WMTC’s latest offering is Red, Hot and Cole, a celebration of the life and songs of Cole Porter, directed by Anna Marinelli with musical direction by Malcolm Fawcett and choreography by Carla Gianinotti.

Cole Porter lived a life that was destined to be portrayed in film and onstage.  Born into a wealthy family in Indiana, he was a gifted child who showed musical talent from the age of six. Song-writing was always going to be Porter’s destiny, despite his grandfather’s wish that he become a lawyer.  The intelligent, witty and charming Porter would undoubtedly have made a fine lawyer but if his grandfather’s wishes had prevailed, the world would have been without many of the best-loved songs of the 20th Century.

Cole started his song-writing career while at Yale University. Although classically trained, he was drawn to musical theatre.  His early efforts were not successful and in 1917 he moved to Paris and, according to his own account, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.  Whether this was true or not remains in question, but his supposed war exploits helped to secure him a place in Parisian society.  It was in Paris that he met and married the wealthy socialite, Linda Lee Thomas.  Theirs was a marriage of convenience.  Porter was undeniably homosexual but the couple remained devoted to each other until Linda’s death in 1954.

Early fame eluded Porter but, in 1928, simultaneous hits on Broadway and in Paris set him the road to a successful career that would span four decades.  Porter’s sultry good looks, sparkling wit and lavish entertaining made him the darling of the social sets in Paris, London, Venice and New York.  As his success as a song-writer grew so did his circle of famous and influential friends.

In 1937, at the height of his fame having written for over a dozen musicals including Anything Goes and with hits songs including You’re The Top, Begin the Beguine and It’s De-Lovely among many others, Porter suffered a riding accident which crippled him and left him in pain for the rest of his life.  Although physically handicapped, artistically Porter remained as strong as ever and would go on to provide the scores for such classic stage shows and films as Kiss Me Kate, Can-Can and High Society.

Cole Porter died in 1964, having written over two dozen musicals.  He penned the words and music to over 1,000 songs and almost single-handedly fashioned the Great American Songbook.  Red, Hot and Cole explores this extraordinary life and brings us over thirty classic Cole Porter hits including Anything Goes, It’s Delovely, Let’s Do it and Don’t Fence Me In.

I recently caught up with Malcolm Fawcett whose job as Musical Director entailed just a little bit more than he anticipated.

BH: When you took Red, Hot and Cole on, did you realise that it was only scored for piano?

MF:  No I did not!  I like to get the band parts as early as possible so I can start to book the musicians. That’s when I found out there weren’t any orchestrations. Interesting! Then the thought crossed my mind that maybe we could just do it with piano, drums and bass, but Cole Porter’s music is so wonderful that it would be a shame not to have a band and portray it the way it should be with all the beautiful lush scorings.  Once I decided that we needed the band, it became quite apparent that it was going to be a massive job.  There are a number of big medleys in the show like the Kiss Me Kate medley and the Anything Goes medley.  The Anything Goes medley runs for about eleven minutes, so it’s epic with huge dance breaks, tap routines, and about four or five of the really big tunes from the actual show. You can’t really do that justice with just piano, bass and drums so it was a big job, but it seemed like a bit of a challenge and an opportunity to be creative and come up with something that I could put my stamp on, so I got stuck into it.

BH: How many hours did you spend on the orchestration?

MF: I couldn’t give you a figure of how many hours. Whenever I had spare time I would sit on the couch with the score and the laptop and just work though it.  Basically, any spare time I had.  I was fortunate that we had the Easter break so I had six days off work and that’s what I spent my whole Easter doing.

BH: Did you do all the work yourself?

MF: No.  That would have been far too much work for one person so I enlisted a few people to help out.  Greg Smith who is working on the show with me did the Kiss Me Kate medley.  Greg Peterson  did the Overture and Bows and Kara Williams did Begin the Beguine. Martine Wengrow orchestrated the music for the Anything Goes Medley and I Love Paris.

BH: So how many in the band?

MF: There’s seven pieces. We’ve got lead piano, second keyboard, bass, drum, trumpet, trombone, and a reed player who plays flute, clarinet and tenor sax.

BH: Any thought of making a killing and offering your orchestrations to the publishers?

MF: We’ve been advised by the people who own the rights that, although we’ve done all the work, they still own the rights of the arrangements because it’s still Cole Porter’s music, so I can’t do anything with it.  I’m not allowed to sell it or even give it to anyone.  We obtained permission to write the orchestrations for specific instruments but the publishers still hold the rights to all the arrangements.  Obviously they need to keep a tight rein on Porter’s music because it is still very popular and they don’t want people profiting from it on the side.

BH: You’d think that they’d be keen to pick up orchestrations to make the show more marketable.  It has to be more attractive if it’s fully scored.

MF: Yes, I would have thought that they’d say ‘Hey, this is great. We’ve now got a full set of scoring for this show so when the next person wants to do this production they can elect to have just the piano score or the extra band parts’.

BH: There are a lot of songs in the show. The synopsis lists thirty-three songs but obviously that’s only the tip of the iceberg because some are actually medleys.

MF: The medleys have quite a few songs in them.  One of the things I think is great about the show is that some of the songs are presented in a way that might be a little different to how people are used to hearing them.  There are important messages within the songs and often the dialogue tells the story of how the song came about. The underscoring to the dialogue is just solo piano which adds that little extra bit of atmosphere and creates a really nice party feeling, like there is someone just playing away in the corner. 

BH: So you didn’t need to score the incidental music?

MF: Initially I thought I’d do the whole lot but it was just too much work and I also thought that it might get in the way because the dialogue is really important. 

BH: Did the piano score include harmonies or did you have to write them too?

MF: Yes, it did have all the harmonies.  I did actually add some extra harmonies into a few of the songs to help thicken the sound, and utilise all the fantastic singers we have in the cast. I chose to do a more up tempo version of Miss Otis Regrets as I preferred that to the slower one in the score, so we’ve gone with the Bette Midler version with the Andrews Sisters-style three part vocal harmony and that song is sung by Bob Harsley playing Monty Woolley with two female backing singers. 

BH: Some of those songs have been recorded many times before.  Did you reference any of those recordings when you were doing the orchestrations?

MF: I did.  Initially I listened to some different versions just to get an idea of what sounded good and what worked and what didn’t.  I didn’t want to copy anything and I had to keep the integrity of a song for how it’s meant to be used in this particular show. When you start putting in extra instruments and changing things, you have to be really careful not to compromise the intent.  I would have loved to have done massive big band scoring but it was important that the music didn’t get it the way.

BH: Most of the songs in the show are very well-known but there are some more obscure ones.  Where there songs you haven’t heard of?

MF: Definitely. And in some cases it was very difficult to find recordings of them. But once you start to work through the songs there is a particular formula or style that is very distinctive of Cole Porter and you start to recognise the pattern, to realise the shape of the song even if you don’t know it. It was fun teaching the cast a song when I didn’t know how it went. It’s like, ‘Does anybody here know how this goes?’

BH: You’re dealing with some of the most well-known songs and show tunes of all time. How have you asked the singers to approach those songs?

MF: I asked them, right from the word go, to get on YouTube and other media sources and listen to as many different versions as possible.  I didn’t want to do a straight copy of any particular version and the singers that we’ve got are fabulously talented performers in their own right so I wanted to see what they would bring to the songs as well, but I had to reinforce the style of the era.  It’s a jazz style so that changes the way that you sing.  It’s not so classical or musical theatre. There’s a real focus on articulation, rhythm and phrasing.  Everyone’s had a ball with the singing and, when we do the ensemble work, there are just the most beautiful harmonies in it.  I’m a bit of a hard task master but they’ve worked really hard.  The Act Two finale is just amazing with six or seven part vocal harmony through to the end and the sound that they create is breathtaking.

BH:  You’ve got some very good people in the cast.  Tell me about some of them.

MF: Michael Bingham is playing Cole Porter and he features in just about every scene. Michael’s a fantastic performer, he’s a lovely singer.  The feeling he brings to his character is incredible. A couple of times he’s caught both me and Anna off guard and the next thing you know you’re getting all misty.  And he’s quite the tap-dancer so we’ve made use of that as well.

BH: I see that Cassandra Beckett is playing Linda.  Cassandra’s someone we don’t see enough of.

MF:  I’m a huge fan of Cassandra’s.  I think she has the most delightful voice, she sings like an angel and she’s such a sweet person that her personality comes through in her character. When she sings In the Still of the Night it will make you cry, it’s so beautiful and the way it appears in the show is just divine.

BH:  And Brigid DeNeefe?

MF: We couldn’t get a better person to play Ethel Merman.  Brigid is larger than life with a huge personality and a huge voice.  She gets to do a couple of really great songs – in the finale she sings Red, Hot and Blue with Cole Porter and she also sings the fabulous Begin the Beguine. And while she’s singing Mark Monroe and Sheona Gregg do a wonderful tango together.

BH:  One name I was delighted to see was the lovely Jayson Fry. Nearly everyone reading this will know Jayson as he’s worked backstage on just about every show ever done. How’s he coping with being onstage?

MF:  I think he’s doing really well.  He gets to do some character work, playing a Broadway producer.  He’s a great cast member and it’s nice to see him onstage rather than hiding up the back.

BH: Obviously the whole show is bigger than written.  The original script lists thirteen cast members and WMTC has twenty-one. The music has clearly presented a challenge but what about the dancing?  Is that aspect much bigger than originally written too?

MF:  I’d hazard a guess to say that this is the biggest version of this show that’s been done. Some of the YouTube clips I’ve seen of the show were more of a cabaret style with just the piano, a much smaller cast and no dancing as such; just the songs and the storyline.  Carla has added some amazing tap routines, especially with the Anything Goes medley (because you can’t have Anything Goes without tap). The dance routines are brilliant and we’re fortunate to have some great dancers.  It’s certainly being staged on a much bigger level than has been done in the past. I’m very excited about the whole show.