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Unearthing a Song's Lost Lyric

Friday, October 05, 2012

WNYC

Songwriter Cole Porter had a brilliant way with words.  So when I was listening to the lyrics of "You're the Top" from the musical “Anything Goes,” I got to wondering about the rhyme, and what made Porter equate GOP with "flop"?

You’ve heard the song “You’re The Top” by Cole Porter. The one with the lyrics that start: “You’re the top. You’re the coliseum. You’re the top. You’re the Louvre museum. You’re the melody in a symphony by Strauss.”

ATt the end of each verse, there’s a counterpoint – “I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop. But if baby I’m the bottom you’re the top!”

Or: “I’m a nominee of the G-O-P, or GOP!  But if baby I’m the bottom you’re the top!”

Since I’ve been spending some time listening to the actual nominee of the GOP, I got to wondering how that verse got there.  “You’re the Top” was written in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just trounced Herbert Hoover.

“The idea the GOP would even have a chance was the most hysterical idea anybody could think of,” said Will Friedwald, an expert on American songs. “This is one of Cole Porter’s famous list songs.  And he made a specialty of that in which he would think of all these one line gags and tie it into a common subject.”

And yet — in one of the few records that exist of Cole Porter himself — the line isn’t there. Friedwald said that’s no surprise. “A lot of the famous lyrics to ‘You’re the Top,’ were not in the show when it opened,” Friedwald explained. “But he would see the song kept getting a request for encores so he kept writing more and more choruses.”

None of the encores were in the original score, according to historian Robert Kimball, who wrote The Cole Porter Songbook, the definitive compilation of Porter’s work. Kimball was combing through Porter’s papers in a midtown law office when he found the typed complete lyrics in the files. They had been missing for 50 years.

“I concluded from where it was found in the papers that it was Porter and it was written at the time and not by someone else,” Kimball said. “It’s a brilliant stanza. I felt when I put it in the book that I was really bringing back to people one of the great Porter lyrics which was unknown.”

That he did. About a year after Kimball’s book came out, Timothy Crouse and Jim Wideman were writing the “book” for the 1987 revival of “Anything Goes.” The GOP lyric got included, as it did in the 2011 revival of the musical.

Crouse’s father, Russell Crouse, worked with Cole Porter on the 1934 original. But Crouse has another credential – he wrote the totemic book about political reporting, “Boys on the Bus,” about the 1972 contest between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Nixon trounced McGovern. When Crouse was working on the revival, Ronald Reagan was riding high and George H.W. Bush was getting ready to trounce Michael Dukakis, one of the most ridiculed presidential nominees in history. 

But Crouse said he all but ignored that historical twist.  “The zeitgeist we cared about was 1934 – not 1987,” he said. “The zeitgeist of the Depression and escape from the Depression on an ocean liner.”

As for the fortunes of the current nominee of the GOP, Crouse won’t predict, “Well that remains to be seen,” he said, laughing, “which is the title of another of my father’s shows.”  

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Ronald Reagan went up against Michael Dukakis, it was George H.W. Bush. We regret the error.

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Comments [5]

Seth Christenfeld from NYC

John Weidman, not "Jim Wideman."

Oct. 09 2012 11:32 PM
Peter Ferdico from College Point, NY

If memory serves me, Nixon won 49 states in 1972, not 48, and lost only Mass (and DC, of course). Reagan, too, won 49 states in 1984 against Mondale, losing only Mondale's home state of Minnesota (and, naturally, DC). Even FDR couldn't pull off a sweep in 1936 against Alf Landon, losing Maine and Vermont to him, when there were 48 states (no DC voting in presidental elections then).

Oct. 08 2012 08:12 PM
Doggy

You didn't drop the other shoe. These lines for the London production were added by P. G. Wodehouse but were authorized by Porter:

You're the top!
You're the Great Houdini!
You're the top!
You are Mussolini!

Mussolini's top down planning, nationalizing and making government the center of everything made liberals at the time swoon with delight. The pro-fascism verse and anti Republican verse were two sides of the same coin.

Oct. 07 2012 04:35 PM
Walter

Interesting - as I was reading read the lyrics it suddenly came to me that it would sound great being sung by a rapper...

Oct. 06 2012 06:04 AM
sanford malter

Just listened to your delightful program about Cole Porter's lyrics to "Your the Top". I was disappointed that you you didn't name the artists whom you featured (other than Porter). Please name.

Thanks

Oct. 05 2012 08:28 PM

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