Returning to the Silk Stockings District
By Peter Filichia – Jule Styne couldn’t do it. Frank Loesser couldn’t do it. Even Richard Rodgers couldn’t do it.
But Cole Porter could.
The task in question? Seeing your final Broadway musical become a hit both with the critics and the public. While Styne’s The Red Shoes, Loesser’s Pleasures and Palaces and Rodgers’ I Remember Mama aren’t remembered, Porter’s Silk Stockings is.
None of those other three shows made it to Hollywood, but Silk Stockings did in 1957 as a snazzy M-G-M musical. All of the others were denied a genuine original cast album, but Silk Stockings got one – which is now again available via CDs and digital download.
We often hear that “Timing is everything,” but in the long history of Broadway musicals, few shows prove it more than Silk Stockings. What better property to adapt in the mid-fifties than the 1939 film Ninotchka, which had revealed that democracy, freedom and the right to have fun should be cherished? How superior such values are to the Soviet Communists’ mistaken mindset that self-denial is the way to go.
So in 1955, less than a year removed from the McCarthy hearings that did their best (and worst) to ferret out “Communists” and when America was in the thick of the Cold War, Silk Stockings was a welcome antidote.
While Ninotchka had Count Leon d’Algout trying to retrieve a deposed Russian duchess’ jewelry before the Communists could sell it, Silk Stockings was more earthbound. The Count became Steve Canfield, an American movie producer, who’s in Paris to produce a film with Janice Dayton (read: Esther Williams). She’s made so many pictures in swimming pools that she’s constantly hitting the side of her head to get the excess water out of her ears.
To pen the film’s score, Canfield has hired the Soviet Union’s greatest contemporary composer, Peter Ilyitch Boroff. Powers-that-be in Moscow, however, are worried that Boroff will succumb to Paris and its charms. So they send three Russian agents to tail him, only to find that the trio winds up seduced.
Now Moscow takes no chances, and sends its most incorruptible agent who is — surprise! — a woman: Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, nicknamed Ninotchka. Canfield is attracted to her, but she doesn’t like his Western ways. Slowly, however, Ninotchka comes to love Steve, Paris, democracy, freedom, capitalism and silk stockings.
The musical’s title came from a throwaway line that minor character Comrade Anna had in Ninochtka: “You know how it is today. All you have to do is wear a pair of silk stockings, and they suspect you of counter-revolution.” Co-producer Cy Feuer in his memoir I’ve Got the Show Right Here says he suggested the title “and it stuck.”
(Today, of course, the show would be called Ninotchka: The Musical.)
One reason why Porter must have been interested in musicalizing this movie was its Parisian setting. Porter was the unquestioned champion of the City of Light: “I Love Paris” from Can-Can; “Do You Want to see Paris?” in Fifty Million Frenchmen and a few more that used the colloquialism “Paree.”
In 1928, Porter even wrote a show called Paris which included “Heaven Hop” and “Let’s Misbehave.” No, they’re not from Anything Goes, although that famous 1962 off-Broadway revival that yielded the charming cast album adopted them. Also from Paris was a Porter standard: “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).”
But here’s an irony: The show’s title tune “Paris” was penned by two other writers. Maybe that’s why Porter kept writing about the city for more than a quarter century; he was still getting over not being entrusted to write that song back in 1928.
Here in Silk Stockings, Porter has Steve tell Ninotchka that “Paris Loves Lovers.” Don Ameche sings the jaunty tune on which Hildegarde Neff throws Siberian ice-cold water with pointed counterpoint observations, right down to “atheistic.”
(By the way, Neff’s last name was really Knef, but it was changed because management thought the new spelling was more Anglo-friendly. Go figure.)
Given that this movie musical deals with Capitalism vs. Communism, you’d assume that silk stockings would be the symbol of Western decadence to Comrade Ninotchka. Actually, the thing she harps on the most is French hats. So shouldn’t Cole Porter have called his musical Chapeux? Or could it be that seven years earlier, Porter had already written brilliantly of a French hat in Kiss Me, Kate. Sang a fickle actress, “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat. If the Harris pat means a Paris hat, Bebe, ooh-la-la!” (See? Paris everywhere.)
A listen to Silk Stockings’ cast album yields an overture that confidently proclaims “A good musical is coming!” It showcases what it knows will be the show’s hit song: “All of You,” in which Steve suggestively sings to Ninotchka, “I love the looks of you, the lure of you, I’d love to make a tour of you.”
How amazing that the film left in that lyric, for bluenose censors did ask for some changes. The biggest howler was in “Stereophonic Sound,” in which Ms. Dayton proclaimed “If Ava Gardner played Godiva riding on a mare, the people wouldn’t pay a cent; they wouldn’t even care.” The original line finished with – (Wait! Are the kids in bed? Have you your hands over your teenagers’ ears?) — “to see her in the bare.” You’ll hear it on the original cast album.
The film dropped every one of the lyrics to the title song that Don Ameche sang, although not because censors objected. Director Rouben Mamoulian and the two screenwriters named Leonard – Gershe and Spigelgass – decided to have Cyd Charisse, their Ninotchka, silently dance around the room and celebrate her new possessions.
The cast album also spares us two of Porter’s least accomplished songs, “Fated to Be Mated” and “The Ritz Roll and Rock.” Instead, hear “As on through the Seasons We Sail” in place of the first, and “Hail, Bibinski” which the Russian agents get as an extra.
Musically, Porter often went to minor keys when writing for the Russians. Notice, too, that in “Without Love,” the melody is purposely dour in the first two A-sections, until Ninotchka gets to the realization and lyric of what happens “with love,” at which point the melody soars.
After the Soviet ambassadors fail at their jobs, they fear that their mail would now and forever be sent to “Siberia,” where, Porter’s song informed, “You can bet your Christmases will be white.” Ah, how Porter enjoyed giving plaudits to his good buddy Irving Berlin; he’d previously cited “a Berlin ballad” in “You’re the Top” in Anything Goes and later mentioned Berlin’s Call Me Madam in “They Couldn’t Compare to You” in Out of This World. The reason: Porter never forgot that early in his career, when Fifty Million Frenchmen was set to close after three weeks, Berlin actually paid for ads in newspapers which endorsed the show. The result was its staying around for thirty weeks more.
Silk Stockings endured an unusually long three-month tryout in (to paraphrase a famous Porter lyric) Philly, Boston and Detroit. When it finally opened at the Imperial fifty-nine years ago this week (and stayed there more than a year), it didn’t originally appear to be a sure thing. The original bookwriters (George S. Kaufman and Leueen MacGrath), director (Kaufman), choreographer (Eugene Loring) all departed at various points through the three-city tryout. The role of Janice Dayton went through actresses as often as Guido Contini did: Yvonne Adair, Sherry O’Neil, Marilyn Ross and finally Gretchen Wyler.
Porter was so exhausted and discouraged that he sailed for Europe before opening night lest he endure bad reviews. What a shame that he missed the joy that must have spread through the opening night party when the review came in from the hard-to-please Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times: “We can all afford to relax now. Everything about Silk Stockings represents the best goods in the American musical comedy emporium … it offers the wittiest dialogue of recent years, Cole Porter’s best work, and enormous gusto and skill … this is one of Gotham’s memorable shows, on a level with Guys and Dolls. As in the most expert musical comedies, everything contributes to the vitality of everything else … Porter [is] back in his best form. His music, with some clever burlesques of the Russian folk chorus, is bold, ironic, and melodious with great variety in form. And his intricately worded lyrics rank with those earlier rhymes of his that have become part of the American popular culture.”
In other words, to paraphrase the show’s hit song, he loved all of it.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.