John McWhorter observes the anniversary of the first public performance of the 1929 musical “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” Cole Porter’s first Broadway hit. Somewhat surprisingly, McWhorter finds that the show “has implications for life today, on stage and off.” McWhorter notes:
“Fifty Million Frenchmen” happens to be one of the rare, old shows that has been recorded from start to finish with its original orchestral arrangements. Being a geek, I noticed that the medley overture included a catchy tune that is never sung on the recording.
Since recordings of shows like these are typically highly archival affairs, with their producers dredging up every scrap with the obsessiveness of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy, it is peculiar that there is not a word in the liner notes about what this mysterious melody even is. I knew what the issue must be.
That melody must run up against some taboo, and in our America that would have to be race. All I had to do was consult Robert Kimball’s anthology of Porter lyrics, and wouldn’t you know, one from this show was “The Happy Heaven of Harlem.” Apparently Harlem is a place where “You’re never blue, ’cause all you do is eat, sleep and make love.” Okay.
I appreciate the album’s producers for shielding our virgin ears from the fact that back in the day, attitudes on race weren’t as enlightened as our own. But couldn’t we have at least had the number played as an instrumental? Oh well.