By Peter Filichia —
Many a musical theater writer has found that following a smash hit with another is difficult if not impossible. So after Cole Porter had the biggest success of his career — Kiss Me, Kate on New Year’s Eve, 1948 — critics and audiences may have just been expecting that his next show would automatically be just as good.
No. Not “just as good.” Better.
And while critics and audiences were disappointed with Out of This World, which opened sixty years ago this week, the original cast album proves there’s a first-rate score in this musical in which gods and goddesses mix with mere earthlings.
Those who prefer Kate by a wide margin might point out the metaphor that while it had two gangsters in its cast, Out of This World had but one. If we’re looking for hit songs, Kate had a peck while the one song to step out of Out of This World stepped out of the show entirely once show doctor George Abbott took over from director Agnes DeMille. He insisted that “From This Moment On” didn’t belong. Perhaps, but it soon showed that it belonged on the Hit Parade, which each week listed the Top Ten hits and an “extra.”
True, none of the surviving Out of This World songs made the Top Ten – or even the “extra.” But there are (at least) 10 in the score that offer wonderful music and lyrics.
1. “I Jupiter, I Rex” — Mercury introduces us to the Big Guy who expressed a weakness for female humans. Those who spent their college years in New Haven (and that included Porter) will notice that the cheer that Jupiter leads is actually a variation on a famous Yalie chant. And leave it to the ever-sensual Porter to rhyme “goddesses” with “bodices” and “merry air” with “derriere.”
2. “Use Your Imagination” — Good advice to all of us. Porter certainly used his to come up with a beautiful melody and lovely lyrics by which he introduces Helen. She’s a mortal, but you’d never know it from this celestial song. Those who love the sound of soprano singing will find this the first of many such treats on this album.
3. “I Got Beauty” — So claims the earthy Juno, who doesn’t understand why hubby Jupiter doesn’t see it. Porter didn’t make a mistake in the way he handled his character, but he might have erred by citing “Too Darn Hot” in the lyric. Why remind people of Kiss Me, Kate when you don’t have to?
4. “Where, Oh, Where” — Another Porter specialty was the waltz. “Wunderbar” in Kate was meant to be a spoof, but this one was on the level — and quite beautiful.
5. “I Am Loved” — At the end of the song, the title is repeated before Helen comes to the conclusion we’ve all reached when love came in and took us on a spin: “What a wonderful thing to be able to say.” For his melody, Porter provided one of his trademarks: a beguine. It is an ideal song style to suggest both the elegance and excitement of romance.
6. “They Couldn’t Compare to You” — At last you’ll be glad you sat through those high school biology classes, for without them, you wouldn’t get the joke, “Though I liked the Queen of Sheba / She was mentally an amoeba.” Porter also gave a plug to his friend Irving Berlin when Mercury sang, “I attended Call Me Madam.” He then paid tribute to the woman who’d starred in five of his shows, even though he had to force a rhyme to do it when Mercury sang that he “began to nestle Essel Merman.” On the other hand, considering that Mercury is a stranger from a strange land, he might not know the correct pronunciation of The Merm’s first name. (On the other hand, he should!)
7. “What Do You Think about Men?” — Porter has a nice double use of the word “think” here. The title suggests “What’s your opinion of men?” and that’s what the women are indeed saying. But they eventually come to the conclusion that “No matter what we think about men, we think about men” — meaning that men are always in the ladies’ consciousness.
8. “I Sleep Easier Now” — Porter’s audience had aged along with him, so they could laugh and empathize when Juno suggested that she’d be getting ready for bed at ten o’clock. “Age has many a compensation,” she sang — which has become an inadvertent comment on this score: The time that’s passed and the distance from Kate has allowed us to appreciate it more.
9. “No Lover for Me” – That’s because, as Helen sings, “My husband suits me to a ‘T.’” (Here’s hoping that many women and men can make the same claim about the men in their lives.) There aren’t too many jaunty songs sung by sopranos, but Priscilla Gillette sees that this one has a bit of swing to it.
10. “Cherry Pies Ought to Be You” — It wouldn’t be a Porter show if it didn’t include a list song. This one could be called “Son of ‘You’re the Top’ in that it piles one compliment on top of another, courtesy of Chloe and Mercury. (One name hasn’t aged well: “Rita Khan.” Think about to which Cover Girl that refers.) But hold on: the plaudits can only be found in the first part of the song. Once Niki and Juno join in, they drown each other in battery-acid retorts.
The Hit Parade Extra: “Nobody’s Chasing Me” – Here are Juno’s observations, which could have constituted a song called “I Am UNloved.” It scores because she accepts her fate as inevitable. (Get a copy of Robert Kimball’s beautiful coffee table book that’s simply called Cole, and see to what lyric the Boston censors objected when the show played the Hub. Oh, you can probably guess from a single hearing, anyway — but the book is definitely worth having.)
So what’s the one conclusion I can bring this column to? Out of This World is a dish fit for the gods.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com