At Paul, Weiss, Cole Porter Still Sings
March 29, 2019
In 1949, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate won the first-ever Tony Award for Best Musical, with a songbook boasting instant hits like “Too Darn Hot,” “So In Love,” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The play-within-a-play storyline concerns the romantic entanglements of madcap actors during their production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. A half-century later, in 1999, Kiss Me, Kate’s first Broadway revival owed much to then-Paul, Weiss partner Robert Montgomery, who reportedly undertook “a 20-year quest” to find the right producer for the show's restaging. In March 2019, the latest Broadway revival opened at Studio 54, developed once again in close collaboration with Paul, Weiss in an effort now led by Entertainment Department Chair Chuck Googe.
Paul, Weiss partners’ decades of commitment to Porter’s legendary music and lyrics are no accident. In 1944, Paul, Weiss name partner John Wharton took Porter on as a client. Wharton would represent Porter until the artist’s death in 1964. Wharton would then become trustee of the Cole Porter Musical and Literary Property Trusts (generally referred to as “The Cole Porter Trust”). Since the Trust requires a Paul, Weiss partner to serve as trustee in perpetuity, the firm has continued to represent the interests of the Porter estate for over half of a century. The Trust fields inquiries about staging major productions and adapting lyrics for both theatrical and general commercial purposes. The Trust also accommodates academic researchers’ requests to access the estate’s extensive archives, which included the three images featured in this article with the permission of the Trust. In every action and decision, the trustee attempts to promote continued interest in and production of the Porter catalogue while maximizing value to Trust beneficiaries, a substantial group of descendants of Porter’s relatives and close friends.
Amid changing artistic fashions and social mores, the Paul, Weiss trustees (Wharton, Montgomery, Peter Felcher and Googe) have worked to preserve the integrity of Porter’s art while promoting it to new audiences. At the same time, work on these matters has built close-knit connections within the firm. Peter Felcher, currently of counsel, noted that working with Bob Montgomery on the Trust was “an amazing opportunity. Bob was thought of as the dean of entertainment lawyers, and the Trust gave us a wonderful chance to work together. As a child of the 1950’s, I grew up on rock and roll, but I still adored Cole Porter. Helping shepherd his art into a new era has been a dream come true, and a wonderful way to capstone my own career.”
Alumnus Andrew Herwitz (PW 1991) is now president of The Film Sales Company, a firm that finances, sells and distributes independent films worldwide. Herwitz recalls that “in 1991, my first assignment on day one at Paul, Weiss was for Bob Montgomery, relating to Cole Porter and potential copyright infringement. Bob was so genteel, easy-going and encouraging. I still try to channel Bob when training and working with younger colleagues.”
Some of the most challenging and rewarding work related to Trust administration involves ever-sensitive questions of adjustments to Porter’s lyrics. “It’s the lyrics, after all, that are quintessential Porter,” Felcher says. Googe, Felcher and Roberta Staats, executive director of the Trust, regularly encounter these challenges. Most recently, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate opened in March 2019, starring Tony Award-winner Kelli O’Hara and Tony Award-nominee Will Chase. “Roundabout approached us early on saying they were willing to stage the play as written,” Googe says, “but they wanted to explore moments that might not resonate with audiences in 2019.” Recent revivals of My Fair Lady and Carousel faced similar challenges in preserving theatrical history while acknowledging that works may need to remain approachable in order to be embraced and reproduced. The debate is both an interesting philosophical debate and also one with concrete, real-world implications. Indeed, this tension may sound familiar to any attorney weighing originalism against a “living Constitution.”
Working intensively with Kiss Me, Kate director Scott Ellis and the Roundabout team, the Trust examined lyrics, stage directions and directorial options in order to develop a production that is both authentic and accessible. Critiquing a tweak to the musical’s finale “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” which substituted a more universal “people” for the traditional “women,” The New York Times acknowledged that “purists may squawk” but deemed the adjustments “wholly successful.”
“We are always asking ourselves the impossible question: ‘What would Cole do?’” Googe says. “This work is an extraordinary responsibility, but it’s also a tremendous pleasure.”