Guest Blog: Michael Griffiths On His New Cole Porter Show COLE
Three years ago I was enjoying supper and a drink with some friends at an arts festival in Noosa, a beachside resort town in Queensland, a little north of Brisbane. I'd just performed my cabaret show Adolescent, a collection of 80s pop songs I grew up with and personal stories about being a gay man entering his forties.
Included were songs by Duran Duran, Culture Club, A-ha and Eurythmics, so it came as a bit of a surprise when my friend Nicolas at the dinner table enquired as to whether I'd sung any Cole Porter before, proclaiming they'd 'suit' me.
In hindsight, he may have been referring to my sexuality, clearly on display in my earlier shows celebrating gay icons Madonna and Annie Lennox. I was only vaguely familiar with Porter 'the man' at that time, may have sung "Night and Day" a few years before, so the reference went over my head.
Nicolas's partner Anna Goldsworthy chimed in, agreeing that they certainly would 'suit' me (another reference to my flamboyance?) and casually offered to write me my very own Cole Porter tribute. It just so happens Anna is a bestselling author, acclaimed concert pianist and, as a lovey coincidence, we were school friends a lifetime ago at college in Adelaide. She'd recited Beethoven and Rachmaninoff in the same venue the very night before, reading excerpts from her beautiful memoir Piano Lessons.
I'd just finished teaching the crowd backing vocals to "Take On Me" with a sing-a-long encore of "Karma Chameleon". It was a lovely gesture on her behalf, offering to write me a show, but it should be noted a few bottles of red wine had been consumed by that time. I agreed politely but didn't entertain the thought much further.
A short time afterwards I was trying desperately to convince Barry Humphries to programme a new Kylie Minogue tribute for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which he was artistic directing. Barry is unashamedly 'old school' in his taste and wouldn't have a bar of it. My knee-jerk response was "Well, Anna Goldsworthy wants to write me a Cole Porter tribute, how about that?", praying she would remember an off-the-cuff remark made a few months earlier.
Turns out, Barry adores Porter and even met him briefly in the 50s at a party at the Waldorf Astoria (of course!) and loved the idea. Barry gave it the green light, Anna recalled the offer and was happy to oblige. We were in.
And so began six months of weekly visits, cups of tea, singing through dozens and dozens of songs (Anna would play piano as I find sight-reading virtually impossible - a lot of hard work lay ahead) and reading every Porter biography and article we could lay our hands on. Very quickly, strong themes of privilege, travel, ambition and love appeared (wife Linda Porter being a kind of 'constant' love, along with stormy affairs with handsome men, something I could happily relate to).
Our choice of songs came down to a combination of what suited my baritone voice and also explored these themes. And of course, one can't do a Porter tribute without "Anything Goes", "Let's Do It", "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "You're The Top".
We approached the show as a kind of 'private viewing' in his luxurious lounge room for a few close friends, allowing for an intimate and very frank discussion about sexual exploits, money and marriage. I remember reading during research that Cole Porter never revealed too much about himself in his work. I find quite the contrary to be true.
Given the times in which he lived, I think he was very brave and never afraid to be controversial. Many of his songs set a new kind of benchmark for what was morally acceptable in a popular song. In particular, "Let's Do It", "Let's Misbehave" and even "I Get A Kick Out Of You" (with the delightful rhyming couplet of 'Champagne' and 'cocaine') had him in all kinds of trouble.
Having lived and breathed his songs for a couple of years now, I get a strong sense of his character in his work and let it infuse my performance. He was impulsive, clever, charming and very, very naughty.