There’s a certain sense folks have about Harry Connick Jr.
You may have seen him in dichotomous film roles like Copycat and Hope Floats. Perhaps all your holiday celebrations are marked with his When My Heart Finds Christmas. Or, you might have fallen in love with your significant other to his When Harry Met Sally... soundtrack. Over a 40-plus-year career — he dropped his debut LP at age 10 — Connick Jr. has released enough albums and films to create an indelible but multifaceted mark.
If you ask him, however, there's one project in particular that exemplifies him best: A Celebration of Cole Porter, his excellent Broadway production celebrating that titular hero of the American Songbook.
"My Cole Porter show on Broadway was something new," he says during a recent phone call. "It was something I directed and starred in. In a lot of ways, the Broadway show is who I am. If you don’t like it, you don’t like me."
It makes sense that Connick Jr. would have such a profound connection to Porter, who penned songs for such musicals as Born to Dance, Anything Goes, Silk Stockings, and Kiss Me, Kate. Over their respective careers, both men have been fairly prolific in film and music.
"Porter was one of the finest writers in popular music," he says. "He’s just such an amazing songwriter. And what’s really incredible is the number of songs he wrote, something like 800. There's plenty of great writers, like Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern. But [Porter] wrote songs and music that set himself apart from all the others."
As such, Connick, Jr. sees his show as a much-needed celebration of Porter, a way to shed light on someone who doesn't always receive the credit for his sheer range and musical ability. Connick, Jr. is certainly in a similar boat. The music in his Broadway show demonstrates a lot of Porter-esque awareness and skill. Under all those assumptions of a jazz singer turned actor, Connick Jr. has a keen ear for composition and melodic interplay.
"Porter’s really not famous at all," he says. "He’s a real reminder of a time when you were gay, and you couldn’t even talk about that. But he’s a very thoughtful writer. He could write about something provocative or suggestive that wasn’t so deliberate. It takes a lot of time and knowledge to construct at that level."
When pressed for his favorite song, Connick Jr. prefaced his answer with something that seemed especially telling and relevant.
"It’s hard to pick one I’d like the best," he says. "I knew a lot of these songs for my whole life, from being a singer. But then you do a deep dive into the catalog, and I just didn’t know the sheer combo of thoughtfulness and talent."
For all his time with Porter's tunes, Connick Jr. still found new threads to explore. It’s not that he’s just talented, but Connick Jr. knows how to imbue a certain sentimentality into all of his performances, which explains one of his preferred Porter covers.
"There’s one, called 'Why Can’t You Behave,' that features my trombone player, Lucian [Barbarin]. That’s one of my favorites," he says. "He plays just such an amazing solo, and it shows just how easy these songs can be interpreted."
Connick notes that the song is also special because it's one of Barbarin’s final performances before he died at the end of January.
Connick Jr. won't return to the Broadway show until sometime in the fall, he says. In the meantime, he's touring the U.S. this spring in support of his latest album, True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter. In some ways, both the album and the tour are extensions of the Broadway show, albeit without the lush theatricality and production values. But as Connick Jr. explains, the songs still hum with life regardless of the setting.
"This tour [that’s underway] doesn’t have the same sets," he says. "But I could be out playing solo piano, or out with an orchestra and a trio, these are just really fantastic songs."
When it's all said and done, Connick Jr. will have walked through Porter's world for a year or so. Some artists might feel a tinge of tension in occupying the songs and life of their creative heroes. But Connick Jr. doesn't see himself as trying to make history. He's just adding his own personal sheen.
"I never really feel the pressure," he says. "I think these songs are like old buildings. You just can’t knock them down. But maybe you can give them a fresh coat of paint, or maybe make some changes to the interior design."
Harry Connick, Jr. is scheduled to perform on Sunday, March 1, at Arizona Federal Theatre. Tickets are $48.50 to $224 via Live Nation.
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