Our show-business tale starts a few years ago in London with David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking sitting at their kitchen table, mulling musical manuscripts. Well, the origins go back even earlier, to 2008, with Abell conducting the Glimmerglass Festival production of Kiss Me, Kate and finding hundreds of mistakes in the score and instrumental parts.
Actually, this story really begins in Philadelphia, as many show-biz stories do, in December 1948, when Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate premiered in a three-and-a-half-week pre-Broadway tryout at what was then known as the Sam S. Shubert Theatre (now the Merriam). Since then, the show has been reorchestrated, revived, adapted for film and TV, and its many famous songs — “So in Love,” “Too Darn Hot” — have been liberally personalized to fit the singer at hand.
And over the years, the original sound of the show receded into the mists.
“For the standard classical repertoire, musicians can buy or rent clean, accurate, thoroughly researched scores and parts. Not so for musicals,” said Abell. “I thought this showed a shameful lack of respect for our great Broadway musicals.”
And so he took to the stacks. He and Alderking, a pianist and coach to singers and others, examined the original manuscript scores of Kiss Me, Kate by Porter and his piano arranger, and looked for the instrumental parts used for that original 1948 Broadway production.
“It was like going on an archaeological dig,” said Abell.
This weekend, Cole Porter fans can hear what the two unearthed when Abell leads the Philly Pops in an all-Porter program that includes several songs from Kiss Me, Kate, all brushed up by way of a new critical edition score.
“We found the original orchestra parts in a dusty publishers’ basement,” Abell, the Pops’ principal guest conductor, said in an email exchange. “We spent days in the Columbia University archive of Bella Spewack, the original scriptwriter. We went to Yale and examined Cole Porter’s papers. Once we had all the sources scanned into our computers, we went home to London and started comparing them.”
The scope of work included everything from asking, “Is that really a B-flat in the oboe part?” to adding back music and sequences that had been cut along the way.
The critical edition score, for instance, restores a section of the “Too Darn Hot” dance routine that was on the original Broadway cast album but that was left out afterward.
“When the show was licensed for stock and amateur productions some time in the 1950s, that section was replaced by another dance section for reasons unknown. Seann and I rediscovered the parts in the basement of Tams-Witmark publishers and restored the passage to the official text of the show.”
In the end, the project, which garnered the support of the Cole Porter Trusts, took four years. It yielded a critical edition score of 690 pages plus critical notes, a piano/vocal score of 344 pages, and a completely new set of error-free orchestra parts.
“Well, almost error-free,” Abell says. He has assembled a short errata list, which he’ll send to the publisher.
The point is, “anyone can now perform the show with its original sound,” which is exactly what he will do with the Pops and vocalists Catherine Russell, Lisa Vroman, and Ben Davis in about 20 Cole Porter songs, a handful from Kiss Me, Kate.
Abell always loved Porter, but a project originally intended to “fill the time between gigs” started eating up more and more of the schedule, he said. “Eventually, we realized that it would never get done unless we set aside some serious time. So we turned down eight months of conducting work and knuckled down” — around the kitchen table.
“One grand show,” is how Philadelphia Daily News critic Jerry Gaghan regarded the piece at its premiere. Shakespeare and Cole Porter, he wrote, “are in happy unison at the Shubert, where ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is presently unrolling an opulence of melody and a wealth of lyric invention, the like of which you will wait long again to hear.”
The Inquirer’s Edwin H. Schloss called it “brilliantly entertaining, charming and completely beguiling.”
The melodies are wonderful and the words witty, of course. Credit for the opulence, though, must be shared with artists other than Porter. The score had several orchestrators, primarily Robert Russell Bennett.
“In our theater the listeners (and lookers) are not necessarily fond of music, and they must hear what the song is about. For this reason, and a few others, every moment of the orchestration must be fitted to the tale being told,” Bennett wrote in his book Instrumentally Speaking (excerpts from which are included in the preface to the new-edition score).
But Bennett was too modest. In “So in Love,” you can make out every word, but the orchestration glows with added meaning. A solo violin part layers on sweetness, and an English horn solo sets the mood for Lilli’s melancholy words: “So taunt me, and hurt me, deceive me, desert me, I’m yours 'til I die.”
The song ends with a sly, starry few bars where the harp and celesta make a cultural reference many audience members in 1948 would have gotten: to Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.
How much of a difference will hearing the original orchestrations make?
“Audience members who know the original Broadway cast recording of Kiss Me, Kate will think, I hope, that our performance sounds ‘right.’ It’ll sound a lot more vivid than the recording, which was made in mono,” says Abell. “Who knows, there may be some old-timers at the concert who actually saw the out-of-town tryout of the original production [in] Philadelphia. For them, it’ll be like going back in time.”
And for audience members who know Kiss Me, Kate from later sources, “our concert may be a revelation.”
Revivals use new orchestrations written for much smaller bands, he points out.
“Times have changed so much on Broadway that producers are rarely willing to pay for the large orchestras that were common during the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1920s through the 1950s. Also, directors want to put their stamp on the shows they direct, which usually involves ‘reinventing’ the orchestrations.”
Last season, Abell conducted Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Opera Philadelphia using original orchestrations. “Why wouldn’t we?” he asks.
“So why not use them for Cole Porter, too?”