the English language, of its superb triviality, its dipthongs and tripthongs—I see them huddling over the originals of William Shakespeare trying to imagine what that would look like in French, then failing with that grammatical, juristic, characteristically Parisian dignity they have. What they’re most jealous of are my monosyllables, as if they were a spell one could use to seduce pretty girls or to penetrate the world’s secrets: something Satan would have given the English in exchange for their songs. If it weren’t for all these monosyllables, I would have to find a new job, become a German philosopher instead of a simple songwriter; they alone give me this nonchalant power to say everything in six-footed verses; once it has been translated into French, my Anything Goes will have a Proustian quality: a beautiful way of unfurling, so very admirable, a critical edge, the knack for observation, and the choice of just the right verbs, but always laid out like a promenade alongside the river, after a meal—even brunch happens grammatically.

With a lazy man’s virtuosity, that’s how I make my living: it’s my gift to be able to go to work, my spirit limpid the day after steeping long in champagne, with what remains of my deep sleep still palpable in my fatigue, helping me to find my words. I also appear to be musically gifted—but that’s actually an effect of my cunning, of my patient, music-loving perversity, my education, my diligence in the concert halls, an effect of work and the pleasure I take in complicating melody, basically in the way one can fold up a piece of paper in twelve, and lend it the appearance of a simple tune. As they sing my couplets a cappella on their way home, the audience members don’t suspect that they’ve fallen into the trap of my melody articulated in convoluted rhythms: They also don’t know that they escape from this trap thanks only to my composer’s goodwill, which is at once courtesy, professionalism, and the pursuit of popular success: For as long as I live, I will never leave the listeners in distress: My little tunes are baroque, but inside my little baroque labyrinth, I pride myself on getting Mr. and Mrs. Everyman to dance their worries away.

You’ll say to me: your compositions are usually more farcical than sublime—I don’t want to hear it, I feel I’ve been put on this earth to access the sublime through farce. Listen, for example, to how I place the listener in a major key (B flat) for the eight bars of a cheerful, perky almost pachydermal introduction, like a sort of prelude to the joys of life, but begin my first couplet, right after, with a minor chord (B flat minor): lamentoso, disperato, drammatico, patetico ma non troppo—and con dolore too, the dolor in which all my dancehall irony resides. I don’t know where that desire to elevate the joke to the level of the musical fine arts comes from, certainly not Richard Wagner—Joseph Haydn, more likely: Joseph happy to live, like Amadeus Mozart, as one of the elect in a century of profound facetiae.

The song is now finished: I could still go on talking to you about its lurching melody, folded back in upon itself, suggesting (with a little luck) the absurdity of the latest trends, but also the eternal return of stupidity, always the same; I want to tell you how this three-beat motif in a four-beat measure, gradually falling out of sync, falls back into time like Lady Mendl landing on her feet (I leave it up to you if you want to interpret these fantasies as an allegory for a period of initial liberation before a return to the fold). Time is all I lack, and it’s better to send you the lyrics: there you’ll find Puritans, mediocre novelists, cars barreling along, sudden fortunes and unjust failures, the best vintages in our glasses, patricians and female dancers, nabobs, gigolos, sex parties, fake connoisseurs, second-rate actors, and a great many hypocrites—and floating high up above this fine company, my voice installed on the highest perch (I swore a vow to irony when I gave up on my career as a crooner).

 

For the same show, I wrote “You’re the Top,” which you’ll have to tell me your thoughts on (I manage to rhyme Fred Astaire with Camembert there), and “I Get a Kick Out of You,” which I invite you to accept as my personal dedication. Along with Ethel Merman and May Abbey, Bettina Hall will be onstage; the premiere in New York is scheduled for the 21st of November. I expect you to be there.

Cole

 

 

Times have changed

And we’ve often rewound the clock

Since the Puritans got a shock

When they landed on Plymouth Rock.

If today

Any shock they should try to stem

‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,

Plymouth Rock would land on them

(etc.)  

 

 


[1] These letters were written by Cole Porter while he was composing the score of Anything Goes, which premiered in Boston on November 5, 1934. They are addressed to the actor Alan Broderick.

[2] "I die of thirst at the fountain’s edge." A line of French verse dating from the 15th century, attributed to Charles d’Orléans, and also François Villon who reprised it. The poetry competitions referred to took place at the Château de Blois in 1458. – Trans.