Cabaret

Long Lost 1928 Cole Porter Revue
Belated U.S. Debut at Town Hall

by Rob Lester


It's never been seen in the United States, despite its score having been written by one of the giants of musical theatre: Cole Porter. Attending a press preview of the June 27th one-night-only presentation of La Revue des Ambassadeurs—known for its American go-round as The Ambassador Revue, held just as rehearsals were beginning, I found the eager participants unveiling the mostly unheard material quite like kids gratefully unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. Members of the company who'll be presenting this revue's score (created for the same-named Parisian nightclub off the Champs-Elysées) sang a few numbers and chatted about the show.

Our director, musicologist/author Ken Bloom, and bandleader Vince Giordano, with an expertise in and love for authentic sounds of the 1920s and '30s, give the score— some of it only sketched out in what existed from excavations—the right period flavor. Giordano's period band The Nighthawks will be playing. Bloom and Christophe Mirambeau found a considerable swath of the fallen-into-obscurity music in Milan, Italy. While initial calls to those who house the music brought some results, it wasn't until Giordano made a follow-up phone call on a whim, giving lists of each individual piece of music, that even more than they knew existed was found. In his jazzier days, bandleader Fred Waring was the nightclub's orchestra leader. "Would you like to see some of the music we got?" the jubilant Giordano asked me. Would I ever! And he pulled out a sample of a rather rough and sketchy handwritten page of musical notes on staves for the various instruments. There were no lyrics. He believes it had been painstakingly written out by Waring's arranger, Freddy Buck. The goldmine arrived by mail in a large package and Giordano played it all into his Sibelius computer program to work on it and create readable charts. Not so incidentally, the original revue had a guest pianist sitting in on opening night—none other than George Gershwin, whose sister, Frances, was in the company.

The irrepressible entertainer Jason Graae started our morning merriment with "Pilot Me," which is one of the score's relatively few previously recorded numbers, preserved years ago by one of Porter's classic interpreters, singer-pianist Bobby Short. He delivers it with buoyant panache and the occasional raised eyebrow. Jason was tickled by the suggestive nature of the double entendre-filled lyric. "I looked it over and my first reaction was, 'This is like ... porn!'" he cried with glee. Looking over the more obscure material (some of which, until recently, had thought to be lost forever), he was delighted with the discoveries. Since this is very early-career Porter stuff (he'd yet to have a Broadway hit in 1928), I asked Jason if it felt typical of the later witty, sophisticated style of the writer. Jason allowed that the craft is there, the winking wordplay. "There are some of those internal rhymes, but some of it is just typical of the period—the 1920s." Some of the melodic strains, he observed, are "kind of like Arlen or Gershwin. The number 'Fountain of Youth' is quite earnest, not typical Porter." One of his other assigned numbers is "Looking at You," not part of the original score, but added to a second edition. "I'm not sure how we're going to do it—it could be bouncy or more like a ballad." Since the material is not written for a plot or recurring characters, there's more freedom. "I'm totally thrilled to do this," he enthused to me.

Anita Gillette, with panache, previewed one of her comical numbers, "Hans," already having mastered the heavy accent required so that the addressed fellow "Hans" rhymes with "dance." Arms outstretched, smile broad, she beseeched him to pay her, poor Gretel, some romantic attention. "I always thought Hansel and Gretel were brother and sister," she mused. "This seems sort of incestuous." She shrugged. "We just started rehearsing, so I'm not sure which other songs are definitely mine. We have to look at what keys they're in." But she's raring to go.

Revuew des AmbassadeursAmy Burton, an operatic soprano who also enjoys musical theatre and cabaret, regaled us with a gorgeous "You and Me." But she first learned it as "Toi et moi," with the French lyric. When we talked, she told me more how she'd been instrumental in getting the live presentation started, quite by happy accident. Since she also sings in French, she had wanted to do an evening of Porter's numerous songs related to France. (His show Paris was written around the same time as this nightclub revue and others would follow, bringing us "I Love Paris" and "C'est Magnifique" from Can-Can and the score of Fifty Million Frenchmen, etc.) She was browsing in a bookstore, "and I found some music pages in a plastic bag, the way they'd have a rare 'Superman' comic book, you know?" To her surprise, it was super-rare sheet music from La Revue des Ambassadeurs. She quickly bought it, becoming a part of the treasure hunt that finally resulted in a presentation in 2012 where else, but back in Paris.

"You see, since the show never came to America, it wasn't published here. It was just published later in France—with French translations." But those translations weren't always literal and weren't even by Porter. She explained how there wasn't always the same number of choruses in each language. The more generic "Military Maids" in parts of the English lyric is about American suffragettes. She became part of the Paris production where Larry Blank did arrangements. "Some of the numbers have a ragtime feel or a vaudeville feel." But, most of all, she describes the score as "very French!!"

Tom Wopat, in his wonderful easy-going away, gave us a gentle glide through "Blue Hours," a moody, romantic number some of us Cole Porter devotees know from one of the several Ben Bagley-produced albums of the writer's rarities (sung there bi-lingually by Ann Hampton Callaway and Sandy Stewart). Tom, who's spending the warm spring and summer doing what many singers do during these months, recording a Christmas album, is comfortable with Porter and has chosen Porter standards for his other albums (In the Still of the Night is one). An occasional songwriter himself, he admires the work of the great writers and enjoys giving them a jazzy twist.

With pride, Ken Bloom (whose books on theatre are like Bibles to researchers) talked about finding this partially lost Porter cornucopia which is kind of a Holy Grail. The American premiere will have dancers, including Randy Skinner who will do the choreography. Also in the cast are Ted Louis Levy and jazz singer Catherine Russell, who were not available for the press preview.

The Ambassador Revue at Town Hall will be recorded for release on the Harbinger label.

Tickets for the one-night event range from $30 to $65. In the ultra-swank nightclub where it premiered in 1928, it actually cost more: $70. Pretty pricey. But you also got dinner.

The show is at 8 pm on Friday, June 27, 2014, at The Town Hall, 123 West 43 Street, Manhattan. Tickets are sold through the Town Hall box office (open Monday - Saturday: 12:00pm - 6:00pm) and through Ticketmaster. For more information, visit www.the-townhall-nyc.org.