Harry Connick Jr. has gotten a kick out of Cole Porter’s music since he was a child piano prodigy. He discovered its essential role in jazz repertoire while he grew up in New Orleans — where he later performed in a high school production of Anything Goes. But it’s with the knowledge he has amassed as a professional musician and with his life experience that Connick has come to more fully appreciate the sophistication and poignance of Porter’s songs.
“The more you learn about composition, and all the things that make up songwriting — music, lyrics, melodies, harmonies — the more you realize how unorthodox and high-level his work was,” Connick says. “Cole Porter had a way of laying things out that other composers didn’t. He didn’t sugarcoat anything; he would make things poetic, but he’d also just come out with hard-core concepts, when you really think about what he was writing.”
Now Connick has made the witty bard of love and loneliness the focus of both an album — True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter, due out October 25 — and a theatrical event, the latter marking his first Broadway engagement since he starred in a 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. That performance wrapped a decade in which Connick’s multiple talents were on display — as composer and lyricist of the 2001 musical Thou Shalt Not, as Kelli O’Hara’s costar in 2006’s acclaimed production of The Pajama Game, and in 2010’s Harry Connick, Jr. on Broadway, which had been preceded by 1990’s An Evening With Harry Connick Jr. and His Orchestra.
But Connick describes Harry Connick, Jr.: A Celebration of Cole Porter, set for a run at the Nederlander Theatre, as a different venture than any he has previously taken on. “It’s got elements of a concert, elements of film, and it’s theatrical in that we have this amazing, Tony Award-winning design team, with [scenic designer] Beowulf Boritt and [lighting designer] Ken Billington,” he says. “It has choreography and scripted dialogue, and it will have unscripted dialogue.”
For concerts, Connick explains, he tends not to formally structure his playlists. “I barely plan the songs we’re playing,” he says. But he wanted Celebration to tell a story, though not the one you’d likely see in a documentary of Porter’s life. “If you want the historical perspective, that’s all out there, and there are people who can tell you about that better than I can. What I’m doing is using the music itself to tell the story. I’m treating the lyrics functionally, in context, almost as if they were used in the original shows he wrote, because they’ve become stand-alone songs, so most people don’t know what shows they’re from.”
Connick adds that, at this point, many people don’t know who Porter is, period. “I have a cousin who said, ‘Is he a country singer?’ Another person said to me, ‘Oh, yeah, we listen to “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …”’ He thought I was talking about Nat King Cole. So it’s kind of a blessing to be introducing the songs to some people. It’s thrilling, really.”
Celebration’s format will also allow Connick to apply his own experience and perspective to the material — to “try to get into Cole Porter’s head,” as he puts it, “and interpret his music through my lens.” He cites “Why Can’t You Behave,” originally featured in Kiss Me, Kate, as an example: “It was sung [in the musical] by a woman about her gambling lover. In this case, I’ll get to sing the lyrics from my point of view.”
Though Connick doesn’t want to reveal too much about the other songs featured in Celebration and how they’re incorporated, he allows that it will include both tunes from the new album and some surprises. He’s planning to take the show on the road, “to Asia and Europe and all over the States,” even if its intricate design won’t allow the kind of one-night or short concert stints he’s played in the past. Longer engagements, he figures, “will be a lot of fun.”
So will playing with the orchestra of 25 musicians that’s joining Connick, who will also get to remind fans of his own piano virtuosity in Celebration. “That’s a really big part of it,” he says. “It’s amazing to have that many musicians on stage, to be able to both watch and hear them play. The message that alone sends, especially for young people, is so important on so many levels right now. Each musician brings years and years of experience, and that forces you to stay in touch with the humanity of it all. That’s what Cole Porter’s music is all about — that raw, beautiful humanity.”
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