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Lesson 35 - Cole Porter
Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students


Media Components
Computer Resources:
  • Modem: 56.6 Kbps or faster.

  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above.

  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz) running Windows 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM and/or Macintosh computer: System 8.1 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM.
Bookmarked sites:
Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark all of the Web sites to be used on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the Web sites, listed below, and video clips used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students.

Bookmark the following sites:

Teachers will need the following supplies:
  • TV/VCR/DVD player
  • chalkboard or whiteboard
  • copy of AMERICAN MASTERS' "Cole Porter: You're the Top"
  • pen and pencil
  • computer with Internet access
Introductory Activity:
Introduce this quotation from Alan Jay Lerner to the students:
When the musical theater started in this country about 1919 or 1920 when Jerome Kern led the break from European operetta ... you could follow a progression from Jerome Kern to Dick Rodgers to Gershwin, but Cole seemed to spring like Jupiter from Minerva's head all made. What he did was so special and so unaccountable and unexplainable that he is really of them all, in a strange way, the most irreplaceable.
Based on references in the quotation, have a class discussion and ask the students to make predictions about the factors that set Cole Porter apart from composers of his day.

You may want to discuss the following concepts as an introduction to the lesson:

  • What is an opera? What is an operetta?

  • What elements of American musical theater retained the formulas established by European operettas?

  • What influences in American music may have made American musical theater different from European operettas?

  • What elements of American culture at this time might have been influencing American musical theater in the early 20th century?

  • How would the fact that Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin were all "working" composers differentiate the type of music they wrote from that of Cole Porter, who was considered "a dilettante who wrote music"?

Learning Activities:
Les Coleporteurs and the Jazz Age
GOAL: Cole and Linda Porter (Les Coleporteurs, as they were called in France) surrounded themselves with people from the highest levels of both American and European society. This group included aristocrats whose titles were centuries old, such as the Baron de Gunzberg and the Duke of Alba, as well as several American heiresses who had married into the European aristocracy, such as Winaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress, and Elsie de Wolfe, a renowned American interior designer. Even though the Porters and their friends considered themselves to be the social elite, they felt the restlessness of the post-World War I period and sought out musicians, artists, writers, and dancers who were exploring new and daring forms of expression. Students will investigate the Porters and their friends to learn about the cultural, social, economic, and political issues of their day.

  1. Insert "Cole Porter: You're the Top" into your VCR or DVD player. Show the following three segments to provide the students with an understanding of the Porters' rich circle of friends and their lavish lifestyle.

    * Honoria Murphy Donnelly and others' memories
    10:56 - 15:21
    * Jean Howard and Kitty Carlisle Hart on people in society
    22:48 - 23:20
    * The Waldorf and travel
    25:00 - 30:10

  2. During class time, allow the students to conduct research, or have them do the following for homework: find an encyclopedia article, a short article on the Internet, or an article in the library on one of the people associated with the Porters. Each student will write a brief summary (250-500 words), using the Les Coleporteurs and the Jazz Age Student Organizer as a guide, of information about that person, including background facts, what the person is noted for, and other prominent people they were associated with. You may direct your students to the following Web sites to begin their research:

    The students will then share this information in three-to-five-minute presentations. Make as many copies of the Note-Taking Student Organizers as needed and instruct the students to use them while they listen to their classmates' presentations.

  3. The following is a list of the people students can choose from:

    Elsa Maxwell
    Gerald and Sara Murphy
    Michael Arlen
    Pablo Picasso
    Elsie de Wolfe
    Ernest Hemingway
    Diana Vreeland
    F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
    Bernard Berenson
    Igor Stravinsky
    Erick Satie
    Winaretta Singer
    Irving Berlin
    Lady Diana Manners
    Nicolas de Gunzberg
    Noel Coward
    Nancy Mitford
    Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
    Bricktop (Ada Smith)
    Nancy Cunard
    Fred Astaire
    Fanny Brice
    George Gershwin
    Ethel Merman
    Bob Hope
    Beatrice Lillie

    NOTE: There are 26 names on the list, but if you have more students you can expand the list to 33 if you split up the Murphys, the Fitzgeralds, and Rodgers and Hart, plus add the Porters themselves.

  4. The students will use the information they gathered for their presentation to write a position paper or engage in a class discussion, drawing conclusions about the prominent people of the Jazz Age. Use the prompts below and instruct the students to write a position paper or conduct a class discussion:

    • Use evidence from the presentations on the prominent people of the Jazz Age to support or refute this statement: Europe had been the center of civilization and culture for centuries. This dominance was beginning to slip after World War I.

    • Today, even the most wealthy and well-known people, like Donald Trump and Bill Gates, do something as a profession. Many of these people from the Jazz Age seem frivolous to us because they didn't really work as we understand work today. Explain why their impression is so long-lasting if they were truly such silly people.

    • Consider this statement by Cole Porter: "I am spending my life escaping boredom, not because I'm bored, but because I don't want to be." Using the information you've gathered on Cole Porter, his friends, and his life, draw a conclusion about his personality, based on this quotation.

The Lyrics of Cole Porter
Goal: Unlike many of the composers of his generation, Cole Porter wrote lyrics that were noted for their wit. In this activity, the students will analyze the lyrics to one of his most popular songs, "You're the Top," and discover the cultural relevance of places, people, and things mentioned. They will then write a modern-day version of the song using places, people, and things that are currently considered "the Top."

  1. Play the song "You're the Top" for the class and then show the opening segment of "Cole Porter: You're the Top" (0:29 - 5:15), showing a variety of singers performing the song.

  2. Hand out copies of the "You're the Top" Lyrics Student Organizer. Explain to the students that they will conduct online research and write brief descriptions for specific references in the song "You're the Top." This can either be given out as homework a couple of days before they write their own song or, if you have a computer lab available, the students can look the various references up on the Internet.

  3. During a class session, ask the students to share some of their responses to the people, places, and things Porter refers to in the song.

  4. Go over the meter and rhyme patterns of the lyrics, and once you feel the students have a firm grasp of "You're the Top," explain that they will write their own, modern-day version of the song that includes references to current people, places, and things. They can work independently or in groups of two or three. You may want to provide an example of a reworked version, for instance, the "You're a Flop" lyrics on the Web site

  5. If the students are interested, other Cole Porter lyrics can be found on the following Web site:

Culminating Activity:

Cole Porter's Musical Influences

GOAL: Cole Porter's musical background was "unique among American popular composers in that he was born to wealth, and that his apprenticeship took place not in Tin Pan Alley but in the playgrounds of Europe" ("Cole Porter: The Great Sophisticate"). However, he and his friend Gerald Murphy shared an enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan, and many of the members of his social circle were denizens of Tin Pan Alley.

  1. To give the students a feeling for the state of American musical theater during Cole Porter's time, show the following segment from "Cole Porter: You're the Top," starting at 15:19 where Michael Kimball says that Irving Berlin told Porter he had to go to New York, and ending at 21:20 with Garson Kanin reporting that Porter wrote because he loved it.

  2. Divide the class into thirds. Hand out copies of the Musical Influences of Cole Porter Student Organizer to be used as reading guides. Explain to the students that they will be using the Public Television Web site Broadway 101: History of the Great White Way to gather information about the history of American musical theater.

  3. Have one group read the section entitled "Over There: 1910-1919"; another read "The American Theater: 1920-1929"; and the third group read "The Great Depression: 1930-1940."

  4. Use the jigsaw learning method, where each group shares with the entire class what they learned from their respective reading. In a class discussion, the students should compare and contrast their answers and draw conclusions about the extent to which Cole Porter was influenced by trends in musical theater of his time.

Extension Activity:

After being strongly warned against prurience, students could analyze the lyrics to "Let's Misbehave," "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," "Anything Goes," or "Love for Sale" and discuss how the sentiments expressed in these vintage songs are the same as found in music today.

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